When the Truman administration dissolved the Department of War, a cabinet-level department since 1789, and formed the DOD, it did not, Joseph Darda argues, end war but rather establish new racial criteria for who could wage it, for which lives deserved defending. Historians have long studied “perpetual war.” Critical race theorists have long confronted “the permanence of racism.” Empire of Defense shows––through an investigation of state documents, fiction, film, memorials, and news media––how the two converged and endure through national defense. Amid the rise of anticolonial and antiracist movements the world over, defense secured the future of war and white supremacy.
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How to Tell a Permanent War Story
On October 5, 1951, with casualties mounting and a cease-fire agreement still two years off, U.S. News and World Report declared the Korean War forgotten. "Far off in Korea, 2,200 American men were killed or badly shot up last week in a war that seemed all but forgotten at home. War that was supposed to end in a deal with Communists instead is growing in intensity," the unnamed author wrote. "Men are dying at an increasing rate in the war almost forgotten at home, with no end in sight." The conflict had stabilized earlier that year along the thirty-eighth parallel, but the fighting would not slacken until July 1953, when the US-led United Nations Command, the Republic of Korea Army (South Korea), the Korean People's Army (North Korea), and the Chinese People's Volunteer Army signed an armistice agreement that ended conventional combat. The U.S. News article, titled "Korea: The 'Forgotten' War," marked the first time that the Korean War was defined by its absence from national consciousness, a forgotten war that, while "being paid for at big-war rates," did not register in the minds of most Americans at home. This continues to be how the war is discussed, when it is discussed at all, in the United States. The Korean War was the first "hot war" of the long Cold War. It lasted thirty-eight months, from June 1950 to July 1953. Then it was forgotten. But how could a war that was still being fought with rising casualties and a big-war price tag be forgotten? What made Americans turn their attention elsewhere as the war on the Korean Peninsula raged on? What was so forgettable about the forgotten war?
The Korean War has been subsumed in American culture by the more legible wars bookending it. It is treated either as an aftershock of World War II, a minor front in the Cold War, or a forerunner to the war in Southeast Asia. Journalist David Halberstam, in his bestseller The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (2007), for example, writes, "Korea would not prove a great national war of unifying singular purpose, as World War II had been, nor would it, like Vietnam a generation later, divide and thus haunt the nation. It was simply a puzzling, gray, very distant conflict, a war that went on and on and on, seemingly without hope or resolution, about which most Americans, save the men who fought there and their immediate families, preferred to know as little as possible." In the decades since, he adds, the war has been "orphaned by history." Halberstam's book, his last, although it received a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize for History, overlooks the extensive research undertaken by historians and Asian American studies scholars to remember the forgotten war, to correct for its erasure from official histories. The meaning of the Korean War in the United States has been articulated as a battle for memory between an amnesiac national culture and a movement to remember a war that most Americans would rather forget. But the war has also endured in the margins of national culture, framing such bestselling books and blockbuster films as The Bridges at Toko-Ri (novella 1953; film 1954), The Manchurian Candidate (novel 1959; film 1962), and MASH (novel 1968; film 1970; television show 1972–83), even as these books and films are often described as about something other than the Korean War. The forgotten war has been remembered, but it has been remembered as forgettable.
The U.S. News article hints at how that memory first emerged. The author wrote that "ground battles, for the area involved, are as intense as those of any war," yet, "at home, meanwhile, the big headlines concern a growing shortage of beef, graft scandals in the Government, strikes as usual, [and] prospects of a new-car scarcity." A war was on, but news media, including U.S. News, were devoting fewer and fewer column inches to the fighting. Americans, the writer concluded, weren't interested, and the reason they weren't interested was the war's unendingness. "Korea, half forgotten, is receding in the minds of many to the status of an experimental war, one being fought back and forth for the purpose of testing men, weapons, materials and methods, on a continuing basis," the author observed of domestic attitudes toward the war. "No effort is being made or planned to win a clear military victory. New U.S. ground forces, which could help drive the enemy out of Korea, are being sent to Europe. [The] U.S., faced with a third-rate enemy, has fought for 15 months with no prospect of a military victory in sight." The author reasoned that the Korean War was being ignored by Americans because of its continuation. The defense establishment was settling into other countries and continents, relocating ground forces from Korea to the West and, although the author doesn't mention it, Southeast Asia. It was building the national security state, from Korea outward. But Americans, with no end in sight on the Korean Peninsula, had lost track of the war, concerning themselves instead with commercial goods and Washington scandals. Somehow a war that was bleeding over into other parts of the world and that showed no signs of slowing was attracting less rather than more attention from those in whose name it was being fought.
The Korean War inaugurated a new kind of war that necessitated a new kind of war story. The U.S. News writer determined that the war had been forgotten because it was permanent and experimental. The United States was waging war on the Korean Peninsula to test "men, weapons, materials and methods, on a continuing basis." But it was also testing a new idea about its role in the world. While Americans know the Korean War as part of a long Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, the "free world" versus communism, Koreans know it as a civil war motivated by the desire of leaders in the North and the South to reunite the country on their own terms and as an anticolonial war that dates back to 1910, when Japan annexed the peninsula, and that the United States and the USSR aggravated after World War II by dividing it along the thirty-eighth parallel and governing it by force. Halted by an armistice agreement in 1953, the Korean War has never ended. The country remains partitioned along the demilitarized zone that the agreement established. These histories fall away when the war is submerged within the Cold War and the nuclear arms race and ideological struggle between Americans and Soviets. But the Korean War launched the Cold War as much as the Cold War framed it. The American planners of the forgotten war constructed the enduring, if conflicting, idea that the government would, from then on, wage continuous nonwar (defense; the containment of North Korea and China) constituted of a series of discrete, winnable emergencies (small wars; the "liberation" of South Korea). That structuring idea has instead confined the Korean War to thirty-eight months of harrowing combat that curbed the encroachment of an illiberal, unredeemable social world (communism) and saved a convertible one (anticommunist Korea).
The architects of the Korean War remade the American empire for an anticolonial age by designating its enemies illegitimate for ideological rather than racial reasons, reframing wars fought along the color line as antiracist defense. While World War II formed the industrial and economic backbone of the national security state — through, for example, a reformed tax structure that could fund vast military growth — the Korean War introduced the idea that transformed war into the defense of humanity from illiberal beliefs and behaviors. Since the onset of conventional combat on the peninsula, officials have shuttled back and forth between describing the government's modern wars as nonwars, or defense, and moderating them as small wars with definitive endings, committing the nation to permanent war while guaranteeing and often declaring conclusive victories. The Korean War has, at different times, been treated as both a nonwar and a small war. It has been remembered as forgettable, whether as an act of defense or as a discrete minor conflict on a remote peninsula.
This story begins with the National Security Council, which, three years after its formation, in the spring of 1950, drafted National Security Council Report 68 and delivered it to President Harry Truman. The writing team, a State–Defense Policy Review Group chaired by Paul Nitze, struggled to resolve the internal tensions of imperial defense by dividing the world into human, deferred human, and nonhuman categories of being — reframing war as either the endless policing of illegitimate societies or the conversion of "friendlies" to the West's liberal democratic values. NSC 68 formalized what became known as the containment doctrine and, as historian Walter LaFeber writes, established "the blueprint for waging the Cold War during the next twenty years." It was a blueprint for the Cold War, and it was a blueprint for imperial defense then and long after. But NSC 68 did not receive the president's authorization until after June 25, 1950, when the Korean War turned hot. Dean Acheson, then the secretary of state, later remarked that the war on the peninsula "prove[d] our thesis" and "created the stimulus which made action." One of his aides, Robert Feis, added, "We were sweating over it — with regard to NSC 68 — thank God Korea came along." The histories of NSC 68 and the Korean War were intertwined from the beginning and gave ideological form to an empire of defense that has outlasted the Cold War.
In his much-anthologized short story "How to Tell a True War Story" (1987), Tim O'Brien insists that true war stories must be grounded in immediate, concrete details that feel right at a gut level. "True war stories do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis," he writes. "It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe." O'Brien's words echo Ernest Hemingway's from sixty years earlier, when Hemingway wrote that "abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the number of roads, the names of rivers, the number of regiments and the dates." A true war story, O'Brien and Hemingway agree, should not make grand claims about war but communicate how it looks and feels on the ground through the eyes of the combat soldier. It should not tell the story of the war but the story of the individual in the war. Even as the fighting continues, the true war story ends. The soldier dies, or the soldier comes home. The national security state has faced a different challenge in struggling to translate permanent war into a story of national defense. That story indulges in abstraction. It generalizes. It strains under the weight of its own contradictions and undergoes constant revision. Some writers, including radical journalist I. F. Stone and antiracist activist William Patterson, met the Cold War state on its own terms by drawing out these contradictions in official accounts of the Korean War, demonstrating how to tell a permanent war story through the contradictions and failures of the idea of defense. Narrative structures the meaning and making of war. It also structures resistance to it. "Emphasis, omission, and distortion," Stone wrote in 1952, "rather than outright lying are the tools of the war propagandists." The story of permanent war gets told, but it gets told in pieces at the limits of narrative form. The cultural politics of war are not only shaped by remembering and forgetting but also by the gray areas of the war story.
The National Security Council's Blueprint for Empire
National Security Council Report 68 remained classified until 1975, and, at sixty-six pages, it is hard to imagine Truman's successors reading it cover to cover. But, as Robert Blackwill, a career diplomat, reflects, "What really counts is not whether presidents had read or knew about NSC 68, but instead if the ideas contained in the document were specifically familiar to the occupants of the Oval Office and, more important, if those ideas had held up over the years. The answer to both these tests is an emphatic yes." Blackwill, who later served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, is referring to the document's recommendation that the United States build and maintain a vast military infrastructure, including a nuclear arsenal, that could dissuade adversaries and cultivate allies. What he and others don't acknowledge is that the authors of NSC 68 did more than define a course of action for the Cold War state; they also modeled a story that made sense of war as the nation's new normal. The paper imagined the United States as a "protagonist" acting on the world stage to save humanity from itself. It read like a political thriller. Nitze, the director of Policy Planning at the State Department, insisted in a Policy Review Group meeting on March 10, 1950, that the government needed "a gospel which lends itself to preaching." The following week, Robert Lovett, acting as a consultant to the writing team, advised that the document be written in a "telegraphic style" with lean "Hemingway sentences." If American businesses "can sell every useless article known to man in large quantities," he concluded, then "we should be able to sell our very fine story in large quantities." Acheson later wrote in his memoir, Present at the Creation (1969), that the intention behind NSC 68 was not to achieve nuance but to "bludgeon the mass mind." The National Security Council needed to tell a good story, and it needed to tell that story with force.
The drafting of the document was animated by the tension between Acheson's two closest advisers, George Kennan and Paul Nitze. Kennan had created and directed the Policy Planning Staff before Nitze, who replaced him in the first weeks of 1950, and had been instrumental in devising and implementing the Marshall Plan that distributed some twelve billion dollars in aid to anemic Western economies. His 1946 "Long Telegram" to Washington and his 1947 Foreign Affairs article "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" laid out what became known as the containment doctrine and established Kennan as one of the Cold War state's "wise men." In the article, which Kennan published under the name "X," he argued that the Soviet Union, motivated by "Marxian-Leninist teachings," sought to overthrow all liberal capitalist governments and that its efforts must be "contained" by strengthening Western institutions "at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points." Kennan recognized the need for rearmament but did not see the military as the most effective vehicle for containing Soviet communism. He petitioned Truman and Acheson to call off the government's hydrogen-bomb program, even writing a never-delivered speech for the president announcing the program's cancelation. But Kennan's influence with the Truman administration had waned, while Nitze's had grown. The new director of Policy Planning pushed for the militarization of containment and wrote a memo to Acheson arguing that the administration could not risk giving Soviet nuclear scientists a head start. Nitze's argument won out. Years later, Kennan told a historian, "With the preparation of NSC 68 I had nothing to do. I was disgusted about the assumptions concerning Soviet intentions."
But Nitze would never concede that he had disagreed with Kennan's articulation of containment. When, near the end of his life, a student sent Nitze his master's thesis, in which he made the argument that NSC 68 had "militarized containment," Nitze crossed out the student's words and wrote, "This paper more realistically set forth the requirements necessary to assure success of George Kennan's idea of containment." He believed that NSC 68 had actualized Kennan's vision by deterring all-out war through defense-minded rearmament. This was his position in 1950 as well. He and the Policy Review Group recommended that the president build the world's largest armed forces while describing military state-building as an "attempt to change the world situation by means short of war." Nitze and his writing team used that line five separate times. "We have no choice but to demonstrate the superiority of the idea of freedom by its constructive application, and to attempt to change the world situation by means short of war in such a way as to frustrate the Kremlin," they wrote. Whereas Soviets used force without hesitation to advance their own interests, Americans turned to violence as a last resort to safeguard human freedom. Preventive war was, they believed, antithetical to liberal democratic governance. The United States could be drawn into a war by a belligerent Soviet Union, but it could not instigate that war without forfeiting the high road; it must maintain a defensive rather than offensive posture toward the Stalin government. But the council concluded its assessment by reframing national defense as a "real war," writing that "the whole success of the proposed program hangs ultimately on recognition by this Government, the American people, and all free peoples, that the Cold War is in fact a real war in which the survival of the free world is at stake." The government must deter war, and yet it was already waging one. The Cold War was being fought by means short of war, and yet it was a real war that, if not pursued, could hasten the demise of the free world.(Continues…)
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Table of Contents
Introduction: A Perpetual Wartime Footing
Chapter 1. How to Tell a Permanent War Story
Chapter 2. Antiwar Liberalism against Liberal War
Chapter 3. Dispatches from the Drug Wars
Chapter 4. Kicking the Vietnam Syndrome with Human Rights
Chapter 5. The Craft of Counterinsurgent Whiteness
Epilogue: Defense in the Fifth Domain