Friday, September 18, 2009

Korea, 50 years later: The last frontier of Cold War (It is nearly 60 years now)

June 25 2000

ON THE KOREAN DMZ -- Rifle in hand, a South Korean soldier stands behind waist-high sandbags inside a pair of chain-link and razor-wire fences, a two-story brick guard tower overlooking no man's land.

Ahead is the demilitarized zone, a tranquil strip of land 21/2 miles wide and 150 miles long dividing the Koreas. But just beneath bucolic scenes of workers toiling in rice paddies and migratory birds swooping over fields and forests near the mine-laden DMZ, hostility lingers.

"It (Korea) remains one of the tensest places on Earth," Army Secretary Louis Caldera said. "We call it freedom's frontier."

Today, 50 years after 10 North Korean divisions invaded the South, the DMZ is a surreal time warp, the last frontier of the Cold War.

The Berlin Wall has fallen, Poland and two other former Warsaw Pact states are members of NATO, trade is on the rise with China, and Russia is America's prime partner in establishing an international space station.

For all those changes, the Cold War that went "hot" for the first time in Korea is over everywhere but here.

"The world has changed and the Cold War is one of the wedges of change," Trinity University history professor Char Miller said.

The great confrontation between communism and capitalism gave us duck and cover, fallout shelters, Sputnik, the Cuban missile crisis, "Fail Safe," Vietnam, "Dr. Strangelove," Afghanistan, "Red Dawn," Iran and the Contras, and "The Day After."

It brought about 5,000 Koreans to San Antonio and tens of thousands elsewhere in the United States, many of them the wives of servicemen. Meanwhile, Western culture took hold on the peninsula, where Koreans traded their traditional robes - hamboks - for suits and designer jeans.

The Cold War played a role in spinning off beatnik poets, hippies, Yippies, Weathermen, Black Panthers, flower power and the bikini - a French invention that got its name from an atomic-bombed atoll in the Pacific.

Meanwhile, the United States spent an estimated $13 trillion from 1940-96 to develop a military-industrial complex that churned out such conventional weapons as jets, tanks, rifles, missiles and ships.

We parted with another $5.8 trillion to develop, deploy and clean up nuclear weapons, said Tom Blanton, co-editor of "Atomic Audit," published by the Brookings Institution in 1998. Over the same period, Uncle Sam spent $2.3 trillion on Medicare, $1.8 trillion on veterans' benefits and services, and $1.5 trillion on transportation.

The nuke boom began when President Eisenhower took office in 1953. At the time the United States had a few hundred warheads, but there were thousands when Ike left the White House in 1961, said Walter LaFeber, an author and professor of American diplomatic history at Cornell University.

Military means money

With the arms race in high gear, payrolls swelled at military bases. Even last year, as Kelly AFB neared closure, the five San Antonio bases pumped $4.09 billion into the area economy.

Georgetown University history professor David Painter credited military spending with the Sun Belt's rise. Good times rolled as federal dollars flowed throughout the South and Southwest, and the interstate highway system, built in the name of national defense, nurtured that growth, he said.

"That really restructures the whole economy and the whole social-economic landscape of the United States," said Painter, of Georgetown's School of Foreign Service and author of "The Cold War and International History."

The Korean War had an impact on the civil rights movement, as well. Though President Truman had issued executive orders to desegregate the armed forces well before the conflict began, it didn't happen until the Pentagon found itself desperate for troops.

Cornell University history professor Tim Borstelmann said policy-makers after World War II tried to craft the United States as the leader of the free world in a life-and-death struggle with the "slave world" of the communist bloc.

Winning the hearts and minds of those in Africa, Asia and the Middle East was important because they made up a majority of the world's population and "paid extremely close attention to the treatment of people of color" in the United States, said Borstelmann, author of "Apartheid's Reluctant Uncle: The United States and Southern Africa in the Early Cold War."

"So the Korean War has a kind of boomerang effect," Miller said. "We talked about liberating the world and what the Cold War forces us to do is to free ourselves."

Civil rights leader James Forman, an enlisted airman in one of the first desegregated Air Force units stationed in Korea, told in his 1972 book, "The Making of Black Revolutionaries," of going into a white mess hall for the first time. Forman was stunned by the exceptional quality of the food.

Minority veterans could feed their minds as well, thanks to the GI Bill.

"For men like me growing up in the barrio, the military was a good experience that provided me with the opportunity to mature, improve myself and climb the ladder of success," said Selective Service System chief Gil Coronado, who was raised in San Antonio.

Wars without answers

Qualifying for the GI Bill, though, meant joining conflicts that had no immediate resolution. The United States held the line in Korea and Europe, saw China go Red, forged alliances in the oil-rich Middle East, wrestled with Cuba's Fidel Castro and slugged it out for 11 years in Vietnam before leaving.

"During the Cold War, we fought or supported various 'hot wars,' including Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said in a statement. "Historians increasingly see these wars as important because we took a stand against communist expansion and showed that we would not allow unchallenged conquest."

A key to deterrence, Cohen and others agree, was the need to be ready for war.

The nation's once-invincible military was a shell of itself as the Korean War began, and the first U.S. troops sent to stem the North's advance - dubbed "Task Force Smith" - were almost driven off the peninsula until the Inchon landing on Sept. 15, 1950, dramatically turned the tide. "The war was the most defining period of my life," said retired Army Col. David Hackworth, an author and syndicated columnist who became a "training fanatic" as a result of his experiences in Korea. "I saw young, poorly trained men killed by bad leadership from the company level to the White House."

America lost an estimated 36,516 men in the Korean War. Unable to defeat superior number s of Chinese troops without deploying the atomic bomb and risking a wider war with the Soviet Union - which had exploded its own bomb in 1949 - Washington settled for a draw.

Determined not to fight another war like Korea, Eisenhower made it clear the bomb was a real option in such contested arenas as Berlin, LaFeber said. Documents released by the Chinese in 1986 showed that while Beijing hadn't been concerned about Truman's threats to use the bomb, it was a far different matter with Eisenhower.

"He had what they called credibility because of his military background" and the evolution of American policy on the matter, LaFeber said.

Covert and conventional

President Kennedy recoiled over U.S. nuclear proliferation and, in a bid to find a new way, turned to conventional weapons and covert actions. During his presidency, American advisers - in Southeast Asia since World War II - reached 20,000, setting the stage for the escalation of the conflict in 1964 under Lyndon B. Johnson's administration.

America lost at least a third more men in Vietnam than in Korea, encountered unprecedented protests against the war back home, then watched helplessly as the communist North conquered its southern brother in 1975.

"Vietnam had an effect that no one foresaw that is still there," said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. Robbie Risner, a Korean War ace held 71/2 years in North Vietnam's infamous Hanoi Hilton POW camp.

"It did a thing to the mindset of the American people. A great proportion of them are scared to get into another war."

Two weeks after the Pyongyang summit, South Korea is in transition. As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the war's beginning in elaborate ceremonies today, 20,000 doctors are on strike, protesting a health care reform bill.

A little more than a decade ago a protester could land in jail.

Everyday life here looks a lot like id does in much of the United States.

Schoolchildren carrying green turtle backpacks walk single file past the gates to the old Toksugung Palace in Seoul.

Near the Yellow Sea fishing village of Yongdu-ri, Park Jeong-Ryol, a 72-year-old farmer, wades into a soybean patch as he has done for much of the half-century since the war began. He survived the war by hiding in the mountains.

Traditional family values, though still strong, are eroding under the relentless tide of Western culture. One influential Korean businessman, Michael Lee, laments the demise of arranged marriages and a taboo against divorce. People are more worried about how they look, he said, than who they are.

Meanwhile, the Cold War's hub looks much as it has for years. Outside of the DMZ, though, it's a new world.

"America's presence around the globe in the Cold War had fundamental social consequences for those countries we entered," Miller said. "The presence of our power, money, troops and consumer culture tremendously changed people and places."