June 20th, 2019


War and peace: Either may break out without warning

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published May 17,2018

War and peace: Either may break out without warning

When is a rattlesnake most dangerous? When it doesn't rattle but strikes without warning.

Checking out the artillery range one broiling hot summer's day with my faithful driver, I made the near-fatal mistake of deciding to take a shortcut up an already shell-pocked hill only to find myself staring into the eyes of a rattler. Specifically, a diamondback, I would realize after the shock had passed and I'd got a grip on my shaken self. But in the middle of the action, as I was tumbling head over shaky heels down the rocky hillside, there was no time for the luxury of reflection. All was tumult.

And now, with peace breaking out all over the Korean peninsula, my long-ago tumble makes only a colorful story -- and for a cautionary tale about taking peaceful prospects for granted and leaders at their optimistic word. For now all seems to be coming up roses on the once thorny Korean front.

When the news of North Korea's invasion of the South reached Washington at 9:26 p.m. its time on June 25, 1950, an ordinarily mild-mannered American president named Harry S. Truman could only sigh as war engulfed the Korean peninsula and threatened to spread far beyond.

"Everything I have done for the past five years," he would declare, "has been to try to avoid making a decision such as I have had to make tonight, which was to put the whole country, indeed the whole Western alliance, on a wartime footing." Up and down the Korean peninsula armies of East and West would march, and the president from the Show Me state would himself be shown how fragile assurances of peace could be.

And once again peace and good will are in the air and a new era of good feelings is upon us -- like a lion on the sheepfold. For peace can be fleeting and its promise only a pause between wars. And tens of thousands of American fighting men and women would pay the ultimate price for rose-tinted forecasts of peace everlasting. Peace, it's wonderful, and all the more wondrous if it should prove more than a passing phase in man's slow, sorrowful fall and decline. But rather the end of all his heady aspirations.

Of all unlikely Jeremiahs, it would be Georgy Malenkov, an unlikely survivor of the struggle to follow in Stalin's bloody bootsteps, who would warn of what a post-apocalyptic world would be like if all the jockeying for political power were to get out of hand and leave the world a radioactive husk of what were once all of humanity's hopes and dreams.

This much Mr. Truman was sure of: The United States could not afford another nuclear standoff like the one that had trapped the world's great powers once before. It was left to his successor Dwight Eisenhower, he of the broad winning grin, to break the deadlock and announce that he would go to Korea if that's what it took to get negotiations off dead center indefinitely.

Like two deadly vipers locked in the same bottle, both were trapped, and it would take a master of inactivity to keep the world as unsteady as it was but still extant.

"We will take whatever steps are necessary," Mr. Truman replied when asked at a Nov. 30, 1950, news conference if he were prepared to use nuclear weapons in a showdown with the Communist world. He publicly delegated that decision to the military. Would those steps include using nukes? "That includes using every weapon that we have," replied the president.

Mr. Truman's successor, however, knew better than to think, let alone act, so blithely. Ike preferred to confuse rather than confront our adversaries, for which the world still has reason to be grateful.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.