Grand Army Plaza, August 13, 2017
We are here today to mourn the white supremacist violence that erupted in Charlottesville and to renew our determination to fight for the civil rights and equality of all Americans. As we protest the racism, violence, and militarization of politics here at home, we also need to protest the racism and violence and militarization of our foreign policy. Racism, violence and militarism in one area reflects and reinforces it in the other. So I want to talk about the US threats to North Korea (although we also need to worry about those to Venezuela.)
Donald Trump has threatened North Korea with “fire and fury and power the likes of which has never been seen.” What he has forgotten—or probably never knew, is that the U.S. inflicted fire and fury on the entire Korean Peninsula once before, during the Korean War of 1950-53.
In the US, Korea is “the forgotten war” and most Americans probably can’t find Korea on a map. It is not forgotten in North and South Korea, however. Indeed, it is not even over. We need to remember what happened in Korean War because it helps explain why Kim Jong-un wants to keep nuclear weapons to prevent an invasion or attempts at regime change. It helps explain why South Koreans want negotiations, not war.
The Korean War involved North and South Korea, the US, China and Russia as well as the UN. Military intervention didn’t work out in Korea the way the US wanted. (Nor the way the Russians and Chinese did.) And it won’t work in North Korea now.
But the US did everything possible short of nuking the North, to win militarily. Air power was particularly destructive.
*The U.S. dropped 2 million tons of bombs in all theaters in World War II. It dropped nearly 700,000 tons in Korea. And it used napalm liberally.
*Over a period of three years the US military burned down every town in North Korea and many in South Korea too. Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, was leveled. After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric plants and irrigation dams and dykes, flooding farmland and destroying crops.
* President Truman publicly threatened to use all weapons in US arsenal, including nukes, and once China came into the war, the Joint Chiefs of Staff were willing to consider this option.
* Gen. MacArthur, who was in charge in Korea, wanted to drop 30 or so nuclear bombs in a ring around Manchuria. That would have unleashed enough radioactive cobalt to end life on earth.
The costs of the war were horrific, and Koreans, especially civilians, paid those costs. The U.S. suffered 36,500 military deaths, but no civilian deaths or domestic damage. South Korea lost 217,00 military and over 1 million civilians. North Korea had 406,000 military deaths and between 600,000 and 2 million civilian ones.
The horrific bombing and brutal land fighting up and down the Korean Peninsula did not enable either side to control all of Korea or even to push the other side to admit defeat.
To this day, there is an armistice but no peace treaty. The peninsula remains divided by a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), with each side heavily arming its own territory. Military intervention did not create a democratic government in South Korea or lead to the collapse of the authoritarian regime in the North.
What lessons can we learn from the history of the US and Korea?
First. Trump is not the first President to think seriously about using nuclear weapons. That is the trouble with nukes. If a country has them, the temptation is always there to use them, not just to stockpile them for deterrence. We must demand an end to all nuclear weapons and educate especially the younger generation about how dangerous they are, for nukes are not on the public mind of the post-cold war world.
Second, conventional, i.e. non-nuclear, bombs can be extraordinarily destructive when used in the enormous and ever escalating quantities that the US has used them since World War II. We must struggle not just against the use of nuclear weapons, but against any military intervention.
Third, massive military force does not necessarily defeat and reform the opponent; sometimes it creates failed states. In North Korea, it strengthened a repressive regime.
Fourth, because the US inflicted many more deaths than it suffered in Korea, as it did in other wars, and because it experienced no fighting on its own soil, American politicians and generals and citizens all too often talk glibly about waging war, dropping bombs and using nukes. We have little understanding of the costs of war.
So, Call Congress, sign petitions, come to rallies and marches. Organize in your workplace, schools, and neighborhoods.
*Demand that Trump not have access to nuclear codes;
*Oppose all use of nuclear weapons,
*Oppose any military intervention.
We need to stop telling other countries what to do and deal with our own enormous problems of racism, white supremacy, violence and inequality at home.
Professor, Department of History, New York University
Brooklyn For Peace: Advisory Board; Peace and Economic Justice Committee