Documents of American History II

1950s: Dwight D. Eisenhower's ''I Shall Go to Korea'' Speech, 1952

Dwight D. Eisenhower's ''I Shall Go to Korea'' Speech, 1952

October 25, 1952

In this anxious autumn for America, one fact looms above all others in our people's mind. One tragedy challenges all men dedicated to the work of peace. One word shouts denial to those who foolishly pretend that ours is not a nation at war.
This fact, this tragedy, this word is: Korea.
A small country, Korea has been, for more than two years, the battleground for the costliest foreign war our nation has fought, excepting the two world wars. It shall been the burial ground for 20,000 America dead. It has been another historic field of honor for the valor and skill and tenacity of American soldiers.
All these things it has been-and yet one thing more. It has been a symbol-a telling symbol-of the foreign policy of our nation.
It has been a sign-a warning sign-of the way the Administration has conducted our world affairs.
It has been a measure-a damning measure-of the quality of leadership we have been given.
Tonight I am going to talk about our foreign policy and of its supreme symbol-the Korean war. I am not going to give you elaborate generalizations-but hard, tough facts. I am going to state the unvarnished truth.
What, then, are the plain facts?
The biggest fact about the Korean war is this: It was never inevitable, it was never inescapable, no fantastic fiat of history decreed that little South Korea-in the summer of 1950-would fatally tempt Communist aggressors as their easiest victim. No demonic destiny decreed that America had to be bled this way in order to keep South Korea free and to keep freedom itself-self-respecting.
We are not mute prisoners of history. That is a doctrine for totalitarians, it is no creed for free men.
There is a Korean war-and we are fighting it-for the simplest of reasons: Because free leadership failed to check and to turn back Communist ambition before it savagely attacked us. The Korean war-more perhaps than any other war in history-simply and swiftly followed the collapse of our political defenses. There is no other reason than this: We failed to read and to outwit the totalitarian mind.
I know something of this totalitarian mind. Through the years of World War II, I carried a heavy burden of decision in the free world's crusade against the tyranny then threatening us all. Month after month, year after year, I had to search out and to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of an enemy driven by the lust to rule the great globe itself.
World War II should have taught us all one lesson. The lesson is this: To vacillate, to hesitate-to appease even by merely betraying unsteady purpose-is to feed a dictator's appetite for conquest and to invite war itself.
That lesson-which should have firmly guided every great decision of our leadership through these later years-was ignored in the development of the Administration's policies for Asia since the end of World War II. Because it was ignored, the record of these policies is a record of appalling failure.
The record of failure dates back-with red-letter folly-at least to September of 1947. It was then that Gen. Albert Wedemeyer-returned from a Presidential mission to the Far East-submitted to the President this warning: ''The withdrawal of American military forces from Korea would result in the occupation of South Korea by either Soviet troops or, as seems more likely, by the Korean military units trained under Soviet auspices in North Korea.''
That warning and his entire report were disregarded and suppressed by the Administration.
The terrible record of these years reaches its dramatic climax in a series of unforgettable scenes on Capitol Hill in June of 1949. By then the decision to complete withdrawal of American forces from Korea-despite menacing signs from the North-had been drawn up by the Department of State. The decision included the intention to ask Congress for aid to Korea to compensate for the withdrawal of American forces.
This brought questions from Congress. The Administration parade of civilian and military witnesses before the House Foreign Affairs Committee was headed by the Secretary of State. He and his aides faced a group of Republican Congressmen both skeptical and fearful.
What followed was historic and decisive.
I beg you to listen carefully to the words that followed, for they shaped this nation's course from that date to his.
Listen, then:
First: Republican Congressman John Lodge of Connecticut asked ''(do) you feel that the Korean Government is able to fill the vacuum caused by the withdrawal of the occupation forces?''
The Administration answered: ''Definitely.''
Second: A very different estimate of the risk involved came from Republican Congressman Walter Judd of Minnesota. He warned: ''I think the thing necessary to give security to Korea at this stage of the game is the presence of a small American force and the knowledge (on the Soviet side) that attack upon it would bring trouble with us.''
''I am convinced,'' Representative Judd continued, ''that if we keep even a battalion there, they are not going to move. And if the battalion is not there''-listen now to his warning-''the chances are they will move within a year.''
What a tragedy that the Administration shrugged off that accurate warning!
Third: The Secretary of State was asked if he agreed that the South Koreans alone-and I quote-''will be able to defend themselves against any attack from the northern half of the country.'' To this the Secretary answered briskly: ''We share the same view. Yes, sir.''
Rarely in Congressional testimony has so much misinformation been compressed so efficiently into so few words.
Fourth: Republican Congressman Lodge had an incisive comment on all this. ''That,'' he said, ''is wishful thinking . . . I am afraid it confesses a kind of fundamental isolationism that exists in certain branches of the Government, which I think is a very dangerous pattern. I think the presence of our troops there is a tremendous deterrent to the Russians.''
Finally: This remarkable scene of the summer of 1949 ends with a memorable document. The minority report of five Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on July 26, 1949, submitted this solemn warning.
Listen to it:
''It is reliably reported that Soviet troops, attached to the North Korean puppet armies, are in position of command as well as acting as advisors . . . This development may well presage the launching of a full-scale military drive across the Thirty-eighth Parallel.
''Our forces . . . have been withdrawn from South Korea at the very instant when logic and common sense both demanded no retreat from the realities of the situation.''
The report continues: ''Already along the Thirty-eighth Parallel aggression is speaking with the too-familiar voices of howitzers and cannons. Our position is untenable and indefensible.
''The House should be aware of these facts.''
These words of eloquent, reasoned warning were spoken eleven months before the Korean war broke.
Behind these words was a fervent, desperate appeal. That appeal was addressed to the Administration. It begged at least some firm statement of American intention that might deter the foreseen attack.
What was the Administration answer to that appeal?
The first answer was silence-stubborn, sullen silence for six months.
Then, suddenly, came speech-a high Government official at long last speaking out on Asia. It was now January of 1950. What did he say? He said, ''The United States Government will not provide military aid or advice to Chinese forces on Formosa.''
Then, one week later, the Secretary of State announced his famous ''defense perimeter''-publicly advising our enemies that, so far as nations outside this perimeter were concerned, ''no person can guarantee these areas against military attack.'' Under these circumstances, it was cold comfort to the nations outside this perimeter to be reminded that they could appeal to the United Nations.
These nations, of course, included Korea. The armies of communism, thus informed, began their big build-up. Six months later they were ready to strike across the Thirty-eighth Parallel. They struck on June 25, 1950.
On that day, the record of political and diplomatic failure of this Administration was completed and sealed.
The responsibility for this record cannot be dodged or evaded. Even if not a single Republican leader had warned so clearly against the coming disaster, the responsibility for the fateful political decisions would still rest wholly with the men charged with making those decisions-in the Department of State and in the White House. They cannot escape that responsibility now or ever.
When the enemy struck, on that June day of 1950, what did America do? It did what it always has done in all its times of peril. It appealed to the heroism of its youth.
This appeal was utterly right and utterly inescapable. It was inescapable not only because this was the only way to defend the idea of collective freedom against savage aggression. That appeal was inescapable because there was now in the plight into which we had stumbled no other way to save honor and self-respect.
The answer to that appeal has been what any American knew it would be. It has been sheer valor-valor on all the Korean mountainsides that, each day, bear fresh scars of new graves.
Now-in this anxious autumn-from these heroic men there comes back an answering appeal. It is no whine, no whimpering plea. It is a question that addresses itself to simple reason. It asks: Where do we go from here? When comes the end? Is there an end?
These questions touch all of us. They demand truthful answers. Neither glib promises nor glib excuses will serve. They would be no better than the glib prophecies that brought us to this pass.
To these questions there are two false answers-both equally false. The first would be any answer that dishonestly pledged an end to war in Korea by any imminent, exact date. Such a pledge would brand its speaker as a deceiver.
The second and equally false answer declares that nothing can be done to speed a secure peace. It dares to tell us that we, the strongest nation in the history of freedom, can only wait-and wait-and wait. Such a statement brands its speaker as a defeatist.
My answer-candid and complete-is this:
The first task of a new Administration will be to review and re-examine every course of action open to us with one goal in view: To bring the Korean war to an early and honorable end. This is my pledge to the American people.
For this task a wholly new Administration is necessary. The reason for this is simple. The old Administration cannot be expected to repair what it failed to prevent.
Where will a new Administration begin?
It will begin with its President taking a simple, firm resolution. The resolution will be: To forego the diversions of politics and to concentrate on the job of ending the Korean war-until that job is honorably done.
That job requires a personal trip to Korea.
I shall make that trip. Only in that way could I learn how best to serve the American people in the cause of peace.
I shall go to Korea.
That is my second pledge to the American people.
Carefully, then, this new Administration, unfettered by past decisions and inherited mistakes, can review every factor-military, political and psychological-to be mobilized in speeding a just peace.
Progress along at least two lines can instantly begin. We can-first-step up the program of training and arming the South Korean forces. Manifestly, under the circumstances of today, United Nations forces cannot abandon that unhappy land. But just as troops of the Republic of Korea covet and deserve the honor of defending their frontiers, so should we give them maximum assistance to insure their ability to do so.
Then, United Nations forces in reserve positions and supporting roles would be assurance that disaster would not again strike.
We can-secondly-shape our psychological warfare program into a weapon capable of cracking the Communist front.
Beyond all this we must carefully weigh all interrelated courses of action. We will, of course, constantly confer with associated free nations of Asia and with the cooperating members of the United Nations. Thus we could bring into being a practical plan for world peace.
That is my third pledge to you.
As the next Administration goes to work for peace, we must be guided at every instant by that lesson I spoke of earlier. The vital lesson is this: To vacillate, to appease, to placate is only to invite war-vaster war-bloodier war. In the words of the late Senior [Arthur H.] Vandenberg, appeasement is not the road to peace; it is only surrender on the installment plan.
I will always reject appeasement.
And that is my fourth pledge to you.
A nation's foreign policy is a much graver matter than rustling papers and bustling conferences. It is much more than diplomatic decisions and trade treaties and military arrangements.
A foreign policy is the face and voice of a whole people. It is all that the world sees and hears and understands about a single nation. It expresses the character and the faith and the will of that nation. In this, a nation is like any individual of our personal acquaintance; the simplest gesture can betray hesitation or weakness, the merest inflection of voice can reveal doubt or fear.
It is in this deep sense that our foreign policy has faltered and failed.
For a democracy, a great election, such as this, signifies a most solemn trial. It is the time when-to the bewilderment of all tyrants-the people sit in judgment upon the leaders. It is the time when these leaders are summoned before the bar of public decision. There they must give evidence both to justify their actions and explain their intentions.
In the great trial of this election, the judges-the people-must not be deceived into believing that the choice is between isolationism and internationalism. That is a debate of the dead past. The vast majority of Americans of both parties know that to keep their own nation free, they bear a majestic responsibility for freedom through all the world. As practical people, Americans also know the critical necessity of unimpaired access to raw materials on other continents for our own economic and military strength.
Today the choice-the real choice-lies between policies that assume that responsibility awkwardly and fearfully-and policies that accept that responsibility with sure purpose and firm will. The choice is between foresight and blindness, between doing and apologizing, between planning and improvising.
In rendering their verdict, the people must judge with courage and with wisdom. For-at this date-any faltering in America's leadership is a capital offense against freedom.
In this trial, my testimony, of a personal kind, is quite simple. A soldier all my life, I have enlisted in the greatest cause of my life-the cause of peace.
I do not believe it a presumption for me to call the effort of all who have enlisted with me-a crusade.
I use that word only to signify two facts. First: We are united and devoted to a just cause of the purest meaning to all humankind. Second: We know that-for all the might of our effort-victory can come only with the gift of God's help.
In this spirit-humble servants of a proud ideal-we do soberly say: This is a crusade.

Last update: February 28th, 2003.