The “Great Debate” of the Korean War, the Republican Party, and U.S. Cold War Internationalism: Origins, Significance, Legacies

Sunday, January 5, 2014: 11:40 AM
Columbia Hall 11 (Washington Hilton)
Kevin Y. Kim, Stanford University
This paper examines the “Great Debate” of the Korean War as a major turning point in the global Cold War, and the making of U.S. Cold War internationalism. In the winter of 1950, Communist China responded to the U.S.-led UN forces’ expansion of the Korean War with a massive ground intervention halting UN forces’ advance to the Chinese-Korean border. The crisis, significant in itself, provoked the early Cold War’s most far-reaching debate, one that extended beyond the Korean War to the Cold War and U.S. foreign policy since World War II. For the next year, U.S. policymakers, political elites, and citizens debated Cold War policies in high diplomatic circles, Congress, the press, and their own homes. Despite its brevity and high controversy, the “Great Debate” left a lasting impact on U.S. foreign policies, political culture, and social life.

Existing accounts usually neglect the “Great Debate” or else treat it as a triumph of Cold War “consensus” against a late recrudescence of “neo-isolationism” by conservatives in Congress and the public. By contrast, this paper argues that the “Great Debate” was a sophisticated, significant debate with lasting repercussions on Cold War America and the world. Focusing on private and public debates among Republican Party liberals, moderates, and conservatives—particularly World War II hero Dwight Eisenhower, ex-president Herbert Hoover, and their followers—it examines the “Great Debate” in terms of its origins in World War II events, its response to the Korean War, and its legacies among Republicans and conservatives into the 1960s. Tracing relationships among the debate’s participants and legatees, the paper concludes with an examination of how the “Great Debate”—particularly its implications for air power, Asia, and U.S. military security strategy—played a seminal role in the rise of the New Right in the 1960s.

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