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Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Korean War: Cautionary Tale and Hopeful Precedent

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Like most real history, the Korean War left ambiguous, selective, and complex lessons for the policymakers of the Eisenhower administration. The president himself, to borrow Dean Acheson’s phrase, had been “present at the creation” of the war in 1950. He had then distanced himself from it as Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and as a presidential candidate. He inherited the conflict—a war to be ended—as president. Yet the war never became a defining experience for Dwight D. Eisenhower, nor did it play an inordinate role in his foreign and defense policies. His geo-strategic views had developed well before 1950, most obviously during World War II. The Korean conflict, a post-colonial civil war that became an internationalized regional conflict, was not even unique enough in its own time to dominate the national security conceptualization that became “the New Look” or “the Great Equation.” It might have encouraged a “Great Evasion,” an unwillingness to deal with instability in the Middle East and Asia, but instead the Eisenhower administration coped, more or less successfully, with comparable turmoil in the Philippines, Thailand, Iran, and Lebanon. It is true that the next land war in Asia—to be avoided at all costs according to the Korean “never again” strategic gurus—awaited a change of presidents, but President Eisenhower committed an Army-Marine Corps expeditionary force to Lebanon in 1958. So much for avoiding the use of American ground forces in local wars.

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