Last week a delegation of delightful South Korean students visited our office. They all stood respectfully when I arrived, took notes, asked smart questions, were good natured and enthusiastic. They didn’t identify their religious affiliation but were well informed about Christianity. They mentioned their university was in the south near Pusan.
Pusan! I recognized it immediately as the besieged redoubt of American and South Korean troops in the most desperate days of North Korea’s 1950 invasion. Pusan almost became a calamitous Dunkirk. General MacArthur’s brilliant, risky landings behind North Korean lines at Inchon prevented disaster and saved South Korea from conquest.
Absent the USA intervention in Korea, these bright, winsome South Koreans who visited my office would be dead, slaves to a brutal communist regime, or never would have been born because their parents would have died from state-caused famine or in a labor camp. These youngsters in my office were robust and healthy because they grew up in a now wealthy South Korea with first world standards of diet, medicine and hygiene. They were on an extended tour of the USA, with the means and liberty to do so, like millions of their countrymen.
Today’s South Korea could instead look like impoverished, dark, often starving North Korea, a brutal police and military state subject to the whims of three generations of megalomaniac dynastic dictators. Thanks to the 1950 USA intervention, South Korea is one of the last century’s greatest success stories, a once impoverished Third World obscurity that became an economic powerhouse and a stable democracy.
USA intervention in 1950 was not a foregone conclusion. WWII had only ended five years before. Both MacArthur and Secretary of State Dean Acheson had described South Korea as outside the USA defense perimeter. It seemed strategically insignificant. Stalin greenlighted North Korea’s invasion on the assumption the USA would do little. The USA did intervene, although unprepared, because, among other reasons, acceding to Soviet-backed aggression in Asia would make organizing NATO in Europe very difficult. Who would believe the USA had the political will to resist aggression anywhere? There was also the memory of appeasement at Munich, which Anerica was determined not to repeat.
The USA intervention in Korea cost almost 40,000 American lives across four years. It was a grueling, horrible war, often fought in snow and mountains, that killed hundreds of thousands. Communist China’s intervention was a nearly lethal blow to USA and allied forces. Much of the USA military brass became defeatist and pondered an exit strategy. With Soviet pilots over Korean skies, there was the threat of WWIII.
But the USA commitment to South Korea has persevered for 66 years. South Korea is free and prosperous. One third of its population is now Christian, it has some of the world’s largest churches, and South Korea is one of the largest missionary SENDING nations globally. (North Korea’s Christians either keep quiet or toil in labor camps.). South Koreans live in peace and security because of the USA strategic umbrella under which they flourish.
The scope and power of America’s military projection is often treated dismissively or even hostilely by much of American Christian political witness. Jesus is against, or indifferent, to weapons, militaries, empire, supposedly. Even some conservative Christians believe America is now post Christian and no longer merits their enthusiasm. Time to focus inward, they have persuaded themselves, even as they themselves live in prosperity and security thanks to USA military strength.
Human historical recall, especially for Americans, is often short. But the last 70 years of relative global peace and unprecedented economic growth, dramatic poverty reduction, expanding health and longevity, expansion of democracy, and growth of Christianity has no parallel in human experience. America’s superpower status and network of alliances with partners like South Korea have been central to this global order.
Any serious Christian concern about justice and human welfare must engage the role of military power in sustaining any political order. And Christian political witness should ponder the countless millions, like the South Korean students from Pusan, who live and thrive, or don’t, based on decisions in America.