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Forgetting the Forgotten War

In his major foreign policy address in Washington, Barack Obama conveys a selective account of history.

By 7.17.08

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"Leaders like Truman and Acheson, Kennan and Marshall, knew that there was no single decisive blow that could be struck for freedom," Barack Obama declared on Tuesday at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center in Washington, D.C. "We needed a new overarching strategy to meet the challenges of a new and dangerous world."

In what his campaign billed as a "major" foreign policy address, Obama stood behind a lectern that was adorned with the slogan, "Judgment to Lead," and aimed to present a comprehensive approach to national security based on lessons from the Truman administration, but he conveyed a selective account of history.

Obama drew a particularly suspect parallel between the Marshall Plan and global economic assistance in today's times:

I know development assistance is not the most popular program, but as President, I will make the case to the American people that it can be our best investment in increasing the common security of the entire world. That was true with the Marshall Plan, and that must be true today. That's why I'll double our foreign assistance to $50 billion by 2012, and use it to support a stable future in failing states, and sustainable growth in Africa; to halve global poverty and to roll back disease. To send once more a message to those yearning faces beyond our shores that says, "You matter to us. Your future is our future. And our moment is now."

But the Marshall Plan wasn't about making a general commitment to fight poverty and disease throughout the world just to show that we care. It was targeted specifically at Europe with the clear goal of making sure its economies didn't collapse after the war and destabilize the region. It was meant to avoid a repeat of what Winston Churchill called "the follies of the victors" after World War I, in which economic collapse and heavy reparations imposed on Germany created the conditions that facilitated Adolf Hitler's rise. Truman was also concerned that any economic depression in Europe would drag down the U.S. economy.

A more disturbing aspect of Obama's speech, considering it was framed around applying President Truman's foreign policy to today's national security challenges, was that he neglected to mention a key event during Truman's tenure: the Korean War.

In addition to praising the Marshall Plan, Obama found time to applaud the establishment of NATO, the UN, and the World Bank. Yet somehow, during the same speech that he blasted John McCain for supporting a war in which "we have lost thousands of lives," he forgot about the war known as the Forgotten War, in which we lost 54,246.

It was with the counsel of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, whom Obama also cited admiringly, that Truman made the decision to come to the aid of South Korea, believing that if communists were able to take over unmolested, it would only encourage similar moves elsewhere.

But what was initially described as a limited "police action" launched with broad popular support, under the auspices of the UN, turned into a protracted conflict that, while shorter in duration than Iraq, killed nearly as many soldiers as the war in Vietnam.

THE WAR BEGAN WITH Congressional consultation but not official authorization. When America became involved, there was no clear strategy. U.S. troops were poorly trained due to post-World War II cutbacks, unfamiliar with the local geography, and did not speak the language.

As the casualties mounted and bungles multiplied, support for the war plummeted, as did Truman's approval ratings, which sank to Bush territory. Truman couldn't credibly run for reelection in 1952, and had Obama been running against him in the Democratic primary that year, he may well have eviscerated Truman for expending so much blood and treasure on a war that should have never been fought, against a nation that posed no imminent threat to the U.S.

What's more, while Obama criticizes McCain's overtures in favor of a permanent U.S. military presence in Iraq, he praises the Truman administration, whose actions resulted in permanent bases in South Korea.

While alluding to the fact that the our nation's early Cold War policy involved "overwhelming military strength," Obama didn't get specific, because he'd rather tie up everything in a neat bow in which global institutions and economic aid made the world love us, and created peace.

Talking about the fact that a messy, bloody war was a central part of the legacy of the president whom he cites as a model for his foreign policy would be inconvenient for Obama, who has built his candidacy around his opposition to the Iraq War.

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Philip Klein is The American Spectator's Washington correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/Philipaklein