The Dilemma of Containment: The Korean War


The Dilemma of Containment: The Korean War

The Korean War was the first limited war between the two superpowers during the Cold War. The outbreak of the Korean War not only brought the tension up to a new level, but also revealed the long-existing dilemma of the containment policy which US had adopted since 1946: What’s the geographic and political? Moreover, Truman and Kennan didn’t want to provoke Soviet Union into any retaliation. When the goal of a war is no longer a total victory, it becomes tricky to have a clear political objective.

But was there any war ever having a clear political objective?

The objective for a country to start a war or involve itself into a war is a tool to justify its action. People need to be convinced that why they would risk their lives for the country, and the country needs to make sure that its action fit the national interests. Treating violence as the final resolution of the disputes is a symbol of human civilization. No one would start a war for no reason, but where to draw the line is never easy. In my opinion, no matter what that “reason” is, it all came from the same root: survival. This is an obvious conclusion and barely provides any help to explain the international interaction. What I’m trying to say is that there is only one objective to all the wars and political action, which is seeking their own survival, other than this are never going to be “clear.”

Kissinger specifically pointed out that the lack of a clear political objective made the role the US played in Korean War ambiguous and ended up having a hard time decide how far should the US go and when should the US stop. The comparison Kissinger provided is WWII, where the object of the war is an unconditional surrender. Having the unconditional surrender from either side in the war isn’t necessary the end of a war. Take Germany for example, even after its surrender, the US, Britain, France, and Soviet Union didn’t just withdraw their army and put the end to this chapter, they continuously involved in the reconstruction, and sometime it required violence to make things work. When could the US or other powers stop their involvement and what was the objective of the involvement was not clear at all, too.

In Korean War, the US was the one to react; 50 years later, the US was the starter of the war with Iraq. Even with a striking gap of military power between the two countries, the war lasted for more than 9 years. If we consider the end of war as the end of all military activity, and we assume that once a country achieve its objective and goal in the war, it would reach the finish line, then in the case of WWII, Korean War, and Iraq War, then there wasn’t really a clear political objective in any of the wars.

Since Russell F. Weigley cited 9 “Principles of War” in 1921, and the first one of those is “principle of the objective”, it has been one of the most important guiding rules in making the military strategy. An “unclear objective” then became the tool for us to determine whether a war is success or not.[1] But there is never a clear definition or explanation of a “clear objective.” Also, in reality, no matter how well a country analyzes on the war, nothing is 100% predictable. The situation is always changing so fast that if you want to have an unchangeable goal to fight for, it’ll also be too big to be defined as “clear.”

In “One War”, Carl von Clausewitz states that the “political objective is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes.”[2] Theoretically, having an objective is the premise to start a war, and the war should be limited within what its objective indicated. But throughout the history, there are countless examples shows that even the origin objective was reach, the war continued. This might explain that the “principle of the objective” is merely a principle.

The confusion and the hesitation the US had in Korean War turns out adjustable. Since the Korean War, the US seemed to find its way to play the “world police” role. Some turned out to be a success, some didn’t, but none of those military action have a persuasively clear objective, and none of those military action was limited within its objective.



Phil de Haan. 50 Years And Counting: The Impact of the Korean War on the People of the Peninsula. Calvin College. 2002

Lawrence P. Farrell Jr. Before War Strategy Is Settled, Political Aims Must Be Defined. National Defense, Dec. 2009.

[1] Lawrence P. Farrell Jr

[2] Ibid.


One thought on “The Dilemma of Containment: The Korean War


    In what I found most fascinating is Kissenger’s analysis on China’s motivation behind participating in the Korean War. In fact, he looked really deep into Mao’s psychological decisions and compared it with a “wei qi player.”

    Anyways, I agree with you. America has not fought any war in Asia with “specific objectives.” That’s why it’s easier being the guerilla side. You see this in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, and the War in Afghanistan. They can never “win” when the objective isn’t clear. I think a big reason is actually when the US has clear objectives, it doesn’t need to “fight wars.” US can achieve lots of its clear objectives through secret missions. It’s been doing many secret missions since the Cold War.

    Of course, what we view as “lack of specific objectives” could be just the government not disclosing its objectives. It could be an overall strategic moves, or maybe a laundry list of secretive objectives. So perhaps for the Iraq War, certain ‘secret objectives’ are: “1) Kill Saddam Hussein 2) access to oil…etc” In that case, the US government certainly has reached those objectives (yay). But because it’s considered “immoral” to go into a war with the sole objective of stealing another nation’s resources. So instead the US hides behind vague notions of liberty/democracy to start wars…

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