With the comfort and hindsight of a half-century, President Harry Truman’s decision to commit American power to save South Korea from Communist aggression in late June 1950 stands as perhaps America’s finest moment of the Cold War. By making a difficult commitment, by sacrificing 50,000 American lives in the end, Truman upheld Western values and interests where they were directly threatened. It is easy to overlook the unpopularity and unpleasantness of a war which, though necessary, nevertheless remains unknown to most Americans today. Our sacrifices in Korea beginning in the disastrous summer of 1950 merit recognition and honor in their own right, yet they deserve our attention for another reason almost completely neglected in accounts of the period. By dispatching the 24th Infantry and 1st Cavalry Divisions from comfortable occupation duty in Japan to death and destruction in Korea in mid-summer 1950, the United States actually did nothing less than save the world from a global conflagration.
The issue was found not in Asia but on the other side of the planet: in Stalin’s private war with Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia. Determined to destroy Tito and his heretic Communist regime at any cost, Stalin was impatiently planning for an all-out invasion of Yugoslavia by the Soviet military and East European satellite forces. As U.S. and NATO records indicate, the thoroughly planned Soviet attack would have resulted in Western military commitment and almost certainly nuclear response. It would have been the Third World War.
Perhaps ironically, Stalin was initially inflamed by Tito’s revolutionary ardor. Beginning in mid-1947, Tito’s intelligence appa- )o~eph \/ Stalin ratus opened the “Greek line,” supplying Communist insurgents in neighboring Greece “”ith weapons and supplies, an effort which quickly outpaced Soviet support to the guerrillas; 10,000 Yugoslav “volunteers” fought alongside their Greek allies too. Stalin found Tito’s fervor and undue risk-taking troubling; indeed, the Greek issue was the last of a long series of Yugoslav actions Moscow disliked. Stalin sent Tito a letter criticizing the “Greek line,” observing that the Communist insurgency stood no chance of success due to support for Athens by the United States, “the strongest state in the world.”
When Belgrade astonishingly refused to back down, Moscow exacted retribution. On June 28, 1948, Serbia’s national day, Stalin expelled Yugoslavia from the Communist Information Bureau – the Cominform, the Moscow-led successor to the Comintern – setting off an unprecedented conflict in Communist he opi ni ons expressed in thi sarti cle are those of ranks which would nearly provoke the Third World War. The Soviets immediately dispensed vitriolic propaganda, denouncing Tito and his government as a “spy group” in the pay of American and British “imperialism.” 2 Purges of alleged “Titoists” began with fervor throughout the Soviet bloc, nowhere more thoroughly than in Hungary, the satellite on the frontline of the Yugoslav menace. Iilszl6 Rajk, Budapest’s interior minister, was executed in mid-1949 for his supposed ideological deviation, while the Hungarian People’s Army simultaneously saw a dozen generals and 1,100 high-ranking officers purged, and some executed, for alleged pro-Yugoslav sentiments.
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