The best example of the manner in which the Munich analogy came to grip the minds of Truman and his advisers was the decision of the president to intervene in Korea in 1950. This is striking because the U.S. government completely changed its policy toward Korea on the basis of parallels between this situation and that of the 1930s. Prior to North Korea's invasion of South Korea on 25 June 1950, the United States had followed a policy of avoiding military engagement in the Korean Peninsula. This was mainly because American policymakers believed that Korea lay outside the "defense perimeter" of the United States and was relatively unimportant to its national security. Even at the beginning of June, American policy was to avoid sending military forces to Korea. This was the consistent position of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, one that was twice considered by the National Security Council and twice approved by the president. Furthermore, during his famous National Press Club speech of 12 January 1950, the secretary of state, Dean Acheson, made this position plain.
The North Korean invasion changed policy dramatically. This was primarily because President Truman perceived the invasion as analogous to the aggressive actions of Hitler and Mussolini in the 1930s. Truman stated that when he first heard the news of the North Korean invasion his first thought was of the 1930s. He wrote:
I remembered how each time that the democracies failed to act, it had encouraged the aggressors to keep going ahead. Communism was acting in Korea just as Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese had acted ten, fifteen and twenty years earlier…. If this was allowed to go unchal lenged it would mean a third world war, just as similar incidents had brought on a second world war.
Not only the president equated North Korean actions with those of the Nazis. The Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, New York Herald Tribune, and New York Times all alluded to the appeasement of the 1930s in their editorials on Korea. In the House of Representatives, Democrat Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut asked, "What difference is there in the action of North Korea today and the actions which led to the Second World War? Talk about parallels!"
By classifying the Korean invasion as comparable to the aggressive actions of Hitler in the 1930s, Truman and his associates were led to the conclusion that in order to avoid the "appeasement" of the 1930s and Munich, they had to act to protect the lesser power from this aggression. Refusal to repel aggression would be nothing but appeasement. And appeasement, as history allegedly had shown, would ultimately lead to war.
The analogy with Munich would continue to be cited during the Korean War. Truman used it time and again to reassure the public of the continuing need for U.S. troops to be stationed in Korea. In December 1950, the first year of the war, Truman assured the country that "We will continue to take every honorable step we can to avoid general war…. But we will not engage in appeasement…. The world learned from Munich that security cannot be bought by appeasement." Critics who charged that the government was not employing sufficient force to counter the threat in Korea also used the analogy. The specter of Munich overshadowed everything. For example, Republican Senator William F. Knowland criticized the government, stating, "Talk of seating the Reds in the UN is appeasement. Talk of establishing a neutral zone in Korea is appeasement. Waiting around for Mao Zedong to become Tito is appeasement."
In November 1950, Chinese "volunteers" entered the war and the Munich analogy began to take on the form of the argument that failure to wage total war was appeasement itself. General Douglas MacArthur, in charge of the United Nations forces in Korea, used this argument forcefully to criticize his own government as well as that of the British, taunting them with allegations of appeasement. When the British began to consider creating a demilitarized zone south of the Yalu River, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff warned MacArthur that his war objectives might be altered "in the interests of pursuing negotiations with the Chinese." MacArthur denounced this "widely reported British desire to appease the Chinese Communists by giving them a strip of Northern Korea." He once again used the Munich analogy to remind the U.S. government that its credibility would suffer unless it stood firm on this issue. "Indeed, to yield to so immoral a proposition would bankrupt our leadership and influence in Asia and render untenable our position both politically and military." Even more inflammatory was MacArthur's statement following a remark by British Prime Minister Ernest Bevin that the "young" nation, America, needed sage advice, gained by experience, from Britain. MacArthur retorted that he "needed no lessons from the successors of Neville Chamberlain." MacArthur played the Munich analogy for all it was worth, and eventually he discovered the consequences of pushing the analogy too far: in April 1951, after months of sparring, Truman fired him.