Deterring War over Taiwan: Some Lessons from Korea and Ukraine

A peaceful resolution seems like a remote prospect today. But the world—and the Chinese people—should be reminded that Xi has made it more remote by eviscerating the concept of “one country, two systems,” which Deng Xiaoping originally intended for Taiwan and not just for Hong Kong.

Paul Wolfowitz

The Korean War would never have happened if the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had believed the United States would intervene to oppose the North Korean invasion. That war was particularly terrible, and it was no less terrible for being comparatively short. Although most of the fighting ended with an armistice after three years, Xi Jinping would do well to use the Korean War to remember that once you unleash the dogs of war, you unleash havoc—and no one can predict the consequences.

Russia’s present difficulties in Ukraine provide a useful reminder as well. As officials in China are reportedly meeting behind closed doors to study a Chinese Communist Party–produced documentary that extols Russian President Vladimir Putin as a hero, the chances of preventing another terrible war in East Asia would be greatly improved if the heroic Ukrainians can be enabled to demonstrate that the Chinese Communist Party’s Russian “hero” has clay feet.1

Perhaps because it happened almost 70 years ago and didn’t go on for 20 years like the post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many Americans are surprised to learn that in many respects, the Korean War was far worse than either of those more recent two. In those three years, 36,574 Americans died fighting in Korea; in other words, 15 times as many American lives were lost in three years as were lost in Afghanistan in 20, and eight times as many were killed in Korea as in Iraq during the previous 18 years, up until July 2021.2 Taken together, more than five times as many Americans died in Korea in just three years as in the roughly 20 years of those two more recent wars combined.

Broader measures of the costs of that terrible war only paint an even grimmer picture. Our South Korean allies lost more than 160,000 soldiers killed or missing, and estimates of North Korean losses range from 215,000 to 406,000, although as historian Guenter Lewy notes, “The only hard statistic” for Korean War losses is that of American military deaths.3 At a ceremony in October 2014 marking the anniversary of China’s “volunteers” entering the war, a Chinese official confirmed that there were 197,653 “martyrs of the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea.”4

Unsurprisingly, however, as so often happens, the civilians suffered the most. As a result of fighting that left “almost every major city in North and South Korea in ruins,” Lewy also notes that civilian deaths are estimated at between two and three million, adding up to almost one million military deaths and a possible 2.5 million civilians who were killed or died as a result of what he calls “this extremely destructive conflict.”5

The geopolitical impact was also earthshaking. The Soviet-backed aggression in Korea, combined with the first Soviet test of a nuclear weapon, raised fears halfway around the world, in Europe, of larger threats backed by Soviet military power. Those fears hastened the completion of a process that had already been underway to create a permanent NATO military organization, based in Europe and commanded by an American general—the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. The first to hold that position, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, was appointed in December 1950, six months after North Korea’s invasion of the South.6 The war also put in train negotiations about German rearmament, culminating in the Paris Agreements of October 1954 and West Germany joining NATO the following year.7

Perhaps most significant was the North Korean invasion’s impact on American defense plans and programs. Americans were shocked at being nearly driven off the Korean Peninsula by a poorly equipped military just five years after building their own military into the strongest in world history and defeating the combined strength of the Axis powers. President Harry Truman dismissed Defense Secretary Louis Johnson, who had made himself the target of public anger over the hasty post–World War II dismantling of American military power.8 The United States Objectives and Programs for National Security (more commonly referred to as NSC-68), the document that became known—with some exaggeration—as the blueprint for US participation in the Cold War, went from being a piece of paper in Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s desk to becoming the nation’s security strategy.9 US defense spending shot up from $133 billion in 1950 to $402 billion in 1954 and remained above $300 billion for most of that decade.10 The Korean War was the true beginning of the Cold War.

Stalin likely did not envision any of those developments when he gave North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung a green light to invade the South.11 Nor were they likely to have pleased him.

North Korea’s invasion also had large consequences in East Asia. It led to a strengthening of ties between the US and Taiwan, with the latter still calling itself the Republic of China (ROC) and claiming to be the legitimate government of all of China. That strengthened relationship was even formalized with the signing of the US-ROC Mutual Defense Treaty in December 1954.12 The net result was to put US relations with the mainland-based People’s Republic of China (PRC) into a kind of deep freeze for almost 20 years, until President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972.

That particular result was probably not unwelcome for Stalin, but it is a reminder that wars can cause countries to shift alignments in unforeseen ways. Earthshaking geopolitical shocks have follow-on tremors and aftershocks. Stalin’s 1939 agreement with Adolf Hitler to carve up Poland following Britain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich illustrates how large those aftershocks can sometimes be. In the case of a PRC attack on Taiwan, one obvious concern would be that Japan or even South Korea might reconsider its nuclear nonproliferation commitments and reliance on the US to provide nuclear deterrence.

For the past few years, Beijing has been conducting increasingly provocative demonstrations of military power in the vicinity of Taiwan. It has even released footage of “real combat” conducted in Taiwanese airspace.13 Whether these threatening actions are meant to intimidate the Taiwanese people or dull the sensitivity of Taiwan’s warning systems, these threats of force violate the PRC’s past promises to pursue a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue. These include particularly the PRC’s commitment—as part of the 1979 normalization of US-PRC relations—to a peaceful resolution of its disputes with Taiwan, in return for the US renouncing its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan, abrogating the military treaty with the ROC, and removing US troops from the island.14

A Chinese invasion would present the greatest threat to global peace in a generation. The US would confront an agonizing dilemma: risk an armed clash between two nuclear superpowers or abandon a free people to Communist tyranny. But there’s an alternative—deter the threat by committing to oppose it, by force if necessary.15

Deterrence rests on a paradox: The best way to prevent war is to threaten war. The history of the 20th century illustrates what successful deterrence can accomplish. It enabled West Berlin to survive as a free city despite a political status even more ambiguous than Taiwan’s and a truly indefensible military position. Cold War history also illustrates a corollary: A failure of resolve can invite catastrophe. The Korean War was preventable, if only the US had made clear beforehand that it would forcefully oppose North Korean aggression.

The Korean War Could Have Been Prevented

Throughout the Cold War, many historians of the “revisionist” school sought to portray the Korean War as a product of a canny plot by the US or its South Korean “puppet” Syngman Rhee to provoke a North Korean attack. It was a thesis that flew in the face of the many statements by senior US officials that the US had no strategic interest in Korea and the evident lack of US armed forces’ preparedness for a war on the Korean Peninsula. Soviet documents released in 1995, after the end of the Cold War, should have ended that line of argument. They reveal that Kim—North Korea’s first dictator and the grandfather of Kim Jong Un, the current despot— visited Stalin in Moscow in March 1949.16 The elder Kim spent the better part of that month trying to persuade the Soviet dictator to support an invasion of the South. Stalin, concerned that American troops would “interfere in case of hostilities,” rejected the idea.17

But Stalin’s thinking changed after China fell to the Communist Party in October 1949. According to the documents, the lack of a serious American response to that cataclysmic event demonstrated to the Soviets the “weakness of Asian reactionaries” and their American “mentors,” who “left China” without daring “to challenge the new Chinese authorities.”18

By 1950, US combat forces had left Korea based on the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s stated belief that “Korea is of little strategic value” and a commitment to use military force in Korea would be “ill-advised and impracticable.”19 Gen. Douglas MacArthur endorsed that view publicly in a March 1949 interview, as did Secretary of State Acheson in a January 1950 speech.20

At that point, citing the “changed international environment,”21 Stalin invited Kim and his deputy premier and foreign minister, Pak Hon-yong,22 the founder of the North Korean Communist Party, to visit Moscow, where the pair spent March 30 to April 25 discussing in detail with their Soviet counterparts the strategy and tactics for their planned conquest of South Korea. A lengthy summary of those discussions prepared by the Soviet foreign ministry, which historian Kathryn Weathersby calls the clearest expression of “Stalin’s reasoning about the war,” explains what Stalin meant by the “changed international situation” that made it possible to support a North Korean invasion.23 That account also makes clear why Stalin insisted that Kim first obtain Mao Zedong’s approval.

Although Secretary Acheson’s speech has drawn deserved criticism and is often blamed for inviting the North Korean invasion, that conclusion is at odds with the Soviet summary and reflects a distinct partisan bias by failing to mention MacArthur’s earlier interview. Neither Acheson’s speech nor MacArthur’s interview are mentioned in that Soviet summary of Stalin’s monthlong talks with the North Koreans. What the summary emphasized was that the Chinese Communist Party’s victory meant that China could devote its attention and energy to the assistance of Korea. Moreover, that victory had “proved the strength of Asian revolutionaries, and shown the weakness of Asian reactionaries and their mentors in the West, in America. Americans left China and did not dare to challenge the new Chinese authorities militarily.”24

If we were to rewrite those quoted sentences as “Afghanistan proved the strength of Asian extremists and showed the weakness of American puppets and their mentors in the West, in America,” and “the Americans left Afghanistan and did not dare to challenge the new Taliban authorities militarily,” then the disturbing parallels between Stalin’s reasoning about South Korea and Putin’s possible reasoning about Ukraine are cause for reflection. Afghanistan and Ukraine are both distant and different from Taiwan, but judgments about American will and resolve formed from those distant places could lead Xi into dangerous miscalculations about the dangers of an attack on Taiwan.

Stalin also referred to “information coming from the United States” showing that “the prevailing mood is not to interfere.”25 Weathersby speculates this may be a reference to knowledge Stalin might have obtained from his British spy in Washington, Donald McLean, who would have been in a position to know about an official White House document labeled NSC-48, which drew the US defense perimeter west of Japan and the Philippines, excluding Korea and the Asian mainland.

Yet even despite these reassuring signs and even after American troops had withdrawn from the peninsula, Stalin remained concerned that an attack might prompt a US intervention and drag the Soviets into a direct conflict with the world’s first nuclear power. Since “the USSR was not ready to get involved in Korean affairs directly,” in the event that the US did “venture to send troops to Korea,” and if Kim were to need reinforcements, he would have to get them from China. Accordingly, Stalin insisted that Kim travel to Beijing to get Mao’s approval, which Mao was in no position to refuse since he was heavily dependent on the Soviet Union for both economic and military support.26 With Mao’s approval in hand, Stalin unleashed Kim on South Korea and started a horrible war.

Oddly enough, Stalin approved of a last-minute tactical change from a planned small-scale incursion on the Ongjin peninsula, with the aim of provoking the South Koreans to respond and make them appear responsible for starting the war. Instead, Stalin agreed to an initial overall attack along the whole front line.

As Weathersby notes, while this decision may have been

sensible from a strictly military point of view, it reflected a disastrous misapprehension of how a World War II–style invasion across the South Korean border would be perceived in the West. Since Stalin had shared with his Western counterparts the trauma of a sudden, massive German attack, his failure to foresee the forebodings such an attack in Korea would immediately evoke in the minds of many of the world’s political leaders is all the more striking.27

Stalin’s spies weren’t wrong in their assessment of the American mood. Before the invasion, US political and military leaders considered an invasion of South Korea unlikely and didn’t want to defend it in the event of one. But a surprise attack by seven well-equipped North Korean divisions advancing rapidly down the peninsula changed both the strategic and political calculus.

A War over Taiwan Must Be Prevented by Deterrence

Since 1979, when the US normalized relations with Beijing and Congress enacted the Taiwan Relations Act, Washington’s relations with Taipei have been ambiguous. Yet an unambiguous deterrence commitment would be fully consistent with the long-standing US position that differences between Taiwan and the mainland need to be resolved peacefully, without the use or threat of force and with no unilateral declaration of Taiwanese independence. Painful though it may be for the Taiwanese to live with their ambiguous international status, preserving peace in the Taiwan Strait and freedom for the Taiwanese people is much more important.

A peaceful resolution seems like a remote prospect today. But the world—and the Chinese people—should be reminded that Xi has made it more remote by eviscerating the concept of “one country, two systems,” which Deng Xiaoping originally intended for Taiwan and not just for Hong Kong.

The Taiwan Relations Act provides that “any effort to determine the future of Taiwan by other than peaceful means” will be considered a threat “of grave concern to the United States.”28 To make that part of the law meaningful, the US and Taiwanese militaries need to coordinate planning so that an attack wouldn’t overwhelm Taiwan’s defenses before help can arrive. It will also require what has been called “thinking more creatively” about nonnuclear options that might cause Xi to recalculate the costs of an attack.29

Unfortunately, the threat of economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure will unlikely be sufficient in forcing such a recalculation, given how little impact such measures have had on Chinese actions in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. While the world should do more to compel Xi to honor China’s promise of autonomy for Hong Kong and halt the forced detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, if the US stands aside and allows Taiwan’s autonomy to be crushed by force, the repercussions would be far more severe. It would shake the foundations of security and stability in East Asia.

We can’t know how Xi would react to a credible redline (or the failure to draw one). Historical analogies are always imprecise; the Korean scenario was complex, and the situation of Taiwan differs from both Korea and Berlin. And there’s no denying that creating redlines entails significant risks. But so can the failure to do so, as the Korean example shows. Continued ambiguity in the face of Xi’s escalating rhetoric and provocative movements by his armed forces in the Taiwan Strait presents the greater risk of a confrontation that could be as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis. That leaves us with the credible threat of military force as the best hope of avoiding war.

China claims all islands in the South China Sea (SCS) that fall within its “Nine-Dash Line,” about 62 percent of the SCS. China’s claims directly contradict those of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

Xi must decide whether there will be a war over Taiwan. But as the PRC elevates its military threat to Taiwan, both in word and deed, the US needs to take corresponding steps to elevate and clarify its defense relationship with Taiwan. And deeds may be more important than words.

Much of what is needed flows from ideas laid out in an excellent essay by Dan Blumenthal titled “The U.S.-Taiwan Relationship Needs Alliance Management.”30 Central to his argument is that the US needs a political and strategic framework for its defense relationship with Taiwan and not merely a tactical one built out of individual decisions, mostly about arms sales. The key points that emerge from that essay are as follows.

That political framework would begin with recognition that the PRC has departed fundamentally from the commitment to seek a peaceful resolution of the differences between Taiwan and the mainland, which it made in the three communiqués that provide the foundation of the US-China relationship. To the contrary, the PRC has been going backward, even shredding the promises it made to the people of Hong Kong and the UK concerning the fundamental rights of Hong Kong citizens after Hong Kong’s return to China.

In addition to a political framework based on continuing insistence that peaceful resolution is the core principle of the US approach to the Taiwan issue, there needs to be a better framework for managing what is effectively an alliance relationship, although not so designated officially. There appears to be a complacency, bordering on smugness, among government officials and many commentators—here and in Europe—that Putin’s “failure” in Ukraine presents a warning to Xi of the dangers he could encounter with an invasion of Taiwan. That is a dangerous illusion and rather premature given that Putin has not yet lost this war, and, unfortunately, it is by no means clear that he will.

Moreover, as Hal Brands points out, the lessons that Xi takes from Ukraine might not be about the hazards Putin’s army blundered into. They might be about how to avoid those blunders by attacking successfully by moving quickly with shock and surprise before either the Taiwanese or their American and Japanese friends can even begin to think about coming to Taiwan’s aid.31 Ukraine’s heroic President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has frequently criticized the Western failure to provide his country with the weapons they need in a timely fashion.

The delays in providing Ukraine with weapons deemed to be “escalatory” have been costly,32 and the restrictions on fighter aircraft and ground-based air defenses continue to cause avoidable Ukrainian deaths. As one congressional source told Josh Rogin of the Washington Post, more than a month after the start of Putin’s invasion,

The transfer of any system is being closely scrutinized by the White House and National Security Council as to whether or not it meets their test of what’s escalatory and what’s not. . . .
That’s causing the system to be constipated.33

Fortunately, however, the heroic Ukrainian resistance has bought that country time for the US and Ukraine’s other friends to come to their senses about that country’s defense needs—much more time than Taiwan could count on having.

Whatever lessons Xi may be drawing from Ukraine, US officials appear to have learned nothing from the costly delays imposed by that vague escalatory standard that delayed or blocked needed weapons for Ukraine. A similar disagreement obstructing the responses to Taiwan’s weapons requests is a US demand that Taiwan obtain only what are vaguely defined as “asymmetric capabilities,” as though US officials have a better idea than the Taiwanese do about the scenarios they need to prepare for and what their requirements might be to face them.

If Taiwan ends up—six or 12 months from now—facing a situation comparable to what Ukraine faced in February 2022, we will be wishing that we had decided today to enable Taiwan to acquire the weaponry that might deter a future PRC attack. Now is the time to begin addressing Taiwan’s defense needs with a sense of urgency. If we wait until after an attack, as we did with Ukraine, it will probably be too late.

There is no other situation comparable to the one with Taiwan, in which the US contemplates possible cooperation with another military with so little interaction among senior decision makers undergirding the planning and procurement process. A better framework is needed to engage strategic and operational thinking at the highest levels among the US and Taiwanese officials who would make some of the most fateful decisions in the event of a crisis. Doing so requires an understanding among the highest levels of government, something that cannot be achieved simply through occasional and often virtual staff talks at lower levels.

There needs to be a better understanding of what Taiwan’s real defense needs are. That also entails stockpiling the necessary weapons systems and munitions on the island for Taiwanese use—or American use, in the event that this or some future president decides it is necessary—to intervene before a conflict, deter one, or help defeat one in its early stages.

Instead, it increasingly appears as though the US-Taiwan relationship is fraught with disagreements not unlike those that seem to get in the way of providing Ukraine with weapons that could help it inflict a serious defeat on the Russians—weapons that US bureaucrats have apparently classified as escalatory.

Having summarized the main points in Blumenthal’s essay, perhaps it would be appropriate to close this chapter with the following words from a famous American:

The issues are global and so interlocked that to consider the problems of one sector, oblivious to those of another, is but to court disaster for the whole. While Asia is commonly referred to as the Gateway to Europe, it is no less true that Europe is the Gateway to Asia, and the broad influence of the one cannot fail to have its impact upon the other. There are those who claim our strength is inadequate to protect on both fronts, that we cannot divide our effort. I can think of no greater expression of defeatism. If a potential enemy can divide his strength on two fronts, it is for us to counter his effort.34

No, the above quote is not from the head of the Trilateral Commission or the Council on Foreign Relations. It’s from Gen. MacArthur’s famous farewell address to a joint session of Congress on April 19, 1951.


  1. Chris Buckley, “Bristling Against the West, China Rallies Domestic Sympathy for Russia,” New York Times, April 4, 2022,
  2. US Department of Defense, “Freedom Is Not Free: Take a Look Inside the Korean War Veterans Memorial,”
  3. Defense Casualty Analysis System, “U.S. Military Casualties—Korean War Casualty Summary,” April 7, 2022,; Alan R. Millett, “Korean War,” Encyclopedia Britannica,; and Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1980), 450.
  4. China Daily, “China Holds Burial Ceremony for Soldier Remains Returned from ROK,” April 2, 2016,; Xinhua News Agency, “Silent Tribute Paid to Martyrs in War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid Korea,” October 23, 2020,; and Xu Yang, “kang mei yuan chao lie shi xin que ren wei 197653 ren Fu jun zhang er zi dao ching” [The Newly Confirmed Number of Martyrs Sacrificed in the War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea is 197653. The Son of the Deputy Commander Was Present], People’s Daily Online, October 30, 2014, Title and quotation translated by Cindy Chen.
  5. Lewy, America in Vietnam.
  6. North Atlantic Treaty Organization, “NATO Leaders: Dwight D. Eisenhower,” November 23, 2016,
  7. Helga Haftendorn, “Germany’s Accession to NATO: 50 Years On,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, June 1, 2005,
  8. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Historical Office, “Louis A. Johnson,”
  9. US Department of State, Office of the Historian, “NSC-68, 1950,”
  10. Martin Calhoun, “U.S. Military Spending, 1945–1996,” Center for Defense Information, July 9, 1996,
  11. PBS, “The Korean War,”
  12. Yale Law School, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Avalon Project, “Mutual Defense Treaty Between the United States and the Republic of China; December 2, 1954,”
  13. Daily Mail, “China Releases Footage of Its Troops Conducting Live-Fire Drill near Taiwan After President Xi Ordered His Soldiers to Be Prepared for War ‘at All Times,’” January 14, 2021,
  14. Dan Blumenthal, “The U.S.-Taiwan Relationship Needs Alliance Management,” National Interest, December 18, 2021,
  15. This paragraph and some other portions of the present chapter were taken from an earlier article by the author. See Paul Wolfowitz, “The Korean War’s Lesson for Taiwan,” Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2020,
  16. Wilson Center, Digital Archive, “March 05, 1949 Notes of the Conversation Between Comrade I.V. Stalin and a Governmental Delegation from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Headed by Kim Il Sung,”
  17. Wolfowitz, “The Korean War’s Lesson for Taiwan.”
  18. Wolfowitz, “The Korean War’s Lesson for Taiwan.”
  19. Daniel C. Sneider, “The United States and Northeast Asia: The Cold War Legacy,” in Cross Currents: Regionalism and Nationalism in Northeast Asia (Stanford, CA: Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, 2007), 259,
  20. Wolfowitz, “The Korean War’s Lesson for Taiwan.”
  21. Kathryn Weathersby, “‘Should We Fear This?’ Stalin and the Danger of War with America” (working paper, Wilson Center, Washington, DC, July 2002), 11,
  22. That trip proved fatal for Pak Hon-yong, since Kim Il Sung blamed him in 1953 for the failure of the North Korean invasion and accused him of being a spy for the United States and Japan. That earned Pak the dubious distinction of becoming victim to the last show trial in North Korean history. (That regime subsequently decided it is better for its victims to disappear without a trace.) Pak was sentenced to death and subsequently executed, despite appeals for clemency from China and the Soviet Union. Andrei Lankov, The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2014), 45–46.
  23. Weathersby, “‘Should We Fear This?,’” 16.
  24. Quoted in Weathersby, “‘Should We Fear This?,’” 9.
  25. Weathersby, “‘Should We Fear This?’”
  26. Weathersby, “‘Should We Fear This?’”
  27. Weathersby, “‘Should We Fear This?,’” 15.
  28. Taiwan Relations Act, 22 USC § 3301 et seq. (1979),
  29. Michèle A. Flournoy, “How to Prevent a War in Asia,” Foreign Affairs, June 18, 2020, war-asia.
  30. Blumenthal, “The U.S.-Taiwan Relationship Needs Alliance Management.”
  31. Hal Brands, “Putin’s Struggles in Ukraine May Embolden Xi on Taiwan,” Bloomberg Opinion, April 21, 2022,
  32. Josh Rogin, “Ukraine Needs Better Air Defense Systems, Not More Excuses,” Washington Post, March 31, 2022,
  33. Rogin, “Ukraine Needs Better Air Defense Systems, Not More Excuses.”
  34. American Rhetoric, “General Douglas MacArthur Farwell Speech to Congress,” April 19, 1951, farewelladdress.htm.
Show More