Bad old days, whenever there was a change of...


May 17, 1993

IN THE bad old days, whenever there was a change of leadership in the Soviet Union, its history got rewritten. Now that the Soviet Union is no more, and its archives are being opened up both to Russian and foreign researchers, other nations are having to revise some of their own histories.

A recent example, reported by Jon Halliday in the Far Eastern Economic Review, concerns the level of Soviet involvement in the Korean War. It was generally known at the time that Soviet pilots were patrolling the skies over North Korea and probably had fought dog fights with U.S. aircraft. However, the extent of the air war between the two superpowers is just coming to light.

Perhaps as many as 150 Soviet MiG15s, then their best fighter aircraft, were based in China and flew with Chinese markings. Over a two-year period they may have been responsible for as many as 1,000 American deaths. A former Soviet air commander admits to the loss of 345 planes and 200 pilots, according to Mr. Halliday, a British scholar.

Why was the air war kept a secret? Both the U.S. and Soviet military knew what was going on, as did the political leadership in both countries. Only their citizens, and troops not directly involved, were kept in the dark.

The answer, Mr. Halliday reports, was that neither government wanted to escalate the conflict into a direct war between the nuclear-armed superpowers. He quotes Paul Nitze, then a State Department official and later a principal U.S. arms control negotiator, as explaining that "if we publicized the facts, the public would expect us to do something about it, and the last thing we wanted was for the war to spread to more serious conflict with the Soviets."

What Mr. Nitze called at the time a "fig leaf" was initially the idea of the Soviet leader Josef Stalin. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations colluded with him in another of those dirty little secrets that force historians into what used to be called revisionism.

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