Memory and Moral Awareness in Korea

''FORGETFULNESS is the way to exile,'' the legend reads at Yad Vashem. ''Remembrance is the way to redemption.'' Yad Vashem is the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, and today is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Jews everywhere pause to think of the Six Million, and in Israel itself everything stops for a long moment of silence. If Jews have a reason to remember what happened in the heart of Europe between 1933 and 1945, how much more so do non-Jews. Remembrance can advance narrow agendas -- revenge, exceptionalism, victimhood, guilt -- but remembrance can also lead to understanding and change. Memory is a main source of moral awareness, a way of finally coming to terms with what we do without meaning to, a way of facing the truth that even apparently virtuous action can be grounded in prejudice or selfishness. More than that, memory as moral reflection can offer, in the political philosopher Hannah Arendt's phrase, ''the possible redemption from the predicament of irreversibility.''

In relation to the Holocaust, this means that non-Jews remember that greatest of moral failures in order to grasp the full meaning of the anti-Semitism that led to it. The point of doing that, of course, is to repent of such prejudice and to root out its sources. Remembrance is thus an offer of freedom from the tyranny not only of the past but of the present: Things need not be what they are. Moral memory creates a better future.

The permanent relevance of this way of thinking becomes clear when we apply it to the looming conflict between the United States and North Korea. This is not to make comparisons with the Holocaust but rather to learn from the mode of moral awareness that the Holocaust makes possible.

As the confrontation between Washington and Pyongyang escalates, achieving ''redemption from the predicament of irreversibility'' takes on a global urgency. Americans owe it to the near and far future to remember that this conflict originated as a Cold War proxy fight between the United States and the Soviet Union -- a brutal explosion of misunderstanding and miscalculation for which both sides bore responsibility.

Unfolding between 1950 and 1953, the Korean War reinforced the worst impulses of America's belligerent insecurity. It drove the development of the H-bomb and made decision makers deaf to the pleas of scientists like Robert J. Oppenheimer, who wanted to stop it. That Oppenheimer was then himself a Red Scare scapegoat defines the extent of the tragedy, for the Korean War was waged at home, too. It piqued the fever of the anti-Communist paranoia that blinded American policy makers for a generation, leading not only to Vietnam but to a decades-long misperception of Soviet intentions and capabilities.

When Dwight D. Eisenhower became president in January 1953, he escalated the rhetoric of threat in a way that fixed the Cold War as a permanent feature of international relations. When Stalin died that March, Eisenhower refused an opening offered by the new Soviet leader, Georgi Malenkov. Instead, Ike conveyed his readiness to resolve the Korean conflict by using nuclear weapons -- ''without inhibition in our use of weapons'' is the phrase he used in his memoirs -- so that when the Chinese and Soviets finally did agree to a truce that July, Washington could miss the signal that a post-Stalin communism would be different.

Assuming that Moscow and Beijing had bowed before the threat of nuclear war, Washington took their yielding as confirmation of its deadly choice to build American influence around the bomb. That justified a shocking growth in US dependence on nuclear weapons, the significance of which has been made clear to me by writers like John Steinbrunner, James T. Patterson, and Janne E. Nolan. In 1950, the United States possessed about 250 nukes; a decade later that figure had mushroomed to something like 10,000. Moral memory requires us to recognize that growth itself as the central failure of America's response to the Cold War.

Now the bomb is the point of conflict between the United States and North Korea. If Americans had done a better job of reckoning with the moral legacy of our own nuclear dependency, we would see more clearly how Pyongyang's unacceptable nuclear agenda originates in Washington. US officials would be less moralistic, and all Americans would grasp the tragedy of our post-Cold War renewal of dependence on the nuclear arsenal.

None of this is to exempt from judgment the corrupt tyranny that presides over North Korea. Nor is it to downplay the threat represented by North Korean nuclear blackmail. But the conflict between Washington and Pyongyang is by no means a simple matter of good versus evil. The present danger springs from America's actions as much as from North Korea's, and only a full reckoning with the blind foolishness of that past, however well intentioned it was, can prepare for a different, wiser future.

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