Did Dean Acheson give Moscow a "green light" for the invasion of South Korea by an unguarded and extemporaneous remark? Did he thereby launch the United States into a long and costly war which otherwise might have been avoided?
His critics say yes, his defenders no. One cannot be quite sure which is correct. The facts are as follows:
The then secretary of state made a speech at the National Press Club in Washington on Jan. 12. 1950. During the question period afterwards he was asked whether South Korea was inside the US defense perimeter in the Far East. The answer was no. The perimeter did not include South Korea.
The answer was factually correct. US combat troops had been withdrawn during 1949. None was left inside South Korea to defend it by the time Mr. Acheson was asked the question. But it was also the first time a high official in Washington has confirmed publicly and officially that the US did not intend to defend South Korea. On June 25, six months later, the North Koreans invaded South Korea.
That episode remains a lesson in how dangerous offhand remarks can be. President Reagan and the State Department were busy during this past weekend trying to get out from under the apparent results of similar offhand remarks.
On March 26, in a television interview, Richard Allen, head of the National Security Council staff at the White House, made two statements on the subject of the Middle East which departed from previous official US policy. He said, "We must identify the PLO as a terrorist organization." And he said that Israeli military actions taken against PLO units in Lebanon were "hot pursuit of a sort" and were "therefore justifiable."
Previously official US policy had protested against Israeli forays into Lebanon, and also protested against use of American weapons in such forays on the ground that the weapons had been given the Israelis solely for defense, not the offensive action outside of Israel. US policy had not previously branded PLO forces as "terrorist."
On April 6, US Secretary of State Alexander Haig applied the word "brutality" to military action which the Syrians were then taking against Lebanese Phalangist militia operating in and near the strategic city of Zahle.
Zahle lies six miles from the main supply road from Damascus to the Syrian forces in Lebanon and about 10 miles from Riyaq, headquarters for the Syrian forces in Lebanon and also the site of the main Syrian air base in Lebanon. Had Zahle been consolidated by the Phalangists, the Syrian military position in Lebanon might have been made untenable.
General Haig's stricture on Syrian action against Phalangist guerrillas who have been receiving support from Israel was made after two days of talks in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. The combination of the Allen and Haig remarks seemed to imply that Washington had decided to change policy, cease restraining Israeli actions against the Syrians who are in Lebanon under a mandate from the Arab League.
Following the Allen and Haig remarks Israeli generals said their forces were "on the offensive" in Lebanon. Action was stepped up against PLO forces in southern Lebanon. On April 28 Israeli jets flew over th Zahle-Riyaq area in central Lebanon and shot down two Syrian helicopters which were operating in support of Syrian ground forces pushing the Phalangists out of the Zahle area. Prime Minister Begin declared from Jerusalem that Israel would not allow Syria to wipe out the "Christians." Many, not all, of Phalangists are Christians.
That act of shooting down two Syrian planes sent a shock wave around the world. The Syrians promptly moved several batteries of Soviet-built SAM 6 ground-to-air-missiles into the Zahle-Riyaq area. King Khalid of Saudi Arabia was reported to have said his country would support Syria in a war between Syria and Israel. UN Secretary General Kurt Waldheim rushed to Washington for urgent talks with both Secretary of State Haig and President Reagan.
The next day, April 29, State Department spokesman Dean Fischer stated, "I want to make it officially clear that the US has not give Israel a green light to undertake any military actions in Lebanon."
Meanwhile the US ambassador to Israel had called on Mr. Begin. Following the call, Mr. Begin stated that Israel did not want a war with Syria.
Saudi Arabia has been Washington's best Arab friend and best oil supplier in the Middle East. Had Israel escalated its operations against Syria it seems probable that Syria would have sided against both Israel and US policy in the Middle East. The West European allies would probably have broken wit h the US on the issue and sided with Syria.
Careless words can turn into dangerous "green lights."