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Honors Project


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This paper examines U.S. policymakers' use of historical memory in the decision-making process during three moments characteized by high tension: the U.S. response to the North's invasion of South Korea in 1950, the U.S.S. Pueblo crisis of 1968, and the successive nuclear standoffs of 1993-1994 and 2002-2003. Using government records and interviews with U.S. officials, I demonstrate how diverse "lessons of history" help constrain the formulation and implementation of some policy options while enabling others by shaping (1) the diplomatic and military options presented to policymakers, (2) policymakers' responses to setbacks on the ground, and (3) the extent of U.S. involvement. I suggest that historical memory is a constitutive part of the decisionmaking environment and a significant part of the internal setting of the decision-making process. I also conclude that the selective use of historical memory (analogical reasoning) in the process outlined above is more acute in time of crisis. In these situations, the decision period is shorter; the search for information is less thorough than during the normal course of events; the degree of urgency is high; and the decisions may be irrevocable. Because accurate intelligence on North Korean intentions has been a serious problem dating back to the Second World War, U.S. policymakers have been obliged to rely on other their cognizance of past North Korean behavior in order to derive policy options and make decisions. If we suppose that policymakers sometimes unconsciously reach for "lessons of history" when confronting situations in which "objective" information is scarce, then the Korea conflict, with all its uncertainties, ought to afford us a way of testing out this assumption.



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