In the current season of the hit series House of Cards, President Francis Underwood and his wife, Claire, who was appointed US ambassador to the UN, dive into foreign policy. One of President Underwood’s primary goals is to form an international coalition, including Russia, that will commit to stationing troops in the Jordan River Valley to promote peace between Israel and Palestine. However, the means they use to accomplish this shows a misunderstanding of historical precedent from George Marshall’s era.
In this season’s third episode, Ambassador Underwood and Secretary of State Catherine Durant become suspicious of Russian intentions and begin to discuss ways to implement President Underwood’s plan without Russian support. Secretary Durant mentions that her preferred method would be to establish a UN peacekeeping force. When Ambassador Underwood questions that method, given the possibility of a Russian veto as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Durant mentions there is precedent to circumvent Russia through the Uniting for Peace Resolution, which Durant says the US employed “to get around the Russians for the Korean War.”
While this makes for a convenient storyline in House of Cards, it is not quite an accurate history of the Korean War, in which George Marshall played a major role. Upon learning of the North Korean invasion into South Korea, the UN Security Council considered resolutions condemning the attack and authorizing the use of force to repel the aggressors. Claire Underwood’s concern was valid. As one of the five permanent members of the Security Council, Russia (or the Soviet Union at the time of the Korean War) does have veto power, and because any decision by the Security Council has to be unanimous among the permanent members, the disagreement by any one of those countries to a resolution would stall any further action. Under normal circumstances, then, the resolutions introduced in the Security Council after the North Korean invasion would never have been able to pass. However, since the Soviet Union was currently boycotting the Security Council and not able to exercise its veto, the resolutions passed in just a few days. So while the UN authorization of the Korean War did require the approval of the Security Council, it did not require the passage of a separate resolution to circumvent the Soviet veto, as the writers of House of Cards stated. Rather, the Soviet Union had removed itself from the debate through its own boycott of the proceedings.
The effects of these resolutions and the status of the fighting in Korea would bring new players, including Marshall, into the story and would lead to the necessity of the Uniting for Peace Resolution. While Marshall was not a member of President Truman’s cabinet at the outbreak of war, he met with numerous government officials who requested his opinions and advice. Recollections of each of these meetings indicate that Marshall urged swift and decisive action. Following these meetings, Marshall wrote to his goddaughter Rose Page Wilson that he was “trembling on the edge” of being called back into public service. Marshall’s prediction came true just a few weeks later, when President Truman nominated him to become the nation’s third secretary of defense.
By the time Marshall became secretary of defense in mid-September 1950, South Korean forces had retreated to the far southeastern corner of the peninsula. The Soviet Union also lifted its boycott of the Security Council, allowing its ambassador to the UN to exercise his veto power again, thus eliminating the possibility of any further substantial action within the Security Council. In order to combat the council’s inaction, the US delegation to the UN, led by Secretary of State Dean Acheson, ushered through the Uniting for Peace Resolution that passed on November 3, 1950. The resolution, which allowed the General Assembly to act in the event of a deadlocked Security Council, was not used until February 1951, when the Security Council was voting to label Communist China as an aggressor in the war. (Communist Chinese troops had begun to intervene in the Korea in the fall of 1950.) Although the resolution has only been officially invoked a handful of times since its adoption in November 1950, it remains in force today.
While House of Cards introduced viewers to an interesting concept that has been used within the UN and could be used in the future, the show clearly takes some artistic license with the actual history of the Korean War and the Uniting for Peace Resolution. Marshall’s role in the Korean War, including his unofficial consultations and his tenure as secretary of defense, will be covered at length in the seventh and final volume of The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, to be published in the spring of 2016.