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A Short History of the Korean War
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2002
When I found this book I did not have much interest in the Korean conflict, but since I enjoyed this author's history of WWII very much, I gave this book a try. I am glad I did. It explained the politics, the negotiations, the battles, some personalities and it was an enjoyable read. After reading this book, I read Henry Kissinger's Diplomacy. (Actually, I'm only about 2/3rds of the way through now. By the way, that is a truly excellent book.) The chapter in that book on the Korean War includes a discussion of the perspectives of the Chinese, Stalin, and N. Korea and the relations between these parties, whereas Stokesbury's book is basically just about the American goals, fears, etc. It is a pity that Stokesbury did not really explore these topics in this book, because it would have added so much more to our understanding of the story. Why did the Chinese get involved?; Could that have been prevented? What role did the Soviet Union play in encouraging the invasion? How did this conflict affect Sino-Soviet relatons? Whose idea was it to invade S. Korea anyway?; etc. Maybe the role of the Korean conflict in the overall containment of communism could also have been explored. Still, a very good book that accomplishes what it sets out to do very well.
The Korean conflict seems so contemporary in a way that earlier American wars do not. Think of N. Korea as Saddam's Iraq and you have a very contemporary story of trying to contain a dangerous rogue state, even if American leaders thought of their job more as containing communism.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on May 8, 1999
"The wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." - General of the Army Omar Bradley
This book is a testament to the fact that historical works need not be a long, dry succession of innumerable statistics and facts. This book reads like a well-written novel, having all the literary elements which captivate a reader: character development, climax of events, and finally resolution. Though one may argue, as the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea was established, if there was any resolution at all in the case of the Korean War. "[T]he cease-fire brought not jubilation, triumph, and ease after toil, but rather a mingled sense of relief and frustration, and unhappy awareness that if things were not going to get worse, neither were they going to get much better," Stokesbury writes.
A "short history" of a war in which casualties on both sides totaled at least three million does not mean that Stokesbury wrote only of the major events of the Korean War. Significant attention is paid to the period between the end of the Second World War and 1950. The stage is set for the beginning of the Korean War by Stokesbury's description of the "state of the world" at the time: "The basic antagonism of [democracy and capitalism in the West and the totalitarian Communists in the Soviet Union] had been submerged by the common danger of Nazi Germany, and the temporary necessity of alliance to defeat Hitler and his
followers in World War II. But once the menace was removed, the old differences surfaced again, and within a tragically short time after 1945, it was obvious that the world had entered on the old and dangerous paths once more."
Under these conditions, Stokesbury argues, the war in Korea was unavoidable. The succession of events and the personalities involved made the war inevitable. In trying to answer the question of whether or not the United States should have intervened in Korea, Stokesbury writes that it is more important to consider whether the U.S. could have avoided intervention, and concludes that the answer is probably no. "In the context of the time, and given the perceptions, preconceptions, and predilections of the men who made the decision, intervention probably could not have been avoided, and probably should not have been avoided. However unpalatable they are, and however many residual doubts they leave, some things just have to be done."
Like pieces on a chessboard, Stokesbury describes with clarity the movements of divisions, regiments, battalions, and even artillery batteries. Many of the chapters are prefaced with a map of the area to be discussed, allowing the reader to "see" the movements of the armies, to feel the tension as the North Korean Army approaches the Pusan perimeter, the last bastion of free Korea, or the despair as Communist Chinese forces flood over the Yalu River and into the conflict to meet already weary American, South Korean, and UN forces.
The amphibious assault on Inchon provides an excellent example of the movement of forces and the coordination and planning that is necessary to conduct an effective operation. For both strategic and psychological reasons, it was necessary to retake Seoul from the North Koreans. Because Seoul is approximately twenty miles inland from the Yellow Sea, the port Inchon was chosen for attack first. As Stokesbury points out, "It happens that the highest tides in the world rush into two similarly shaped bodies, the Bay of Fundy on Canada's east coast, and the Yellow Sea between China and Korea." This means that the tidal range at spring tides is thirty-three feet. Added to this is the fact that these tides create a current of six knots, making for "a navigator's nightmare." There was a small island called Wolmi-do also, from which the enemy could have produced heavy flanking fire following the amphibious assault. Because of the tide fluctuations, the plan was as follows: "Wolmi-do and Inchon had to be first bombarded, then the island taken on a high tide, and then the main landing made on the next high tide." This meant that the troops that took and held Wolmi-do would be isolated for at least twelve hours, an operational nightmare. Bombardment of Wolmi-do first by Marine aircraft, then Navy vessels, turned it into a "burned husk" and resistance was nominal once the landing was made. With the next tide, Inchon was taken. The operation resulted in less than 200 casualties, including 20 deaths. Despite the victory, Stokesbury says, "The major contributors to the victory were surprise and the weakness of the enemy in the area."
At numerous times in the course of the Korean War, the outcome could have been very different indeed. It was essentially a race for the Pusan perimeter: either the fortification of it by UN and American forces, or the utter destruction of it by North Korean forces. And later, a race to gather more troops to meet the growing numbers of Communist Chinese. Furthermore, there was always the looming specter of the direct commitment of Soviet troops to the war.
When the war ended, between 1.25 and 1.5 million Communists were missing, imprisoned, wounded, or killed. U.S. forces' casualties were 33,629 dead, 103,284 wounded, 5,178 prisoners or missing; a total of 142,091. Over 50,000 South Korean soldiers are believed to have been killed.

Stokesbury speaks of an option considered by UN forces early in the war, to stop at the 38th parallel, ending the pursuit of the retreating North Koreans. It is ironic that at the conclusion of the war, the peninsula continued to be divided at the 38th parallel. A division which exists 46 years later.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 3, 2001
James Stokesbury, A Short History of the Korean War was an excellently written book about the Korean War. He managed to bring in all the aspects of the war from political, military, gobal concerderations, and in-fighting in the military. This is not a typical military history book. It is not an in-dept review of the battles of the war. It is more of a review of how the military fought the war. Stokesbury examines why MacArthur was fired, the fighting between the Air Force and the Army. The role of the Navy is not forgotten. He does give MacArthur the credit for the daring Inchon Landing but doesnot forget to point out that he overlooked the obvious signs that China would not allow the United States to occupy North Korea. This is an ideal book for anyone who just wants to know more about the Korean War. It is a quick and enjoyable read for historians. For those individuals who don't enjoy reading boring history books, this is the one for you.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Time line

46 March: Iron Curtain speech by Churchill
46 Fall: Greek Civil War started by Greek communists
47 June: Truman Doctrine/Marshall Plan
47 Winter: Manchuria falls under control of Mao's forces
48 February: Communist coup in Czechoslovakia to prevent govt from accepting Marshall Aid.
48 February: "People's Republic of North Korea" proclaimed
48 June: Berlin blockaded (at a time when only 1 USA division remained in all of Western Europe)
49 April: NATO formed
49 May: Federal republic of Germany proclaimed
50 January: USSR walks out UN Security Council (in protest over not seating Mao over Chiang Kai-shek)

50 June 25: North Korea invades South Korea, with an estimated 135,000 men under arms and between 120 and 150 Russian-made T34 tanks. South Korea on day one of the invasion had 95,000 men. "It had no tanks, few antitank weapons, and no heavy artillery."

What happened next is then thoroughly detailed: how the US intervened; how MacArthur righted the situation and how the situation stabilized. Most of the book concerns the first year of the war, but that's owing to the fact that the front line barely moved between July 1951 and July 1953. (Post-MacArthur, the policy was, in effect, to build a defensive wall and let the commies bang their heads against it until exhaustion and, thus, this period, in some respects, was less dramatic and/or eventful, from a military perspective, than the first year of the war.)

This book is basically thus a military history of the Korean War. And, toward that end, the author actually does a fine job characterizing the strategies of various campaigns; with the relevant details of which army did what, when, and for what goal. It is, moreover, a military history for the general reader, nevertheless. The book is a very manageable 218 pages (258 pages if maps and title pages are counted) and pretty much gives you enough detail on most campaigns, as well as an adequate treatment of General MacArthur and his subsequent dismissal by America's commander in chief at the time.

Why North Korea chose to invade, however, or even why it chose to invade at the time it did are questions pretty much ignored by the author. What did, if anything, the Soviet Union and/or China have to do with this? Interestingly, Stalin only merits 5 mentions in this book. 4 of the mentions are basically asides.

The fifth mention is the only relevant one:

"The precise relationship between the North Korean regime and the Soviet Union remains murky. One authority maintains that Joseph Stalin, appraised of Kim Il Sung's intention to invade South Korea, came back with a "Do it but I don't want to know about it" type of reply. Yet whether it was coincidence or not, the first big break in the logjam came shortly after Stalin's death. This occurred on March 5."

What about the Chinese? How had they affected, or not affected, the start of the war? The author has little to say about the Chinese either. He does point out though that the Chinese shortly thereafter really were running the war. The Korean War, one could easily argue, was not between Koreans, but between the USA and China, although it was started by Koreans (from the North) and stabilized by the south's forces after America was able to check the 400,000 Chinese that came to "the aid of North Korea." Initially the Korean Communists from the North were extremely successful, of course, but then almost were routed by MacArthur's Inchon landing masterstroke and counterattack. Then it became a war between the Chinese on one hand and Americans and Koreans from the south on the other side. In 1951 China had upwards of four hundred thousand soldiers engaged in the war, four times the number of soldiers that North Korea was able to keep in the field, whereas the division between American and Korean forces from the south was approaching 50-50 at around this juncture. To boot, the Chinese had many more forces just north of the Korean border in Manchuria to draw upon through rotations or what have you; from a Manchuria it should be highlighted that was a safe haven. The title Korean War thus is somewhat of a misnomer. Yes, it was a "police action" to be legalistic, but it was far from a war between Koreans, as popular culture seems to think of it as, wherein America bucked up one side to keep it from falling to the other side. If it wasn't for the Chinese there wouldn't be such a sad state as North Korea now and while the Korean War was started by Koreans (from the North) it was in great measure, after the initial period, fought by the Chinese Army. `The War over Korea' would be a more accurate classification of the conflict as this book makes clear, since for most of the time the war was between China on one side with America and Koreans from the South on the other side. (09Aug) Cheers
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 1998
This book by Stokesbury is considerably shorter than his other "Short History"-titles. Again, no pictures. And again, he generally tells the events in a mix of chronological and topic-oriented order.
A fitful account is given on the general state of the political world in which this war was embedded and of which it also was a symptom. The author does not detail his work with accounts of individual battles (except naming the most famous), tactics or technical data. Rather, he hyperpolates these into a general moving of the bombline and - if at all - sticking to corps-size movements. On historical facts that are a matter of debate he never fails to voice and conclude his own opinion, trying to be as objective as possible.
His style of writing is once more enjoyable and very readable, though almost on the verge of being too ironic-humoristic (on convincing the S.Korean president of cooperation: "and finally Rhee agreed to behave, in return for American promises to love, cherish, and support Korea for the foreseeable future" p.248) and casual for the subject of, after all, a war, and sometimes short of being of a primitive beat-em-up hooray-patriotism ("Again they (...) gave the odds to the enemy, and still beat him cold." p.184).
Still, this style serves to let even people who wouldn't read a sole non-fictional account read on this important part of history.
To illustrate this style some quotes:
"The gunners had also been given one-third of all the high-explosive antitank ammunition available in the Far East Command (...) Unfortunately, one-third of the available HEAT ammunition consisted of only six rounds (...)" p.46
"The problem here, which seems to cause armies perpetual surprise, is that casualties are always higher among riflemen than they are among truck drivers and clerks; therefore, any army that engages in combat (...) will soon run low on riflemen" p.60
"(..General McArthur being neither in sympathy with nor entirely understood national foreign policy..) Part of the difficulty arose, certainly, from the fact that the government was not sure itself exactly what its policy was" p.123
A MAJOR fault is, however, that he tells the whole story almost exclusively from an American point of view.
In fact, he becomes so focused on the American view of the war that he not only neglects other nations, especially the Koreans themselves, but makes raw mistakes that I'm sure he wouldn't when reflecting objectively, e.g. he claims F-86 pilot J.Jabarra to have become "the first jet ace in the world" (p.183), totally forgetting that there were actually many before, namely German Me262 pilots of WW II (Buchner, Schuck, Steinhoff etc.pp.).
This may be just a detail, but it is typical for the overall, solely American-minded approach of the author: What have got the topics integration of blacks into the army, McCarthy, the Democratic presidential candidate election or the elaborately covered issue of how the Korean war influenced the US Military for the future DIRECTLY have to do with the Korean war to warrant telling them extensively in favor of the missing precise, factual combat and battle accounts?
This book is unfortunately a little too much a book of american politics and view of the Korean War. As it is written nicely, reading it is not a waste of time, though.
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on August 28, 2012
In the United States, the Korean War is sometimes called "The Forgotten War" because the latter two-thirds of it was spent in stalemate and it occurred between World War II and the Vietnam War, both of which left a huge cultural impact. However, the Korean War was an important military event in the early Cold War and certainly changed the face the Korean peninsula.

In the post-World War II period, Korea, previously under Japanese rule, was split across the 38th parallel with the Soviet Union occupying the northern half and the United States occupying the south. It was supposed to be temporary, but in the new Cold War world, this would not be. The Soviets turned the north into a communist state while the United States supported the rightist president Syngman Rhee in the south.

In June 1950, North Korea invaded and attempted to wipe out South Korea. Because of U.S. policy of leaving South Korea without an unnecessarily powerful military, they were crushed by North Korean forces. The United States and the United Nations reacted. The U.N. Security Council passed resolutions condemning the invasion and called on U.N. member states to join and repel the invasion. South Korean and United States forces would dominate the repel effort.

With the South Koreans stuck in the southeast corner of the peninsula, General Douglas MacArthur thought up of a risky scheme to take over Korea. He concocted the landing at Inchon and allied forces would meet up in the middle. It succeeded fabulously. Then came the decision of where to go from there. North Korea was back across the 38th parallel, but the United States decided not to pass up the opportunity to simply wipe the communist state off the map, or at least leave it severely smaller. So, U.N. forces continued up the peninsula with the goal of the Yalu River. This ended up bringing Communist China into the war. With their support, North Korea again was pushing south below the 38th parallel.

Eventually the front stabilized around the 38th parallel itself. For about the last two years of the three year conflict, the fighting was marked by stalemate. One side might grab some hills only for it to be taken back later. Negotiators attempted to bring the war to an end, but several sticking points, such as voluntary repatriation, caused the talks to drag out for about two years.

Aside from the action on the ground, the book also takes a look at several other aspects of the war. It includes for example how the U.N. was able to dominate control of the seas. There is also discussion about the Korean War in the context of the Cold War, how the politics of the war played out in the United States, and what the international forces looked like.

Eventually, the negotiations, with some compromises, came to an end in July 1953 and with it the war. The effects of Korean War continue to exist today. North Korea is firmly a communist state while South Korea has become a vibrant, capitalist republic.

I found this book to be a very informative and detailed look at the Korean War. I would recommend this book to those interested in military history, Korean or American history, or the Cold War.
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on June 28, 2007
Professor Stokesbury has developed a cottage industry in churning out these short histories of all the major wars. I have not read the others but can without reservation, recommend his Short History of the Korean War.

Stokesbury presents new analysis in several areas. The early part of the book looks at the situation in Korea in 1945 and how the seeds of war were sown. Korea had been a playground for the great powers of Asia for more than a century when it was partioned in 1945, with the Russians taking the North. Ironically the UN forces were almost driven off the peninsula in the summer of 1950 because the Communists had more armor, especially tanks that the UN could not stop.

Next McArthur launched his invasion at Inchon, which Stokesbury describes magically as the general's final great moment, an invasion that he alone could envision and implement. Now the action slows to a halt as various negotiators make no progress for three years until the status quo ante is re-installed and everyone goes home, except the 40,000 UN troops still there 50 years later.

Stokesbury brings to life some little remembered pieces of the action, like the prison riots where the US commandant is briefly taken hostage by his own captives; the political stirrings back home where Eisenhower sweeps to power, partially by promising to go to Korea and end this thing; and the confused state of friend vs. foe that is created when the lines change so dramatically in a short time. As in the USSR in 1945, there were a lot of POW's held by the Allies that did not want to go home, either to Stalin in 1945 or to the North in 1953.

There is a lot in here for us to chew on in 2007 also, as Korea is the closest analog to what is happening now in Iraq. Both were police actions, blessed by the UN, that became more difficult to win than ever envisioned by those who promoted initial involvement. In both Korea and Iraq, the US had few (external) allies, no attractive democratic leadership or traditions, and an enemy with hidden allies (Soviets in Korea and everyone that hates us, here in Iraq).
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 7, 2002
"A Short History of the Korean War" provides the reader with an excellent overview of the War, without becoming bogged down in details. Stokesbury adequately covers all aspects of the war, including political, military, naval, air and the peace negotiations.
The Korean war is portrayed as one into which both sides, essentially, blundered. Numerous American officials had sent the message that Korea lay outside the United States' Asian perimeter of defense. In response to these signals, the Communists took what they thought was an easy pick and were surprised when the U.S. did respond militarily to the invasion.
The pre-war situation in South Korea under the Rhee administration is amply covered. One reason that South Korea was so ill-prepared to respond to the invasion was that the U.S. had deliberately limited the Republic of Korea (ROK) forces because of a fear that President Rhee would launch his own invasion of the North if the ROK was strong enough to do so.
The initial North Korean invasion lead to a rout of South Korean defenders and, initially, the Americans sent to their aid. Ultimately, the build-up of United Nations' Forces, the bombardment of Communist forces by U.N. air power and the limitations of the North Korean supply system saved the U.N. forces from being driven into the sea. The weakness in the Communist supply system was an inability to maintain the supply of the troops once an offensive was begun. When a Communist offensive exhausted its stored supplies it tended to run out of steam. This was the situation at the time of the Inchon landing which lead to the collapse of the North Korean invasion and the U.N. advance to the Yalu.
At this point the U.N. was at a critical juncture. Despite Chinese warnings, the U.N. continued its drive to unite Korea all the way to the Yalu. The unanswered question remains as to whether a more modest advance which occupied some of North Korea, while allowing a remnant North Korea to remain as a buffer between South Korea and China would have permitted the war to have ended much sooner and on terms more satisfactory to the U.N.
Restraint was not the rule of the day and the Chinese did enter the war and, again, threatened to drive the U.N. into the sea. Again, it was U.N. determination and air power which stemmed the tide and allowed the war to degenerate into a stalemate which lead to the commencement of peace talks. Unfortunately, the talks were to drag on for two years while men froze, and bled and died over No Name hills.
Eventually the peace talks became bogged down over the issue of repatriation of POWs. The problem was that many of the Communist POWs did not want to be repatriated to North Korea or Red China. Many, ultimately, were repatriated to South Korea or Nationalist China.
Stokesbury gives the reader an introduction to the role of air and naval power as well as the contributions of other U.N. members. The truth is that about two-thirds of U.N. members contributed to the war effort in some way or another. The political problems arising out of this international effort are also explored.
At the end of this book I felt that I had a good, general understanding of the Korean War and a whetted appetite to read more.
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on March 27, 2011
I was delighted reading Stokesbury's history of the 1st World War. What seemed great, or at least very good about this work was the attempted objectivity of this account. This history of the Korean war however is about as one-sided as can be without becoming propaganda or patriotic fluff. It is an interesting read and certainly represents the American side of events well, but one gets the sense that the whole work could have been written by using State department sources. On one hand the author is a human, "writing what he knows" , but it is a little disappointing to get a chapter on how the Korean war affected US electoral politics and promoted desegregation in the U.S. army, but almost nothing (nothing that I remember) as to how the war effected Chinese or Korean society. There has to be a better general overview of the Korean War than this book, for sure.
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VINE VOICEon May 2, 2014
As the title suggests, this is a short history. It provides a good overview of the Korean War, but I did not find it a terribly engaging read. The brief sketch of MacArthur was good, showing both his genius and his vast flaws. The book really started to drag in the last third or so of the book which deals with the negotiation of the armistice. This period in the war was a constant struggle over minor territory in order to gain advantage at the bargaining table. What is tragic is that people died taking hills with at best arguable result and at worst for no reason.

The flaw of this book is that while the reader gets a sketch of the war, there is little meat to this beyond events. Perhaps this is the nature of a short history. But it does not make for a very satisfying read.
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