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The Korean War: A History (Modern Library Chronicles) [Paperback]

by Bruce Cumings
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

For many, the Korean War is remembered more for Hawkeye and Klinger than General MacArthur and Syngman Rhee. But for Cumings (Korea's Place in the Sun), professor at the University of Chicago, the critical issue is not one of memory, but of understanding. In this devastating work he shows how little the U.S. knew about who it was fighting, why it was fighting, and even how it was fighting. Though the North Koreans had a reputation for viciousness, according to Cumings, U.S. soldiers actually engaged in more civilian massacres (including dropping over half a million tons of bombs and thousands of tons of napalm, more than was dropped on the entire Pacific theatre in World War II, almost indiscriminately). Cumings deftly reveals how Korea was a clear precursor to Vietnam: a divided country, fighting a long anti-colonial war with a committed and underestimated enemy; enter the U.S., efforts go poorly, disillusionment spreads among soldiers, and lies are told at top levels in an attempt to ignore or obfuscate a relentless stream of bad news. For those who like their truth unvarnished, Cumings's history will be a fresh, welcome take on events that seemed to have long been settled. (Aug.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

An academic specialist on Korean history, Cumings believes Americans have amnesia about the Korean War of 1950–53. Or is it the Korean War of 1931 to the present? Cumings goes back that far for an origin to hostilities, seating them in the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and characterizing what happened in June 1950 as an intensification of a Korean civil war, though one definitely escalated by North Korea. These contexts, including the American occupation of South Korea from 1945–48, are more important in Cumings' treatment than the specifically military history of the war, which is dominant in popular American memory of the war. The picture Cumings presents does not flatter American policies, which take hits for supporting a ruthless South Korean government and for destroying North Korean cities. Chronicling atrocities perpetrated by the South, Cummings does not exonerate those committed by the North; the comparison serves his proposition that America intervened in a civil war, to its detriment. Cumings' historical expertise will be highly informative background material for those watching the current explosive potential of the North Korean situation. --Gilbert Taylor --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“A powerful revisionist history . . . a sobering corrective.”—The New York Times

“Worth reading . . . This work raises the question of what Korea can tell us about the outlook for Iraq and Afghanistan.”—Financial Times

“Well-sourced [and] elegantly presented.”—The Wall Street Journal

About the Author

Bruce Cumings is the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor and chair of the Department of History at the University of Chicago, and specializes in modern Korean history and East Asian–American relations.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Chapter One

The Course

of the War

On the very day that President Barack Obama fielded a student's question in Moscow about whether a new Korean War was in the offing (July 7, 2009), the papers were filled with commentary on the death of Robert Strange McNamara. The editors of The New York Times and one of its best columnists, Bob Herbert, condemned McNamara for knowing the Vietnam War was unwinnable yet sending tens of thousands of young Americans to their deaths anyway: "How in God's name did he ever look at himself in the mirror?" Herbert wrote. They all assumed that the war itself was a colossal error. But if McNamara had been able to stabilize South Vietnam and divide the country permanently (say with his "electronic fence"), thousands of our troops would still be there along a DMZ and evil would still reside in Hanoi. McNamara also had a minor planning role in the firebombing of Japanese cities in World War II: "What makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?" he asked; people like himself and Curtis LeMay, the commander of the air attacks, "were behaving as war criminals." McNamara derived these lessons from losing the Vietnam War: we did not know the enemy, we lacked "empathy" (we should have "put ourselves inside their skin and look[ed] at us through their eyes," but we did not); we were blind prisoners of our own assumptions. In Korea we still are.

Korea is an ancient nation, and one of the very few places in the world where territorial boundaries, ethnicity, and language have been consistent for well over a millennium. It sits next to China and was deeply influenced by the Middle Kingdom, but it has always had an independent civilization. Few understand this, but the most observant journalist in the war, Reginald Thompson, put the point exactly: "the thought and law of China is woven into the very texture of Korea . . . as the law of Rome is woven into Britain." The distinction is between the stereotypical judgment that Korea is just "Little China," or nothing more than a transmission belt for Buddhist and Confucian culture flowing into Japan, and a nation and culture as different from Japan or China as Italy or France is from Germany.

Korea also had a social structure that persisted for centuries: during the five hundred years of the last dynasty the vast majority of Koreans were peasants, most of them tenants working land held by one of the world's most tenacious aristocracies. Many were also slaves, a hereditary status from generation to generation. The state squelched merchant activity, so that commerce, and anything resembling the green shoots of a middle class, barely developed. This fundamental condition- a privileged landed class, a mass of peasants, and little leavening in between-lasted through twentieth-century colonialism, too, because after their rule began in 1910 the Japanese found it useful to operate through local landed power. So, amid the crisis of national division, upheaval, and war, Koreans also sought to rectify these ancient inequities. But this aristocracy, known as yangban, did not last so long and survive one crisis after another by being purely exploitative; it fostered a scholar-official elite, a civil service, venerable statecraft, splendid works of art, and a national pastime of educating the young. In the relative openness of the 1920s, young scions proliferated in one profession after another-commerce, industry, publishing, academia, films, literary pursuits, urban consumption-a budding elite that could readily have led an independent Korea. But global depression, war, and ever-increasing Japanese repression in the 1930s destroyed much of this progress, turned many elite Koreans into collaborators, and left few options for patriots besides armed resistance.

Korea was at its modern nadir during the war, yet this is where most of the millions of Americans who served in Korea got their impressions- ones that often depended on where the eye chose to fall. Foreigners and GIs saw dirt and mud and squalor, but Thompson saw villages "of pure enchantment, the tiles of the roofs upcurled at eaves and corners . . . the women [in] bright colours, crimson and the pale pink of watermelon flesh, and vivid emerald green, their bodies wrapped tightly to give them a tubular appearance." Reginald Thompson had been all over the world; most GIs had never been out of their country, or perhaps their hometowns. What his vantage point in 1950 told him, in effect, was this: here was the Vietnam War we came to know before Vietnam-gooks, napalm, rapes, whores, an unreliable ally, a cunning enemy, fundamentally untrained GIs fighting a war their top generals barely understood, fragging of officers, contempt for the know-nothing civilians back home, devilish battles indescribable even to loved ones, press handouts from Gen. Douglas MacArthur's headquarters apparently scripted by comedians or lunatics, an ostensible vision of bringing freedom and liberty to a sordid dictatorship run by servants of Japanese imperialism. "What a Quixotic business," Thompson wrote, trying to impose democracy-to try to achieve "an evolutionary result without evolution." The only outcome of fending off the North, he thought, would be a long occupation if not "conquest and colonization."

The Conventional War Begins

The war Americans know began on the remote, inaccessible Ongjin Peninsula, northwest of Seoul, on the night of June 24-25, 1950, Korean time; this was also the point at which border fighting began in May 1949, and the absence of independent observers has meant that both Korean sides have claimed ever since that they were attacked first. During the long, hot summer of 1949, one pregnant with impending conflict, the ROK had expanded its army to about 100,000 troops, a strength the North did not match until early 1950. American order-of- battle data showed the two armies at about equal strength by June 1950. Early that month, MacArthur's intelligence apparatus identified a total of 74,370 Korean People's Army (KPA) soldiers, with another 20,000 or so in the Border Constabulary. The Republic of Korea Army (ROKA) order of battle showed a total of 87,500 soldiers, with 32,500 soldiers at the border, 35,000 within thirty-five miles, or a day's march, of the 38th parallel. This data did not account for the superior battle experience of the northern army, however, especially among the large contingents that had returned from the Chinese civil war. The North also had about 150 Soviet T-34 tanks and a small but useful air force of 70 fighters and 62 light bombers-either left behind when Soviet troops evacuated in December 1948, or purchased from Moscow and Beijing in 1949-50 (when war bond drives ensued for months in the North). Only about 20,000 South Korean troops remained in the more distant interior. This was the result of a significant redeployment northward toward the parallel in the early months of 1950, after the southern guerrillas appeared to have been crushed. The northern army had also redeployed southward in May and June 1950, but many KPA units-at least one third-were not aware of the impending invasion and thus were not mobilized to fight on June 25. Furthermore, thousands of Korean troops were still fighting in China at this time.

Just one week before the invasion John Foster Dulles visited Seoul and the 38th parallel. By then he was a roving ambassador and, as the odds- on Republican choice for secretary of state, a symbol of Harry Truman's attempt at bipartisanship after Republicans opened up on him with the "who lost China?" campaign. In meetings with Syngman Rhee the latter not only pushed for a direct American defense of the ROK, but advocated an attack on the North. One of Dulles's favorite reporters, William Mathews, was there and wrote just after Dulles's meeting that Rhee was "militantly for the unification of Korea. Openly says it must be brought about soon . . . Rhee pleads justice of going into North country. Thinks it could succeed in a few days . . . if he can do it with our help, he will do it." Mathews noted that Rhee said he would attack even if "it brought on a general war." All this is yet more proof of Rhee's provocative behavior, but it is no different from his threats to march north made many times before. The Dulles visit was merely vintage Rhee: there is no evidence that Dulles was in collusion with him. But what might the North Koreans have thought?

That is the question a historian put to Dean Acheson, Truman's secretary of state, in a seminar after the Korean War: "Are you sure his presence didn't provoke the attack, Dean? There has been comment about that-I don't think it did. You have no views on the subject?" Acheson's deadpan response: "No, I have no views on the subject." George Kennan then interjected, "There is a comical aspect to this, because the visits of these people over there, and their peering over outposts with binoculars at the Soviet people, I think must have led the Soviets to think that we were on to their plan and caused them considerable perturbation."

"Yes," Acheson said. "Foster up in a bunker with a homburg on-it was a very amusing picture." Pyongyang has never tired of waving that photo around.

At the same time, the veteran industrialist Pak Hung-sik showed up in Tokyo and gave an interview to The Oriental Economist, published on June 24, 1950-the day before the war started. Described as an adviser to the Korean Economic Mission (that is, the Marshall Plan), he was also said to have "a circle of friends and acquaintances among the Japanese" (a bit of an understatement; Pak was widely thought in South and North to have been the most notorious collaborator with Japanese imperialism). In the years after liberation in 1945 a lot of anti- Japanese feeling had welled up in Korea, Pak said, owing to the return of "numerous revolutionists and nationalists." By 1950, however, there was "hardly any trace of it." Instead, the ROK was "acting as a bulwark of peace" at the 38th parallel, and "the central figures in charge of national defense are mostly graduates of the former Military College of Ja...
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