52 of 56 people found the following review helpful
This is a useful introduction to the Korean War. This is not a conventional military history and anyone looking for a conventional military history will be disappointed. Cumings, a leading expert on modern Korean history, is primarily interested in debunking common American myths about the Korean war. The book is organized as a series of essays on aspects of the Korean war. Topics covered include the ultimate genesis of the war as a civil conflict between Korean clients of the Japanese imperium and anti-colonial insurgents, the essentially arbitrary post-WWII division of Korea, the nature of the American occupation and direct rule of Korea, the efforts of the US to rollback Communism in the Korean peninsula, the remarkably brutal nature of the conflict - including our use of saturation bombing, and the last consequences of the war for both Korea and the USA.
Cuming's analysis is that the War was an essentially unavoidable civil conflict between Koreans who has been Japanese clients, and who became our clients, and anti-Japanese Korean insurgents allied with the Chinese Communists. Like many local-regional conflicts of the Cold War, the local issues became entangled in the East-West rivalry, greatly exacerbating the conflict. As Cumings points out, the war was started by the North Koreans led by Kim Il Sung but against the background of constant conflict between the Northern and Southern regimes, and given the resources (approval of the US), the Rhee regime in the South would have happily struck first. Cumings devotes quite a few pages to the many, many crimes of the Korean war. As is typical of civil wars, there were enormous atrocities committed by both sides. Partly because of the debunking intent of this book, and partly, I suspect, because documentation is better, there is more discussion of the crimes committed by the South Korean regime. Cumings also discusses US atrocities, and probably more important, the remarkably intense bombing campaign conducted by the US. Cumings emphasizes the centrality of Korea to this phase of Cold War diplomacy. This includes the American tendency to see Korea as an economic adjunct of Japan, a point appreciated quite well by many nationalist Koreans, and the way in which the Korean conflict contributed to the formation of the national security state we still live with. The consequences for Korea were just as great, including the establishment of the authoritarian South Korean state and what Cumings describes nicely as the nationalist monarchy of the North, a garrison state with few peers in recent history.
While there is a lot of useful information and analysis in this book, the format and manner of presentation are less than optimal. The individual chapters are somewhat overlapping essays. Cumings has written each of these sections in a somewhat self-consciously literary style which sometimes impairs readability. In addition, Cumings presents some important arguments in pieces in different chapters, which degrades the quality of his analysis. The discussion of the American tendency to see Korea as a economic adjunct of Japan is an example. Some of the writing has an almost angry tone; Cumings is clearly frustrated by American ignorance of Korea and its history. I think Cumings would have done better to use a more conventional narrative structure and adopt a more neutral voice in this book. There are also, I think, a few errors of interpretation. Cumings, for example, contrasts the limited containment policy advocated by George Kennan with the rollback advocated by Dean Acheson. Kennan, however, was an advocate of rollback at one point in his career.
I have to comment on some of the more negative reviews of this book. This is not a "far-left" view of the war. The civil nature of the Korean conflict, the authoritarian nature and brutal behavior of our Korean clients, the excessive nature of the American bombing campaign, and our primary interest in securing Japanese security, are not arguable points. Nor is Cumings an apologist for North Korea. Cumings own ideological orientation is probably revealed best by the fact that this book is dedicated to the late Kim Dae Jung, the courageous pro-democracy politician who was nearly killed by the authoritarian South Korean regime we supported.
93 of 110 people found the following review helpful
on September 5, 2010
My only gripe with this book is that its title "The Korean War" is misleading. "Essays on the Korean War in Korean and American Memory" would have been a more apt, but maybe less marketable, title. Thus, interested readers looking for a quick, up-to-date narrative of the period of combat involving the United States (1950-1953) might feel disappointed. I hope they will still read this literally eye opening book. After all, there is David Halberstam's recent opus magnum "The Longest Winter" that covers the "conventional" Korean War.
Professor Cumings--who has travelled in Korea and studied its history extensively over more than four decades--dispenses with the traditional story in chapter one and then moves on to uncover the dark sides of the conflict--covered up in Korea and repressed in America for decades. He explores the beginning of the conflict in the brutal Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century, which created fierce guerilla resistance fighters (many of whom would fight for the North in 1950) but also collaboration among the economic and military elite (many of whom would become "our guys" in the South after World War II). He discusses the brutal violence used by corrupt southern leaders to suppress dissent BEFORE 1950, the merciless American air war, which employed napalm, against civilians, the massacres committed on POWs and civilians by both sides, and other topics most Americans never heard of back then and would prefer not to hear about now. After all, this was one of America's "good wars," even for most liberal commentators. Yet ignoring this history, as Cumings forcefully argues, prolongs the terrible traumas the war inflicted among all participants, and it makes it impossible to understand what is currently going on in Korea.
The book is full of revelations. I know a good deal about U.S. cold war policies, but had no idea that at least 100,000 south Koreans had been killed in brutal counterinsurgency operations by southern leaders--with American assistance--before 1950. That president Truman had actually signed the order to use nuclear weapons in April 1951 (Chinese restraint might have saved the world from nuclear war). That some of the worst Korean war criminals (and their families) who had collaborated with the Japanese regime ended up holding elite positions in South Korea for decades. That the Pentagon actively suppressed evidence of American war crimes and today refuses to pay compensation to the victims who are still alive...
Lastly, Cumings gives the Korean War the central place in recent U.S. and world history it deserves. He argues that it was the Korean War that created containment as it would be practiced outside Western Europe for the rest of the cold war and beyond (picking sides in postcolonial wars, controlling development by forcefully incorporating areas into the western economic orbit, justifying policies with anti-communism whether applicable or not). He confirms the judgment of other historians that it was Korea that sparked the national security state of permanent preparedness and the creation of what Chalmers Johnson has called an empire of bases.
The book reads less like a monograph than a series of essays. Cumings pulls no punches when criticizing American complacency and misjudgments, and he frequently inserts himself into the narrative. This is frankly a book for people who already know the basic conventional story and might be open to ponder its implications and neglected sides. Contrary to what some critics (who clearly have not read the book) have charged, Cumings not once excuses the violence, political persecutions, or cult of personality in North Korea. I kept track of how often he criticizes the North Korean regime and found him even-handed throughout the book. His acerbic criticism of U.S. attitudes toward Korea might be hard to swallow for some "patriotic" readers, but Professor Cumings knows his stuff.
One can disagree with his interpretation of details, but his central argument--that American leaders intervened in a civil war they did not understand on behalf of people they did not care about--is hard to refute. Powerful, even moving, history.
98 of 129 people found the following review helpful
on October 16, 2010
It is only fair to start by saying that this book was not as bad as I expected, despite its serious shortcomings. On the positive side, it seems that Professor Cumings has largely, though belatedly and grudgingly, come to terms with the appalling nature of the North Korean regime. Also, there are certainly things that I agree with that may surprise many Americans for whom the Korean War came out of the blue on June 25, 1950. I made many of the same points in a lecture on the Korean War's role in US foreign policy at the Citadel in Charleston in 2008. They include:
o The war had its distant origins in the 1930's in the political struggle among Koreans, mostly in exile in Manchuria, China and the US, to determine the shape of a future independent Korea. (But it is inaccurate to say that the Korean War started then.)
o The US occupation (1945-48) was headed by John Hodge, an honest and brave general who was completely unprepared for the political complexities of southern Korea. Hodge gravitated toward the most conservative Koreans and seemed to believe that all the rest were communists, when the actual situation was far more complicated. (After I gave my lecture, I learned from the Russian scholar Andrei Lankov that the Soviet occupation of the North was every bit as unplanned and ad hoc as ours was.)
o The conflict began in earnest from 1948 with the formation of the ROK in the South and the DPRK in the North. There followed many North-South military clashes along the 38th Parallel, then just a line on the map, totally unlike the present Demilitarized Zone. Some were battalion-sized battles.
o Before the North Korean invasion of June 25, 1950, there was horrendous violence in Korea, mainly in the South, with bloody guerrilla fighting that may have cost up to 100,000 Korean lives. Most, but not all, of the Southern guerrilla operations were supported by North Korea. The Rhee regime's successful suppression of these uprisings was extremely brutal, but its very success probably was the chief impetus for Kim's 1950 invasion. (Cumings makes the amazing assertion - on no apparent evidence - that Kim Il Sung's primary motivation in invading the South was to "settle the hash" of South Korean officers who had served the Japanese. Certainly, the Soviet officers who planned his invasion believed the objective was to ensure that Kim could rule an undivided Korea.)
o For the US, the Korean War, as a hot war within the Cold War, helped trigger the heavily militarized "national security state," that we still live in today. It also made inevitable our involvement in the Viet Nam War (the Second Indochina War), in which I served as a soldier for two and a half years between 1968 and 1972. But looking at the world of June 1950 through contemporary American eyes, it is no surprise that Truman and Acheson made the decisions that they did.
Cumings renders harsh judgments on the US conduct of the war, some of which are arguable. He sees the air war from a very different perspective than most American writers. While they tend to focus on US fighter pilots in MiG Alley, Cumings emphasizes the devastating bombing campaign, which obliterated North Korea many times over. The US planners applied the tactics they had just perfected against Japan and Germany in the much more confined space of North Korea. The result was horrifying and in the calm light of academic hindsight, more than was militarily necessary. In this and other books and documentaries, Cumings has complained about the "Hudson Harbor" campaign flown by lone B-29s to make North Korean leaders think we would use atomic bombs against them. I'm not sure why he objects to psychological warfare against Kim Il-Sung, unless he just doesn't like the idea of disconcerting one's foes in wartime.
Because Professor Cumings's government experience was limited to just six months in the Peace Corps (out of a two-year commitment) in Korea in the late 1960's, he seems to believe that the US Government is able to make detailed and Machiavellian plans and execute them flawlessly. Those of us with much more experience in government only wish that were true. The reality is that US officials make decisions in crises with imperfect knowledge of the situation. Cumings sees Acheson as a spider at the center of his web, making key initial war decisions without reference to Truman. Almost all sources say that Acheson was in close touch with Truman that June weekend while Truman was in Missouri. Besides, Acheson was following the Truman Doctrine the President had enunciated in 1947: "I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." He knew Truman's mind.
For decades, Cumings has been obsessive about the point that North Korea's legitimacy derives from the long-ago struggle against Japan. It is important to know that North Korea was founded by guerrillas who were chased all over Manchuria by the Japanese 80 years ago, but that has zero nutritional value for today's North Korean population. North Korea is a stultified Confucian communist monarchy with an appalling human rights record and an economy wrecked by decades of willful ideological mismanagement, including the cost of a bloated military force. In 1788, Count de Mirabeau said "Prussia is not a country that has an army; it is an army that has a country." O'Neill's Corollary to Mirabeau's Observation is: "The same is true of North Korea." Kim Jong-Il apparently agrees, since he has made "military-first politics" (son-gun jong-chi) the basis of his rule.
This intense militarization of North Korea is not traditionally Korean: indeed, it is more like Imperial Japan - the same Japan that Kim Il-Sung fought against. The Kim personality cult and dynasty - now heading for the third generation - also recall the Japanese Imperial system. Is this Cumings's idea of a model for the 21st century?
It is easy for Cumings to attack South Koreans like Park Chung-Hee and General Paik Sun-Yup (Paik's preferred transliteration; not Son-Yop as Cumings has it) for serving as Japanese officers. But he glosses over the fact that Kim Il-Sung and his guerrilla comrades arrived in northern Korea in 1945 as Soviet Army officers, who had earlier served in Chinese Communist units. Thus, Kim and his cohort had served the two losers in the three-way battle for control of Korea that Japan had won by 1905. Was that better?
One of my biggest problems with this book is what I would call spurious or absent footnoting: Cumings makes some assertions that demand footnotes, but they are not always to be found. In other cases, he makes assertions and footnotes them, but the footnote doesn't fully address his claim. This is a serious lapse for the chairman of a history department at an important university.
I'll just give two examples. On page 34, he writes "formerly secret materials illustrate that in May and June 1953, the Eisenhower administration sought to show it would stop at nothing to bring the war to a close." There's no footnote. Some footnotes don't match the cited material. On page 197, Cumings asserts that rapes of Koreans by US military personnel frequently go unpunished (in the present), yet the footnote cites some State Department documents from long ago, attributed to Callum MacDonald's "Korea: the War Before Vietnam" (1986). The cited pages in MacDonald's book describe no such documents. Anyway, Cumings's assertion is untrue. Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), a credible charge of rape (or murder or robbery) by a GI against a Korean is tried in the Korean court system.
The penultimate sentence in the book reads "In the aftermath of war, two Korean states competed toe-to-toe in economic development, turning both of them into modern industrial nations." Really? The South has a one trillion dollar economy, the 14th largest in the world and the other's annual foreign trade equals about 48 hours' worth of ROK foreign trade. That one sentence says a lot about Cumings's approach to the peninsula's tortured modern history.
The South, which only surpassed the North in GDP in the mid-1970's, has a deeply rooted democracy and a capitalist economy which was resilient enough to bounce quickly back from the 1997 Asian financial crisis and the recent world recession, a country that has demonstrated international leadership in countless ways - including restraint at frequent North Korean outrages. North Korea is essentially a dangerous blot on the Asian map - a Zimbabwe with a nuclear weapons program.
One of Cumings's favorite words is "solipsism," which could easily be applied to himself. His arch and self-absorbed writing style will not gain a wide audience among the Americans for whom he says he was writing. I have given the book two stars for its facts but none for Cumings's interpretation.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 14, 2015
While reading through the reviews of Bruce Cummings "The Korean War" I noticed more than one reviewer complain that Cummings book isn't a history of the war. Up to a point they are right, it is not a conventional history of that war beyond the first thirty-seven pages of two hundred and forty-three that narrate the actions of leaders and armies from beginning to end of the "war". But it only takes a moment of reflection to realise that the remainder of the book is as valid a part of the history of that war.
Cummings places the war of 1950-53 firmly in its historical context, making it clear that there had in essence been conflict going back decades in Korea, exacerbated by the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, and between those who collaborated with the Japanese and those who didn't. To an extent this division was also class based. He also disabuses the reader of any notion that South Korea was a land of peace and tranquillity prior to the war, insurrections were endemic and the South Korean regimes response were extremely brutal. The background detail on the two regimes that formed when the U.S. artificially split Korea in 1945 is useful in so far as it diminishes assumptions based on the current state of North & South Korea.
Other issues dealt with include a fresh look at how the war started, the role of foreign powers (of whom the U.S. followed by the Chinese were the most important), the question of U.S.'s possible use of nuclear weapons, the role the war played in the origin of the Military-Industrial complex, attrocities (Cummings claims the U.S. & South Korean forces were responsible for roughly six times more attrocities than the Chinese & North Korean forces), how both sides viewed one another, and how memories of the war have effected all sides (not least the North where the War and their previous experience with Japanese Imperialism provide historical justification for the regime).
This is a fascinating book, and in my opinion gains more than it loses for not being a chronological account of the movements of armies and the decisions of generals and political leaders. Instead its thoughtful analysis, and multifaceted approach serve to give the reader a richer view of a war that in the West has largely been eclipsed by the Second World War that preceded it and the War in Vietnam which was the next Asian country to feel the effects of U.S. military intervention. "The Korean War" is a book I wouldn't hesitate to recommend.
48 of 67 people found the following review helpful
on August 4, 2010
Other reviewers seem caught up in the harsh light this book puts on some US policies during the KW. Cumings is no hack, but the respected chair of the history department at the University of Chicago. I had previously read his definitive 2 volume "The Origins of the Korean War" and looked forward to this addition. I wasn't disappointed. You'll note that the critics don't (can't?)find fault with his scholarship and point to not one single factual error. (I found a couple but they were minor details that were not material to the overall narrative). To suggest that one read the journalist Izzy Stone's contemporaneous scribblings about the war as a alternative is silly. That type of journalistic effort has real value, but should never be considered a substitute for a well researched history of the topic. That said, this is not nor is it intended to be a complete and exhaustive history of the War. What it does successfully, is detail the important events that lead up to the war as well as paint a gray rather than black & white picture of how each side conducted themselves. Cumings is the preeminent scholar of this period and his frustration with the myths and outright distortions that exist about this war and the US involvement show through in his prose at times. The importance of Korean feelings about Japan is an important component of this work from the standpoint of what is little understood in the US. War is always ugly and books like this are a helpful reminder of those costs.
12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
If this book were a college course, it would NOT be Korean War 101. It would be an advanced course, perhaps even a graduate level course. That is not because the book is particularly difficult to read, but rather because it requires basic familiarity with the Korean War - or at least the conventional (American) understanding of the Korean War. Then this book proceeds to dismantle that conventional understanding.
Bruce Cumings is a professor at the University of Chicago. He worked in Korea in the Peace Corps, and he now is one of the country's preeminent scholars of modern Korean history. He brings to THE KOREAN WAR: A HISTORY a lifetime of scholarship on Korea. He also brings to it a critical, sometimes acerbic, view of U.S. policies in and towards Korea since 1945 (which accounts, I think, for the fact that one-third of the Amazon reviewers give it only one star). I found that occasionally he does go needlessly out of his way to cast snide aspersions, but overall I was persuaded by the majority of his criticisms and his "revisionism". But we Americans tend to suppress Korea from our historical consciousness, and where that is not possible we favor as warm and fuzzy a narrative as possible, so honest efforts to arrive at the truth, even if perhaps a little flawed and less than tactful, are not well received. The back cover of the book bills it as "a bracing account of a war that is either misunderstood, forgotten, or willfully ignored." An apt summary, in my opinion.
The most important point of Cumings's account is that the roots of the Korean War lay not so much in the global Cold War as in Korean history, especially the occupation of the peninsula by the Japanese, beginning in 1910 when Japan annexed Korea as a colony. Kim Il Sung, the long-time leader of North Korea, was demonized here in the U.S. as a wooden Communist puppet, but going back to the early 1930's he had been a fierce and heroic guerilla-leader in the anti-Japanese "Resistance." After the dust of WWII settled, what Kim Il Sung most wanted was an independent Korean nation, and what he feared and detested most about what was going on in South Korea, with the sponsorship of the U.S., was the accession to power of former Japanese collaborators and the continuation of policies of expropriation and oppression vis-à-vis the peasants. For Kim Il Sung and North Korea, "after every other characteristic attached to [the] regime--Communist, nationalist, rogue state, evil enemy--it was first of all, and above all else, an anti-Japanese entity." And the Korean War was at bottom a Civil War, rather than a far-flung hot-spot in a global "Cold War".
Indeed, as the book brings home, the 38th parallel was rankly arbitrary and artificial. The day after Nagasaki, John J. McCloy asked Dean Rusk to find a way to divide Korea for the purposes of accepting the surrender of Japanese armed forces, as between the Russians, who were invading the peninsula from the north, and the Americans, which were not yet on the ground. Without consulting anyone, least of all any Koreans, Rusk settled on the 38th parallel -- in large part because that would put in the southern (American) zone the highly centralized capital in Seoul. Five years later, when the North attacked across that imaginary line, why was it "aggression across an international boundary", as opposed to a movement in force in a civil war (no different than the Union Army crossing the Potomac into Virginia)? But if indeed North Korea's attack across the 38th parallel in June 1950 was an invasion across an international boundary, why then didn't that concept also apply to the broad-scale military incursion northward by South Korean and American forces in October 1950?
The Korean War was an "appallingly dirty" war, "with a sordid history of civilian slaughters." Conventional American history now acknowledges that fact in its generality, but it does not recognize that its protégé in the South was far worse in this regard than were the North Koreans. By the end of the War, the North Koreans and Chinese reportedly had killed almost 30,000 civilians and POWs. The corresponding figure slaughtered by the South Korean regime - approximately 100,000. With the outbreak of the War and the influx of journalists from around the world, outrage over the magnitude of the South's atrocities became so great that, beginning in January 1951, the U.S. imposed censorship. "Criticism of allies and allied troops was prohibited--`any derogatory comments' met the censor's black brush." Philip Knightly, in his book, "The First Casualty" (the title alludes to the epigram that "the first casualty in war is truth"), thought that American reporters were the most cowed and, therefore, the most useless.
Nor does conventional American history recognize that American forces were themselves perpetrators of some heinous atrocities, the worst apparently being at Nogun-Ri. Some instances of American barbarism, including the shooting of children, actually were reported in mainstream media such as "Life" (August 21, 1950 issue) before the censor's curtain dropped in January 1951. It was not until 1999 that "The New York Times" published stories about the massacre at Nogun-Ri - by which time the Korean War had become the forgotten war and there was very little chance of Nogun-Ri becoming another My Lai. Another aspect of the Korean War that we similarly have airbrushed from our historical consciousness is our prolonged and brutal campaign of carpet-bombing. General MacArthur had wanted to use nuclear bombs; his successor, General Ridgway, wanted bigger and better napalm bombs to, in his words, "wipe out all life in tactical locality". Napalm bombing, of course, became controversial in the Vietnam War, but "oceans of it were dropped on Korea * * * with much more devastating effect."
Cumings writes, "The Korean War is an unknown war because it transpired during the height of the McCarthy era (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were indicted when the war began and executed just before it ended), making open inquiry and citizen dissent improbable." Six decades later, open inquiry into the War is way past due. And THE KOREAN WAR: A HISTORY is a major effort in that regard.
P.S.: If you don't already have a basic familiarity with the Korean War, my recommendation is to read "The Korean War", by Max Hastings (which I have separately reviewed on Amazon). Cumings makes a few snide remarks about Hastings's book, but he is even more critical of Donald Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter", despite his admiration for the author.
96 of 137 people found the following review helpful
on August 18, 2010
Bruce Cumings made his name in the 1980s, when he was one of the very few people writing in the English language writing on Korean history, and at one time was probably the leading American scholar in the field. With the opening of the Soviet archives, however, much of his work on the origins of the Korean War was discredited. Cumings could have revised his views, or he could have just dropped that part of his work and focused on the rest of Korean history, but instead he has written a series of ever-more strident, over-the-top books that have completely destroyed his reputation. No one has accused him of falsifying information, but his selective use of facts, his refusal to acknowledge the context in which acts were performed, and the tortured reasoning he is forced to use to arrive at his positions have long since turned him into a buffoonish figure. I literally do not know of one single person in the East Asian field who takes him seriously anymore.
As for this book, the first thing to understand is that, regardless of what the title says, it is not a history. Rather, it is an extended essay on the conduct of the war and American attitudes and interpretations of the war. I found the organization of the book very unfortunate, as it jumps around in an almost incomprehensible manner. In terms of content, Cumings remains outraged about the things that have always outraged him. He is still making a risible argument that because there were border incidents and fire-breathing statements from both sides prior to the North Korean invasion of the South, somehow the war didn't really start on June 25, 1950, but the invasion was just another stage in an ongoing conflict. He remains enraged about the American bombing of North Korea, particularly napalm; the destruction was apocalyptic, but Cumings acts as if North Korea were the only country ever to suffer a bombing campaign, and refuses to acknowledge that this was the way bombing campaigns were carried out at that time, as the citizens of Dresden, Tokyo and other places could tell him. I could go on, but you get the idea. It seems to me that Cumings's real complaint is that the United States entered the war at all, and worse, that it was successful. He is entitled to his point of view, but the course of events over the past 60 years, not to mention the fact that during the war millions of Korean peasants moved almost exclusively in one direction -- away from the North (which was more prosperous at that time) and toward the South (even when it was losing the war) -- are powerful evidence that the American intervention, in spite of the incompetence with which it was carried out, was both wise and morally justified. Regardless of your political views, I find it hard to believe many people would find it rewarding to read this sarcastic, smug polemic.
One point I do agree with Cumings on is that there is still no objective, comprehensive English-languge history of the Korean War. The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam is a gripping read, but focuses primarily on the ordinary American soldier, and virtually ignores the other countries involved. This Kind of War by T.E. Fehrenbach has the advantage of a military author who can speak authoritatively about tactics, but I don't think most modern analysts agree with his positive assessments of MacArthur and William Deane, and I found the book overly melodramatic and informal (it has no footnotes and not a single map). For my money, the best book currently available is The Korean War by Max Hastings, but even it can be criticized for not paying sufficient attention to the South Korean role, and he doesn't really address the issues that so excite Cumings.
35 of 51 people found the following review helpful
on November 22, 2010
On page 19 Cumings writes that there were 270 ships at Inchon which deposited 80,000 Marines. The Marine contingent consisted of only two regiments, the third regiment did not arrive from the Mediterranean until six days after the landing. Additionally, on page 83, Cumings changed the total number of troops to 70,00. There were not nearly that many ships. Total strength of the Marine Corps at that time was only 73,000. In the initial landing, only the reinforced 1st and 5th Marine Regiments landed on September 15. Their strength totaled about 1bout 11,000 men. The next increment to land was the 7th Infantry Division, which had been increased in strength from a total of 7,900 American troops in August to 16,500 by 4 September. In addition, 8,600 untrained Republic of Korea (ROK) troops were assigned to the 7th Infantry Division. Most of them had no military training and spoke no English. Thus, beginning on the morning of 18 September thru midnight 19 September, 25,100 men were landed at Inchon. Then, the reinforced 7th Marine Regiment with a strength of about 5,000 men landed at Inchon on 21 September. Thus, total troops landed between 15 September and 21 September was just over 41,000 men, a far cry from Mr. Cumings 80,000, or 70,00, depending on which page you are on in his book. In addition, a number of South Korean Marines were in on the initial landing. I have been unable to find a definite number, but there could not have been more than about 2,000.
On page 23 Cumings writes that on 24 November as MacArthur "lunged" toward the Yalu River border... In fact, the original "lunge" began on 28 October when the First Cavalry Division, led by the 8th Cavalry Regimental Combat Team (RCT) left Pyongyang and by the afternoon of 30 October was situated in and around the town of Unsan, about 45 miles southeast of the Yalu River. They were followed by the 5th Cavalry and then by the 7th Cavalry RCT'S who were all in place by 31 October 1950.
On page 25 Cumings writes that Chinese forces attacked U.S. troops in late October and then disappearing. In fact, the first attack on U.S. Forces (the 8th Cavalry RCT) did not begin until the evening of 1 November 1950 and continuing through 3 November before the remnants of the 8th RCT had to surrender. The most famous of those who surrendered was Chaplain (Captain) Emile Kapaun, who volunteered to stay with the wounded and died of beatings received while in captivity. His only surviving relative, his brothers widow, was presented the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Obama in early summer 2013.
On page 30, he quotes a story by a New York Times reporter named George Barrett about the napalming everything behind the retreating UN forces. The story, as written in Mr. Barrett's obituary published in the November 22d edition of the New York Times follows with the part actually quoted by Cumings in CAPS. ""In that front page dispatch datelined 'with Special Task Force, North of Anyang, Korea, Feb. 8,' Mr. Barrett wrote that the American commanded armored column he was accompanying 'took a little hamlet north of Anyang that will probably go down as a macabre tribute to the totality of modern war.' Graphic Picture of Death. He continued" 'A napalm raid hit the village three or four days ago when the Chinese were holding the advance and nowhere in the village have they buried the dead, because there is nobody left to do so." 'This correspondent came upon one old woman, the only one who seemed to be left alive, dazedly hanging up some clothes in a blackened courtyard filled with the bodies of four members of her family. THE INHABITANTS THROUGHOUT THE VILLAGE AND IN THE FIELDS WERE CAUGHT AND KILLED AND KEPT THE EXACT POSTURES THEY HELD WHEN THE NAPALM STRUCK - A MAN ABOUT TO GET ON HIS BICYCLE, FIFTY BOYS AND GIRLS PLAYING IN AN ORPHANAGE, A HOUSEWIFE STRANGELY UNMARKED, HOLDING IN HER HAD A PAGE TORN FROM A SEARS-ROEBUCK CATALOGUE CRAYONED AT MAIL ORDER NO. 3,811,294 FOR A $2.98 BEWITCHING BED JACKET-CORAL." There must be almost two hundred dead in the tiny hamlet." Since the primary way napalm kills is by burning, how could anyone be left unmarked and a piece of paper left unburned? In an effort to prove his point, Cumings recounts only PART of this impossible story. Furthermore, I have concluded that the only true part of Barrett's story is that he was with an armored column, which by February 8th, had already reached Seoul. The first easily proved item is the Sears-Roebuck catalog number. There is an on line archive of every Sears-Roebuck catalog ever published. All catalog numbers are similar. They begin with one or two numbers a space and one or two capital letters, another space ahd 4 or 5 numbers. If there is a special shipping point, then a capital O is appears immediately before the first set of numbers. Next, how many dead people remain standing? It is true that some people not actually hit by the napalm die from the Carbon Monoxide created by the napalm's ignition, the basic difference is that they are already dead before the burns from napalm. They would still receive burns, but they would not be as severe as the deep third degree burns received from napalm actually hitting them. Another reason: Why would a woman living in a village that has been occupied y the Chinese for the past six to nine weeks even be filling out a Mail Order catalog form, even assuming that she had a catalog in the first place? What is the likelihood of a village of about 200 having an orphanage with 50 orphans in it?
All of my and also of the 24thinformation is supported by original records of the First Cavalry Division, the 5th, 7th and 8th Cavalry Regiments, the 2d Infantry Division the 7th Infantry Division, the 24th and 25th Infantry Divisions and individual their regiments and artillery battalions. The records take the form of Unit Histories, Division, Regimental and Battalion War Diaries, Unit Logs, Operations Orders, etc., which can be found at the National Archives and Records Administration facility (NARA II)located in College Park, Maryland. Parking is free, there is no charge for admission to the facility and the only cost at the facility is lunch and copying fees if copies are made on their photocopy machines. most of the 18,000 plus copies of original documents I have were made on either a digital camera or a flatbed scanner. Thus the only costs to me were for color and black and white copies of large scale maps of portions of Korea which were originally made during the period 1947 through February 1951 and for the few photocopies which I made on my very first trip there beginning in 2008.
Cumings makes many statements which he either does not or is unable to document. On page 156 he says that Stratemeyer reported that atomic bomb loading pits were operational at Kadena and that the bombs were carried there unassembled and put together there at the base, lacking only the essential nuclear cores or "capsules". In fact, special loading pits were never required for any atomic weapons, however some specialized loading equipment was. There is NO source citation for that statement.
On page 157 he mentions dropping "dummy" a-bombs and that the project called for actual functioning of all activities which would be involved in an atomic strike, including weapons assembly and testing, loading, ground control of bomb aiming and the like. Specially trained crews with a Top Secret Atomic Energy clearance would have been required, however, there is no way to simulate any of those activities with a standard high explosive bomb. Furthermore, there was never any "ground control of bomb aiming", however some bombs were radar guided from the aircraft which dropped them. Standard WW II bombsights were used for dropping ALL bombs, nuclear bombs and non-nuclear. He writes that this was "Operation Hudson Harbor", but AGAIN, there is NO source citation!
On page 159 he mentions a B-26 dropping a radar guided bomb on Pyongyang in 1953. By 1953, there were no targets in Pyongyang which required a precision radar guided bomb. The only radar guided bomb used in Korea was the approximately 11,000 pound "Tarzon". When configured with aerodynamic features, it would not quite fit into the bomb bay of a B-29. The first was used in December 1950 and the last was used in March 1951. A total of about two dozen were used. With an accuracy of plus or minus 250 feet, only four bridge spans and one dam were actually destroyed. There use was discontinued first, because one bomb armed itself due to airflow because it partially protruded form the bomb bay. That one blew up and destroyed the plane and killed all of the crew. Another one self-armed but the bombardier of that plane was able to drop it before it exploded. The second reason was that there were only a limited number available. Production was terminated because of the self-arming problem!
On page 181 he says that General Walker ordered a military withdrawal from Taegu on July 26th. American military never withdrew from Taegu. He could not have meant Taejon because the last elements of the 24th Infantry Division were driven out of Taejon on July 22. As is with many statements, there are no supporting footnotes or end-notes. Also on page 181 he writes that "The next day (I assume that he meant July 27th as the last date mentioned was July 26th) MacArthur flew to Korea and demanded that further withdrawals cease and that shortly thereafter the 2d Infantry Division landed at Pusan and was rushed to Chinju. First, the War Diaries that I have indicate that MacArthur flew to Korea to personally reassure General Walker that reinforcements (the 2d Infantry Division from Seattle, the 5th Regimental Combat Team from Oahu) were on their way. Second, there is no mention of Chinju in the War Diaries of either the 2d Infantry Division, or its three regiments, the 9th, the 23d and the 38th Infantry Regiments. War Diaries of the 19th Infantry Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division indicate that the last of the two Battalion 29th Infantry Regiment arrived on July 25th and was attached to the 19th Infantry Regiment. Those same War Diaries state that elements of both units moved to the Hadong, Anui and Chinju area with the 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment arriving at Chinju by 1700 hours (5 PM, civilian time) on July 27th. Obviously Professor Cumings is creating his own "mosaic" as he calls them, but for what reason, I cannot fathom. The War Diary of the 27th Infantry Regiment of the 25th Infantry Division does mention that on July 30th, they were ordered to leave their positions in and around Kumchon, move through Waegwan and toward Chinju. The first unit of the 2d Infantry Division to enter combat was the 9th Regimental Combat Team, which was attached to the 24th Infantry Division and was attacking West from the Sugae-ri area of the Naktong Bulge on 8 August. When I first questioned Professor Cumings, he said: "I did mean Taegu as Taejon had fallen several weeks before." (Taejon had fallen just FOUR DAYS prior! When I pressed him, after giving him the facts, he had two responses: "I wish I had had that information 25 years ago." and "I wasn't doing military history." All of that information has been readily available at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland since at least 1981 and probably much earlier than that as some documents were automatically downgraded one level every seven years. Even Top Secret documents would have started becoming available by 1978. Almost all unit documents were graded Secret or lower, so they would have been available to the general public beginning in 1971.
On page 192 he writes that State Department officials sought some mechanism for supervising the political aspects of the occupation and that the effective politics of the occupation consisted of the National Police and the rightist youth corps. In fact, Military Civil Affairs officers were appointed and for the most part, they appointed existing local authorities to perform under their direction. The 1st Cavalry Division War Diary for 25 October 1950 quotes a directive from I Corps which was intended to answer questions about the politics of the occupation. That document specified that "There is no, repeat no, military government in effect in Korea at this time and none contemplated. Civil Affairs Officers have the responsibility of assisting local committees to establish their own government economy. The North Korean people are considered to be liberated and the UN forces will assist them to set up and operate their own affairs. Cumings "The Korean War: A History", which was published in 2010, repeats a lot of what appeared in his "The Roaring of the Cataract", published in 1990.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on April 21, 2013
With all the publicity about North Korea lately, I realized I really knew very little about it. Sure I remembered trying to avoid confusion in high school, using the mnemonic device to recall that unlike the situation in the American Civil War, the South were the good guys and the North were the evil ones, but that was I really knew.
Trying really hard, I could remember that Korea had a long history as a country; it had been invaded by both Japan and China and there was the Korean War against Communism where MacArthur wanted to nuke China, but he was deposed. I had no understanding, however, how we got to a situation where a fat kid Supreme leader watching basketball with Dennis Rodman was now threatening to unleash nuclear weapons against the US. I knew more about Dennis Rodman's wedding dress than I did about Korea, the Korean War, and how we ended up where we are today.
A friend suggested I read The Korean War: A History, by Bruce Cumings, so I did. It is a brilliant, informative and sleep inducing book. Cumings the chair of the Department of History at that bastion of liberal thinking, the University of Chicago, has given us a very informative book on how Korea got where it is today, and America's contributions to that situation.
This is not a book, however, to read in bed, unless you need a five star cure for sleeplessness. The book contains a lot of information, but goes off into Philosophical tangents to Nietzsche, Thucydides and others in an attempt to use their writing to explain and support Cummings' conclusions. These philosophical side trips seem to undermine rather than support Cummings' message.
That message can be summed up in two quotes. The first is a fabulous explanation of what we as Americans fail to understand.
The point to remember is that this was a civil war and, as a British diplomat once said, "every country has a right to have its War of the Roses." The true tragedy was not the war itself, for a civil conflict purely among Koreans might have resolved the extraordinary tensions generated by colonialism, national division, and foreign intervention. The tragedy was that the war solved nothing: only the status quo ante was restored, only a cease-fire held the peace.
I now understand better what motivates the North. Imagine being a resident whose home, town and neighbors were burned during Sherman's drive to the Sea. Imagine further, that war was unresolved and you were afraid Sherman would return. Imagine further that Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee's grandsons still ran your portion of the country and you were reasonably fearful that Lincoln's descendants were out to destroy them and their way of life. Finally, imagine that unlike in our civil war, there was no attempt at secession prior to war; rather both sides believed they were the true rulers of a historically united country.
We have all seen images of Japanese and German cites destroyed by firebombing. That practice led to a much more efficient job in Korea. "At least 50 percent of eighteen out of the North's twenty-two major cities were obliterated." Observers write of seeing cities so devastated that all that remained was the brick chimneys, standing as tombstones to mark the destruction of the homes and families that lived there. To the people of the North, that is their memory of the South. Given that memory, and the continuing war, the fat basketball fan as described by the press does not seem so paranoid.
Cummings explains our American response to Korea is one of ignorance. We fail to look at the history of Korea as a nation, but instead focus on the time frame of the Korean war, and ignore the history that led to that war, including the arbitrary division of Korea at the 38th parallel, much as Berlin was divided by the same victors and at the same time.
"For Americans a discrete encapsulation limits this war to the time frame of June 1950 to July 1953. This construction relegates all that went before to mere prehistory, June 25 is original sin, all that comes after is postbellum. It also presumes to demarcate the period of active American involvement; before June 1950, it is Syngman Rhee against Kim Il Sung backed or controlled by Stalin and/or Mao; after July 1953, it is Rhee against the same people, his fledgling republic ever under threat. This construction focuses the bright glare of our attention on the question of who started the war, on the presupposition that the correct answer to this question furnishes answers to all the other questions. What is highlighted here obscures all that went before and all that came after, placing it in the shadows of irrelevance. In this manner a wrongly conceived and never-known civil conflict disappears before our very eyes, as an American construction that only an American would believe; but American amour propre remains firmly intact. The American focus on "who started it" is a political and often an ideological position, a point of honor that abstracts from and makes easy and comprehensible the politically shaped verdicts that began with Washington's official story on June 25, 1950."
In the end, Cumings seems hopeful that Korea as a whole, through the actions of the South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission may have developed a way to reunite the country and bring peace after 60 years of war, and he believes that the South will eventually prevail.
Before that can happen, however, he thinks that everyone must confront the memories of the awful history which is still a live memory in North Korea. The people who are still living with that history of destruction and death need will not forget from whence it came and need proof that it will not return. Cumings explains why the people of the North may choose an impoverished existence under a fat kid with a message, over the potential of more death both from the skies and through intimate contact with representatives of the South.
I highly recommend reading the book, but it is not a quick and easy read.
10 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2011
The bipartisan mythologizing? It all centers around how, when, where and why the Korean War started.
In a series of essays, Cumings' central themes are:
1. The "Korean War" goes back before 1950, ultimately to Kim Il Sung and others fighting guerrila war in northern Korea and mainly in Manchuria/Manchukuo against Japanese imperialists, then facing a post-1945 South Korea with much of its leadership consisting of collaborators with the Jaapanese.
2. Kim deserves, therefore, to be viewed as being as much a nationalist as a Communist, a la Ho Chi Minh.
3. There were various left-wing movements, many of them non-Communist, in South Korea, in the 1945-50 period.
4. Unlike with Vietnam, most U.S. history has neglected to revisit Korea the way we have done with Vietnam.
5. We understood Korea as little as Vietnam.
In light of all of this, then, Korean War history needs to be "revised." Cumings himself rejects the label of "revisionist historian," and I don't blame him. Many people wrongly call him an apologist for North Korea, and he's not. His writing on 9/11 and Islam should further illustrate that.
Beyond being told myths about Korea, we're told myths about the U.S. by the bipartisan foreign policy establishment.
1. Dean Acheson didn't "goof" in leaving South Korea out of our defense parameters in his famous/infamous speech. Rather, as later U.S. governments do, to the present, with Taiwan, he was practicing some sort of strategic ambiguity.
2. The decision to cross the 38th parallel, and to push all the way to the Yalu? That started with Acheson, not MacArthur. While MacArthur was insubordinate, and Truman was right to fire him (in a swap with the Joint Chiefs to give a military trigger finger to nukes) Acheson and pushed him on, then undercut him.
I haven't even touched on Cumings' take on how this influence the Cold War, the military-industrial complex and more.
There's a lot in this concise book. Give it a read.