Enter your mobile number or email address below and we'll send you a link to download the free Kindle App. Then you can start reading Kindle books on your smartphone, tablet, or computer - no Kindle device required.
To get the free app, enter your mobile phone number.
Origins of the Korean War, Vol. 1: Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes, 1945-1947 (Studies of the East Asian Institute) Paperback – Deluxe Edition, October 21, 1981
The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
Customers who viewed this item also viewed
Customers who bought this item also bought
Top customer reviews
There was a problem filtering reviews right now. Please try again later.
Cumings challenged the notion that the Soviets and their North Korean allies bore primary responsibility for starting the war. This places him at odds with historians such as David Rees and Adam Ulam. Cumings wrote that the origins of the war were much more complicated and multifaceted that the simplistic argument that the Communists started it, however satisfying that must be to American sensibilities. It was American policies, shaped on the Korean peninsula and in Washington, Cumings noted, that must be carefully considered in any discussion of the origins of the Korean War.
Cumings considered the role of General John Reed Hodge, the military governor of South Korea in the years following World War II. Hodge had little understanding of the Korean people or their indigenous political systems, and even wrote to his superiors that the Koreans were “largely incapable of intelligence political action (Vol. I, 212).” This became an important factor when the South Koreans began to organize themselves into various committees to run their local affairs. Hodge and other American authorities mistakenly interpreted these committees as potentially revolutionary movements, and sought to stamp them out. In fact, Korean discontent with the American attempts to Americanize Korea in part led to the creation of the committees. Japan had left considerable infrastructure in the peninsula, and American attempts to introduce free markets and American-style capitalism in order to keep Communism at bay often backfired and resulted in a kind of new feudal Korean society. Despite the fact that the committees were very popular among the Koreans, “the Americans consciously and systematically rooted out this movement because it could not be counted upon to serve American interests (Vol. I, 350).”
The result of American actions led to the Autumn Harvest Uprising in late 1946, in which strikes, protests, and property damage led to massive arrests. Cumings juxtaposes this with events in the Soviet-controlled north, where the Soviets and the Communist Koreans “could reflect on the first year of liberation with considerable satisfaction (Vol. I, 426).” While the Americans attempted to impose Containment in their sphere of occupation even before it became Washington's official policy, the Soviets had created a government and system that appeared to be much more responsive to the needs of the Korean people.
Cumings presents the North Koreans as eager not only to cast off the Americans from the peninsula but also their own Soviet masters, but the focus of the work deals primarily with American policymakers. For Washington in 1947, the local American policy of Containment in Korea meshed well with the hard line that was being taken against Communism in Greece and Turkey. At the same time, Cumings noted a Rollback strategy emerged, championed initially by American expansionists like John Foster Dulles, in which many policy makers saw an opportunity to clear the peninsula of Communism once and for all. The question over Containment and Rollback was central to the debates in Washington, but ultimately Containment won out as the preferred strategy as the risk of general war breaking out over peripheral adventures was deemed too great. Still, though the Korean War in many ways stabilized the power blocks in Asia, certain regions of the Third World remained “an intermediate zone where superpower conflict could ensue without threatening global war (Vol. II, 765).”
Walter LaFeber wrote in The Journal of American History that Cumings “offers dramatic new insights into U.S. policy during the early Cold War.” Tae Jin Kahng offered in The International History Review, that the work was an “enormous intellectual achievement,” though felt the treatment of some of the American actors was too monolithic.1
Cumings work presents considerable food for thought. The role of American occupation policies is essential to understand the political realities in the peninsula in the years immediately after World War II. Cumings makes a convincing argument that American policy makers in Korea were largely deaf to the Korean people, and created a government that was corrupt and unresponsive to Korean needs. Cumings second volume, however, is less persuasive. It correctly presents the conflict largely as a civil war, rather than exclusively an engagement of the Cold War. Still, the portrait he paints of figures like George Kennan, Averell Harriman, Hodge, and others as being all die-hard nationalists is indeed monolithic, as Kahng notes. Still, the biggest problem with this work is the lack of Soviet agency in these events. If Cumings has been able to consider the Soviet side of events with the same scrutiny with which he examined decision makers in Washington, the work would be all the richer for it.