The Korean War: A History

The Korean War: A History

by Bruce Cumings

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For Americans, it was a discrete conflict lasting from 1950 to 1953. But for the Asian world the Korean War was a generations-long struggle that still haunts contemporary events. With access to new evidence and secret materials from both here and abroad, including an archive of captured North Korean documents, Bruce Cumings reveals the war as it was actually fought. He describes its origin as a civil war, preordained long before the first shots were fired in June 1950 by lingering fury over Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Cumings then shares the neglected history of America’s post–World War II occupation of Korea, reveals untold stories of bloody insurgencies and rebellions, and tells of the United States officially entering the action on the side of the South, exposing as never before the appalling massacres and atrocities committed on all sides.

Elegantly written and blisteringly honest, The Korean War is, like the war it illuminates, brief, devastating, and essential.

Praise for The Korean War

“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

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679603788
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/27/2010
Series: Modern Library Chronicles
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 338,504
File size: 6 MB

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. He lives with his family in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Read an Excerpt

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.

Table of Contents

Chronology xi

Glossary xiii

Introduction xv

Chapter 1 The Course of the War 1

Chapter 2 The Party of Memory 37

Chapter 3 The Party of Forgetting 59

Chapter 4 Culture of Repression 77

Chapter 5 38 Degrees of Separation: A Forgotten Occupation 101

Chapter 6 "The Most Disproportionate Result": The Air War 147

Chapter 7 The Flooding of Memory 163

Chapter 8 A "Forgotten War" That Remade the United States and the Cold War 205

Chapter 9 Requiem: History in the Temper of Reconciliation 223

Acknowledgments 245

Notes 247

Further Reading 269

Index 277

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Korean War: A History 2.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Uncle_Hadrian More than 1 year ago
The Korean War has always held a special fascination for me. Always suspecting a greater significance of this war, and frustrated at the general level of recognition by most Americans, I have tried to read as many books as I could, and ask my father-in-law about his war time experiences there. Most of the books I've read were general histories of events that took place between 1950 and 1953, including specific military campaigns, or biographical information regarding Truman and MacArthur. Bruce Cummings has written a condensed history that explains far more. With access to previously unavailable archives, a light is shone upon aspects of the war which were damaging to South Korean and American leaders, politicians, and soldiers alike. But the value of this work for me, was in gaining a different reference point from which to better view and understand the interwoven history of the peoples of Korea, Japan and China during the 20th century leading up to 1950. The birth of America as a global policeman is systematically and concisely explained. A great read!
Yurilee More than 1 year ago
Bruce Cumings is a noted expert on Korea. This is one of the finest modern histories I have read. Most Americans never knew much about Korea and still don't. Their views about the North are extremely limited not only because the regime is very secretive, but because they refuse to look at the leadership of the North as legitimate in terms of their history, if not their right to rule. Cumings skillfully integrates Korean history during the Korean War with our own and gives helpful comparisons with damage wrought over Germany and Japan at the end of the war. Cumings stresses the numbers of Koreans in both the North and South. Cumings writes extremely well. I cannot recommend this book enough. Regarding the person who rated the book without even reading it, I think the rating should not count in the averaging.
rivkat on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This short book is hard to evaluate because it contains a lot of inside baseball/score-settling with other historians, which only serves to reinforce the author¿s point that Americans know virtually nothing about the Korean War, generally misperceiving it as being about the Cold War when it was and remains primarily a civil war and the outside country of most importance is probably Japan, whose occupation set the stage for rebellion against former collaborators (who made up a big chunk of the political class of South Korea until very recently). Cumings emphasizes the atrocities committed by South Koreans and occasionally Americans, while acknowledging that North Koreans also did plenty of harm which has yet to be exposed via a truth and reconciliation commission as in the South. There are meditations on the nature of history and memory that strive for poetry, but don¿t quite get there; still, I did learn something about the intractability of the conflict and the ridiculousness of seeing Korea as simply a stage on which the West-Communist Bloc struggle played out.
bezoar44 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An immensely frustrating book. Cumings has an important argument to make: that the Korean war is properly understood as a civil war between Koreans who collaborated with Japanese occupiers in the 1930s (and became the leaders of South Korea) and the Korean guerrillas who resisted that occupation (and became the leaders of North Korea). When the United States essentially saved South Korea, it froze in place Korea's natural evolution, keeping the civil war from resolving up to the present. In addition, Cumings argues, the United States was complicit in atrocities committed by South Korean leadership against innocent civilians in both South and North Korea, and committed atrocities of its own by carpet bombing much of North Korea with napalm and high explosives. This is an important reinterpretation (or recovery) of the history and context of the war, and I imagine there are many Americans like me for whom this is a new and valuable, if horrifying, perspective. But it deserves a much better presentation than this. The book entirely lacks a clear organization; the chapters form a series of overlapping essays, but even taken as distinct essays, they don't sum to coherent arguments. The tone of the writing lurches back and forth between staid history, personal essay, and fierce polemic. Finally, it doesn't help that Cuming's cultural touchstones are Friedrich Nietzsche and Ambrose Bierce -- both brilliant observers of human nature, but also bitter, troubled, and often making their compassion deliberately inaccessible. I'm grateful for the research Mr Cumings has assembled over his career, but this book doesn't seem the best way to encounter it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you want to know the complete political history of the Korean peninsula from the beginning of time and the authors biased views, this book is for you. But, if you are looking for a history of the Korean conflict from 1950-1953, this book is a wate of money.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found the title misleading.  I only made it to chapter 3.  The author assumes you already know a lot about what was going on in the world in 1950 and the conditions in Korea that lead up to the war.  I was expecting more of a narrative on the events that precipitated the war followed by the actual events that took place during the war.  Instead he begins almost immediately with day 1 of the war.  I found his writing style difficult to follow.  He throws around a lot of names assuming you already know who they are.  It was a lot more personal commentary than explanation of actual events, which is what I expect to see when the title says 'A History'.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It looks good but it also look violent
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It is a book you would want to read
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The author raises many interesting, little known and widely unknown facts respecting our own and both Korean governments. He exhaustively recounts all proven or alleged American sins of commission or omission he can find, as well as those of South Korean governments. He pays only brief attention to the known crimes of the North Koreans, and his anti-Western bias is clear. After listing some of the more vicious acts of the North Koreans, he seems to excuse them on the grounds of a Confucian background, the (long past) struggle against the Japanese, inequality of wealth, but finally tacitly acknowledges the right to rule of their government by the good old "Right of Conquest". He presents their police state of enforced total unity with no negative comment allowed, as a law of nature, which indeed it has been and largely is everywhere outside of parts of the West. He is aware enough of our own Civil War to demonstrate that the Koreans have one still, after 60 years, but favors 'local independence', which is like advocating Confederate States Rights for America. Either there is a South Korea, or not, and he seems to feel nothing wrong with local independencies run by Leftists in the South, with North Korean support. Clearly, the North would not tolerate such a situation for one second. While condemning the language of an American on the South Korean's frays over the 38th parallel, he dismisses the North's atom bomb development as a harmless pastime that shouldn't bother anyone, and never mentions their shooting missiles over Japan, no doubt for sport. No dboubt he would welcome the latest sinking of a South Korean ship and the shelling of an island as necessary to keep the North military amused and in practice. While exhaustively combing American archives for evidence of wrongdoing, he has done nothing similar for North Korean archives, and the liklihood of his doing so could not be more remote. So while of value, the picture presented is (necessarily?) HIGHLY biased. An interesting fact presented: at the armistice ending hostilities: 1/3 of all North Koreans and Chinese POWs chose not to return to their native countries, but instead to stay in the South Korea whose sins the author never tires of recounting. One last item. While mentioning the Korean term for 'collective responsibiltiy' where a whole family was punished for the transgressions of one member in the South, he doesn't mention that this is currently standard practice in the North. There, whole families have to plan on emigrating together in order to avoid severe punishment for allowing one of their members commit the crime of "trying to escape" from this land where there is perfect unity of thought and action under the rule of the infallible and never-enough-to-be-praised ruling clique.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Horribly biased. The book makes it seem like the Chinese and the Koreans could do no wrong, while IT SAYS THAT THE U.S. , YES, THE U.S. , COMMITTED GENOCIDE ON THE SCALE OF THE HOLOCAUST! That is something that is not true. This book was written from the eyes of a professor, not from a veteran of the war. He has no right to criticize their actions, for he was not there. The verdict? Get a different Korean war book, one that isn't liberally biased.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I haven't read this book and do not plan to read it. Before I read a book I try to ascertain the authors purpose for writing it. From what I can determine this author has an axe to grind and I will not contribute a penny to help him spread hate about America. I am a 23 year veteran of the U.S. Navy, serving in Korea several months in late 1950 and early 1951. Our reason for being there was noble.