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The Korean War: A History

The Korean War: A History

2.9 10
by Bruce Cumings

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The Korean War, More than any other war in modern times, is surrounded by residues and slippages of memory. The Great War's place is indelible, its annihilating violence a permanent reminder of war's carnage. World War II was the good war, an outright victory to be celebrated. Vietnam tore the United States apart. With Korea there is less a presence than an absence


The Korean War, More than any other war in modern times, is surrounded by residues and slippages of memory. The Great War's place is indelible, its annihilating violence a permanent reminder of war's carnage. World War II was the good war, an outright victory to be celebrated. Vietnam tore the United States apart. With Korea there is less a presence than an absence; thus the default reflexive American name: "the forgotten war."

For years I rejected the "forgotten war" rubric; the unknown war seemed much better. But for Americans Korea is both: a forgotten war and a never-known war. For Americans Korea is just one among several wars best forgotten, just another transient episode among a myriad of interventions in Third World countries that do not bear close examination, but have unsettling ways of coming back to haunt us.

Editorial Reviews

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.)
Library Journal
In contrast to the many battlefield histories of what we refer to as "America's Forgotten War," Cumings (Korea's Place in the Sun), an expert on the topic, portrays the three-year struggle as one chapter in a long fight against conquerors and colonialists. In this cultural, not solely military, history, Cumings lambastes nearly everyone involved, noting the atrocities by three armies. North Korean intransigence, indiscriminate strategic bombing, McCarthyism, the execution of inconvenient civilians and refugees, the CIA's disinformation operations, liberal cowardice in the United States, and nuclear threats—all come into the picture here to round out a highly personal view of the war and its milieu. A probably contentious addition to Korean War collections that supplements more tactically focused works.
Kirkus Reviews
An eloquent, squirm-inducing account of the war's long background and murderous destruction, which began well before the fighting. Cumings (History/Univ. of Chicago; Dominion from Sea to Sea: Pacific Ascendancy and American Power, 2009, etc.) dismisses the convention that war was launched in 1950 by Stalin's puppet, Kim Il Sung, and ended in 1953. It began, he maintains, in 1931-32 when Japan invaded Manchuria and, as a civil war, hasn't yet ended. Nearby Korea, a Japanese colony, provided most of the resistance. To suppress these resisters, Japan recruited Koreans willing to collaborate, and many rose to high positions. After Japan's 1945 surrender, Kim's circle organized a government in the Soviet-occupied North. The collaborators moved south and, in 1950, formed nearly all of the command of South Korea's army. Ignorant of Korean hatred of Japan, U.S. forces occupying the South retained the colonial system, appointed collaborators to high positions and imported Syngman Rhee from the United States as leader. Knowing which American buttons to push, Rhee announced that he faced vast communist subversion and proceeded to brutally eliminate opposition. Following the war's outbreak, the American media described numerous civilian massacres as North Korean atrocities. Only recently have historians-and declassified U.S. government papers-made known that South Korea committed most of them. American conservatives regularly denounce Cumings for favoring North Korea, but he is widely honored in South Korea, whose researchers have turned up many of the long-suppressed atrocities he reveals. Few conservatives will change their minds, but Cumings makes a convincing case that Korea, not Vietnam, was the first modern war America entered abysmally ignorant of what it was getting into.
Dwight Garner
…powerful revisionist history…this lean book may put some readers in mind of Wartime, Paul Fussell's acidic attack on some of the comforting myths about World War II. Mr. Cumings's prose, at its best, is reminiscent of Mr. Fussell's stylized, literate high dudgeon…His book is a bitter pill, a sobering corrective.
—The New York Times
Jacob Heilbrunn
…Cumings has done a lot of research over the years, has a superb grasp of his material and is never less than stimulating…
—The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
“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

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Modern Library Chronicles Series
Product dimensions:
8.76(w) x 11.12(h) x 0.88(d)

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.

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 Japan." Korea and Japan were "destined to go hand in hand, to live and let live," and thus bad feelings should be "cast overboard."

The current problem, Pak said, was the unfortunate one that

"an economic unity is lacking whereas in prewar days Japan, Manchuria, Korea, and Formosa economically combined to make an organic whole." Pak Hung-sik was the embodiment of the Japanese colonial idea-having been born a Korean his only unfortunate, but not insurmountable, fate. For Pak and Kim Il Sung, the 1930s were the beginning: hugely expanded business opportunities for Pak (the founder of Seoul's Hwashin department store, its first on the American model), a decade of unimaginably harsh struggle for Kim. After this beginning, a civil war between the young leaders of Korea who chose to collaborate with or to resist Japan in the 1930s was entirely conceivable, and probably inevitable.

War came on the last weekend in June 1950, a weekend about which much still remains to be learned. It is now clear from Soviet documents that Pyongyang had made a decision to escalate the civil conflict to the level of conventional warfare many months before June 1950, having tired of the inconclusive guerrilla struggle in the south, and perhaps hoping to seize on a southern provocation like many that occurred in 1949, thus to settle the hash of the Rhee regime. Maturing clandestine American plans to launch a coup d'état against Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan complicated this same weekend; Dean Rusk met with several Chinese at the Plaza hotel in New York on the evening of June 23, 1950, hoping that they would form a government to replace Chiang's regime, which was threatened by an impending invasion from the Chinese Communists. He and Acheson wanted a reliable leader in Taipei, so that their secret desire to keep the island separate from mainland control would field a government that Truman could justify supporting.

The fighting on Ongjin began around 3 or 4 a.m. on June 25; initial intelligence reports were inconclusive as to who started it. Later on, attacking elements were said to be from the 3rd Brigade of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) Border Constabulary, joined at 5:30 a.m. by the formidable 6th Division. At about the same time, according to the American official history, KPA forces at the parallel south of Chorwon assaulted the 1st Regiment of the ROKA 7th Division, dealing it heavy casualties; it gave way and the 3rd and 4th KPA divisions, with an armored brigade, crashed through and began a daunting march toward Seoul. South Korean sources asserted, however, that elements of the 17th Regiment had counterattacked on the Ongjin Peninsula and were in possession of Haeju city, the only important point north of the 38th parallel claimed to have been taken by ROK forces.

Roy Appleman, America's official historian of the war, relied on James Hausman's heavily sanitized account of the war's start on the Ongjin Peninsula. Hausman later told a Thames Television documentary crew that his good friend Paek In-yop (brother to Paek Son-yop) was the commander on Ongjin, "and when the war broke out as you know he was there not only defending his line but counterattacking" (that is, across the parallel). As for "those who think that the South may have started this war," Hausman went on, "I think . . . I think they're wrong." Another Thames interviewee, Col. James Peach, an Australian who was with the UN observer group, reported that the Ongjin commander, Paek, was "a get-going sort of chap" who led the "twin- tiger" 17th Regimental Combat Team: "I, I never quite knew what went on. There's a bit of a mystery still about Haeju, I think it might have been Paek and his merry men, the 17th Regiment, attacking it . . . We didn't hear anything about it until the war had been going for a while, and I never quite knew what went on. It's been said that they attacked there and that the North Koreans responded." Peach went on to say that he didn't think this version held much water. (Note also that if the South Koreans attack, it is "Paek and his merry men"; when the North Koreans do the same, it is heinous aggression.)

Whether 17th Regiment soldiers may have occupied Haeju on June 25, or even initiated the fighting on Ongjin, is still inconclusive, with the existing evidence pointing both ways. There is no evidence, however, to back up the North's claim that the South launched a general invasion; at worst there may have been a small assault across the parallel, as happened many times in 1949. Whatever transpired, the North met it with a full invasion.

South of the attacking KPA units was the ROK 7th Division, headquartered at the critical invasion-route town of Uijongbu; it had not committed its forces to battle even by the morning of June 26, probably because it was waiting to be reinforced by the 2nd Division, which had entrained northward from Taejon

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet 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.

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Korean War: A History 2.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 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.
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
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
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.