Reviewed by Charles M. Dobbs (Department of History, Iowa State University)
Published on H-Diplo (August, 2004)
The Korean War Fifty Years Later: Can We Not Make Up Our Minds?
Professor William Stueck has edited the volume The Korean War in World History, consisting of essays, as he noted, "that were initially presented as papers at a symposium on the Korean War at Texas A & M University." The participating scholars are all first-rate, and their essays add much to our understanding of this conflict and its impact in East Asia.
The Korean War may have been the final stage of a civil war between conservative and Christian elements behind Syngman Rhee, native communists of Pak Hon-yong, and Soviet-installed Korean communists under Kim Il-sung. In the aftermath of Gen. Douglas MacArthur's ill-considered decision to send U.S., Republic of Korea, and UN forces across the 38th parallel, past the narrow neck of northern Korea and all the way to the Chinese and Soviet borders, the war expanded from a civil war to a regional confrontation between the new Communist rulers of mainland China and the United States. Finally, the Korean War was one of several hot phases, including the Vietnam War, of the long Soviet-American confrontation, the Cold War.
Bruce Cumings has shown that the Korean conflict was at least in part a civil war. U.S. occupation forces in the south acquiesced in the establishment of a regime that Korean exiles and Koreans who collaborated with the Japanese occupiers dominated. Soviet occupation forces in the north installed Kim Il-sung who apparently served in the Red Army. The real loser in this three-sided conflict was the native Communist, Pak Hun-yung, who resisted the Japanese in Korea during the Second World War, and who may have misled Kim about the receptivity of Koreans south of the 38th parallel to liberation by northern invasion.
Stueck has written about the road to confrontation that brought U.S. armed forces and Chinese armies into a conflict that neither side wanted and from which neither side benefited. MacArthur discounted Chinese intervention despite evidence of Chinese troop concentrations in Manchuria, and he ordered UN forces to liberate the entire Korean peninsula. As the late John Wilz has written, the celebrated meeting of MacArthur and Truman at Wake Island in October 1950 lacked the gravitas it needed. Mao Zedong and the new Communist rulers of China felt compelled to send several hundreds of thousands of soldiers from the People's Liberation Army across the Yalu River and thus to send the United States and the Peoples Republic of China headlong into a clash.
Finally, the Korean War was a hot phase and, for Korea, America, and China, a very hot phase indeed, of the larger Soviet-American confrontation, the Cold War. Robert Simmons, many years ago, in The Strained Alliance (1975), tried to explain how a civil war expanded into a major confrontation that dramatically changed all the power relationships in Eastern Asia. As he noted, this expansion resulted in a triumph of sorts both for the Republic of China and the Soviet Union.
In that sense, it was a limited war, with the threat of a nuclear exchange or perhaps a Soviet advance into Western Europe always hanging over the conflict. While MacArthur chose to misunderstand the limitations of this conflict, his principal successor, Gen. Matthew Ridgway, accepted them, and the U.S. military maintained sufficient strength that, along with the economic recovery engendered by the great Marshall Plan, helped Western Europe to survive and prosper. Similarly, despite erroneous media reports of Chinese "hordes," Mao and his leadership cadre kept their eyes focused on the need to regain control over all of traditional China, including Tibet, and to begin the flawed remaking of China and the Chinese people.
That is, once the Chinese intervened, the numbers of Chinese and North Korean troops roughly equaled the totals in the UN command.
In addition to a diplomatic event of great stature, the Korean War was an armed conflict. Issues arose over soldier training, officer leadership, physical conditioning, and the warrior ethos, given the panic that set in after the Chinese counterattack. Ultimately General Ridgway demonstrated that the Chinese could not win, and the costs exceeded what China was willing to invest in a conflict that largely distracted the Communist leadership and the Chinese people from the remaking that Mao envisioned.
Allan R. Millett provides an interesting and valuable chapter on the active role of Koreans in the conflict. Too often Korean scholars and politicians have been content to portray Korea and the two Koreas as the victims of the conflict, and indeed as continuing victims of conflict in this century's old fulcrum of power in Northeast Asia. Millett writes about the active role of Korean interest groups, mostly communist on one side and conservative Christian on the other. He offers a very detailed discussion of the communist Koreans in the north using Chinese and Soviet support to push their vision of national reunification and the "capitalist-evangelical-nationalist" leaders in the south using American support for their vision, all in the 1945-48 period. By 1948, the line dividing the two Koreas had hardened, and the nature of the contention had changed.
Between 1948 and 1950, an undeclared war of sorts took place across the parallel. Kim secured his base of support within the north, and obtained Soviet and Chinese military and economic assistance as well as the return of Korean veterans who served in Chinese Red Armies. Rhee "won" a great victory in the south's election process, but had real difficulties contending with a guerrilla movement that depended, at least in part, on northern equipment, finances, and manpower. When the Truman Administration sought to substitute southern Korea for southern China as a symbol of American determination to resist Communist, Soviet-inspired expansion in late 1948 and 1949, as the extent of the Nationalist Chinese collapse became more clear, Rhee was able to secure his foreign base of support. The onset of war after June 25, 1950 served to strengthen the respective holds that Kim had in the north and Rhee had in the south, and to make seemingly permanent the division of Korea into two, mutually hostile regimes that reflected the original two groups of contending revolutionaries from the 1920s and the post-Mansei Rebellion ferment.
Kathryn Weathersby seeks to determine the role of the Soviet Union in the Korean War. Many years ago, Robert Simmons suggested that the particular timing of the Korean War reflected issues of nationalism and the strange, three-sided conflict between Pak, Kim, and Rhee, particularly as Pak watched Rhee's regime gradually, and with increasing effectiveness, destroy his base of support in the south. This revision of the earlier, more traditional Cold War historiography was a necessary tonic for the debate. Other scholars, benefiting from the opening of American, British, and Canadian archives, followed Simmons's lead. Weathersby, who has written extensively about the Soviet Union and the Cold War, discusses the opening of Soviet archives after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and how that wealth of material has reshaped and fine-tuned our understanding of the Soviet role in the Korean War. Kim Il-sung tried three times to secure Stalin's support for an invasion of the south, for North Korea was absolutely dependent on Soviet trade, technical expertise, and military assistance. Stalin acquiesced during Kim's third visit in late winter 1950, but he noted the Soviet Union would not send troops should the northern invasion fail, and he told Kim to secure Mao Zedong's blessing, since Stalin expected China to help, if only by freeing the several divisions of Korean troops in the People's Liberation Army. Mao agreed, although he was focused on ending the long civil war with Jiang Jieshi. The driving forces were still Kim and, perhaps, Pak, on whose assurances about the positive reaction of people in the south Kim depended. Scholars continue to argue whether Stalin's agreement stemmed from an aggressive view to expand the Soviet sphere, a defensive view where he feared an eventual war with the United States. But, in light of statements made by General Douglas MacArthur and U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson which excluded Korea (and the Asian mainland) from the U.S. defense perimeter in the Pacific, Stalin might have assumed there was little risk of U.S. intervention to save Rhee's regime in the south.
U.S. intervention clearly raised the stakes in the conflict. Stalin had largely kept Mao in the dark about the invasion and he made Kim promise to keep news of the invasion to a very small circle. Kim and Pak asked Stalin for aid and, when he refused, they turned to Mao to help stop the U.S.-led drive up the peninsula. The Chinese agreed to intervene, although the Soviets reneged on promised air cover for Chinese forward positions along the Yalu River, and Stalin overlooked accidental American bombings of Soviet air bases. Once the conflict settled into a stalemate in early spring 1951, Stalin favored an end. When he died in March 1953, his successors moved quickly to secure an end to the fighting.
Chen Jian examines how China became involved in the Korean War. Arguing against the traditional view that Mao and the Chinese Communists intervened out of a defensive posture, worried about American military might along Manchuria's sensitive border with the Korean peninsula, Chen makes a strong case that intervention fit with Mao's view of a resurgent China, firmly guided by its communist leadership, remaking itself and East Asia. Mao and his colleagues had concerns about North Korea's war plans, while the invasion progressed the likelihood of a U.S. counterstrike far behind North Korean lines. Thus, Mao strongly supported moving initially some 260,000 troops--volunteers--under General Peng Dehuai and urged Peng continually to drive American forces off the peninsula. At a point when Peng recognized that he could no longer dislodge the Americans, Mao still hoped fervently he could achieve the great victory, demonstrate America really was a "paper tiger," and forward the cause of revolution throughout Eastern Asia.
Lloyd Gardner focuses on Secretary of State Dean Acheson as a key player in the formation of the American view of Korea, the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China as well as the conflict's onset. It was a complicated era, and Acheson in many ways symbolized the complexity in American thought, as he was open to the possibility of dealing with the new rulers of China and rebuilding Japan, while warily watching the Soviet Union. He was also cognizant of the lack of resources to engage in any kind of expansionist or aggressive foreign policy.
Michael Schaller concentrates on the Korean War's impact on Japan. As he notes, "the Korean War proved an elixir that revitalized [Japan's] economy, ended the American occupation, and shaped the peace and security treaties that continue to tether [Japan] to a Pacific Alliance with the United States." On a larger level, many American foreign policymakers viewed the Korean War as ultimately aimed against a democratically and western-tied Japan; in that era, when it appeared that Stalin had ordered the invasion, it was not unreasonable to assume he wanted to neutralize Japan in case of future conflict with America. On a more practical level, Japan served as an unassailable stationary carrier, rear supply depot, and secure anchor for the American intervention in the war, and thus the Japanese economy boomed through American purchases of goods and services, and the transfer without cost of American technological and scientific expertise. And, as Schaller and the late Howard Schonberger have written elsewhere, the Truman Administration may have, in part, determined its view of the future of southeastern Asia and the southwestern Pacific by the need for the Japanese economy to have a secure area to obtain raw materials and sell finished goods, hence, in Schaller's phrase, securing the "great crescent."
Stueck provides a first-rate introduction and conclusion that help tie the essays together, and run against the general trend of historiography about that time and location. As Stueck correctly notes, this volume of essays cannot answer all the questions, but together the essays point out where the state of the profession stands on the war and its impact on the various countries that participated directly and indirectly in that conflict. The Korean War in World History answers many questions and points out many new lines of inquiry, and thus will likely help fuel a new era in scholarship about the war and its impact on the principal players. The editor and all the contributors deserve our praise for this first-rate addition to the literature.
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Charles M. Dobbs. Review of Stueck, William, ed., The Korean War in World History.
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