Daniel N. White
Books on war are too important to be left to generals, or for that matter to the usual war buffs. I suspect that the entire cadre of American lefties who read seriously about war could fit handily into an SUV. If so, Bruce Cumings might just occupy the driver’s seat. His one-volume history of the Korean War, titled The Korean War: A History, is superb at debunking the hoary myths created by the pro-war American exceptionalist media.
Cumings is the first author ever to place the Korean War in its proper historical context. Other books written by American authors treat the war as an event that came from nowhere in 1950 and which then ended, to these authors’ varying degrees of satisfaction, in 1953. Everything else in Korean history is ignored.
The main reason events in Korea before June 25, 1950 and after July 27, 1953 are ignored by American historians is that much of what happened outside these dates shows the United States and its South Korean ally/puppet state in a bad light. We split Korea in half for no good reason one day in 1945 when a hasty decision was made by a mid-level State Department bureaucrat who knew nothing about Korea. (This was Dean Rusk, who would later gain fame for knowing nothing about Vietnam.)
Korea itself had suffered under a brutal Japanese occupation for forty years, during which the Japanese had tied Korea’s economy to Japan’s in a typical colonial/imperialist manner that benefited the Japanese and the Korean collaborator class at the expense of most Koreans. The large Korean merchant, military, and police class that collaborated with their Japanese occupiers repressed with even greater cruelty and brutality their fellow Koreans than their Japanese masters did.
Postwar events had this collaborator class as America’s choice to run Korea after World War II, and they and we brutally suppressed any Leftist or Korean nationalist opposition to them. A major part of Cumings’ book is pointing out that the Korean War was in large part a settling of scores caused by decades of Japanese occupation and Korean collaboration. Yet along with that failed settling of accounts, what resulted was a greater trauma, a terribly bloody and destructive war, which created yet another deep and painful layer of conflicts that still remain unresolved.
Kim Il Sung, a guerrilla fighter against the Japanese, justifiably saw himself as a nationalist hero who was entitled to run the country after the Japanese defeat. He was understandably upset that the U.S. prevented him from doing so by installing a group of Japanese collaborators headed by Syngman Rhee. Rhee and his cohorts believed they could and should invade the North, an obvious military impossibility whose worldwide political consequences they were blind and deaf to. They engaged in numerous military provocations; indeed, the question of just who started the war in 1950 remains open to some debate.
Cumings sets the Korean War in historical context in regards to its effects on America and American history. Liberal opinion has held that the Korean War was a limited and successful U.S. military intervention on behalf of freeing South Korea from red enslavement, while conservative opinion has held that domestic liberals kept General Douglas MacArthur from singlehandedly defeating the Red Menace in Korea. This tiresome feud has poisoned American political discourse ever since.
Cumings points out how wrong both sides to this debate were and are. MacArthur was responsible for the worst and most preventable defeat in the history of the U.S. Army at Chosin Reservoir. The notion held in conservative circles that the U.S. could have defeated and ejected the North Korean Army (NKPA) and Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) from Korea is an almost unmatchable piece of military ignorance. That this glaring military impossibility* has remained an article of faith (combined with the associated blaming of the domestic backstabbers who kept MacArthur and the U.S. military from performing this feat) to this day indicates a severe cognitive/emotive malfunction in its proponents.**
At the same time, conventional liberal opinion conveniently overlooks the fact that perhaps three-quarters of the war’s casualties took place after U.N. forces had outflanked and defeated the NKPA after the Inchon landing. President Truman and Dean Acheson’s decision to give MacArthur free rein to go north and unify Korea, in open violation of the U.N. war mandate, precipitated Chinese intervention and a longer and much more devastating war. Liberal opinion also hides Truman and Acheson’s responsibility for their quick, casual, and uninformed decision to intervene in Korea’s civil war in June 1950. This decision, mostly praised as resolute in liberal circles, marked the creation of today’s imperial presidency.
For the U.S., the Korean War made permanent the Cold War American state, with a large and permanent peacetime military for the first time in U.S. history. It froze in place the post-World War II standoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, preventing any possibility of a gradual easing of tensions. The notion of an eternal faceoff between the West and the USSR was an idea completely alien to many world leaders prior to Korea, including George Kennan, arguably the intellectual father of the Cold War. A further result of the war was the extension of U.S. military bases abroad, an imperial presence that ever since has grown like Topsy. Finally, the Korean War contributed to McCarthyism. The new domestic climate of fear engendered by the war, fear largely I think of a military defeat (and the actuality of one, too—Chosin could have been far worse had the Chinese army been better generalled), made large numbers of Americans take McCarthy’s rants seriously, which prior to 1950 they simply hadn’t.
Cumings argues that the Korean War shaped American history and society more than any other 20th century war. Seeing as the U.S. still maintains a huge national security state and apparatus, a permanent military-industrial complex, an empire of foreign bases across the world, and a Keynesian economy driven by military spending, I’d say Cumings is right. He deserves much credit for this observation, and one must ask why no other American historian has seen this.
Cumings answers this question in part by focusing throughout the book on history and memory. All parties to the war have selected what events they want to commemorate and what parts they want to repress. The nature of history, the nature of human remembering and coping with hard times and painful events, makes that inevitable, perhaps even necessary. But that doesn’t mean the historian should forget. Cumings argues that the historian’s first duty is to provide a societal psychotherapy of sorts for explaining the how and why of what is remembered and what is repressed. A fair lick of that is done here in this book, most commendably and credibly.
Cumings’ book is a small gem and a must read. It should go down as one of the essential books to understand 20th century American history, but it won’t. Too many hard questions about America and American society get raised if you look too closely at the Korean War. To date Americans just aren’t willing to look. Forgetting things is easier, and that’s mostly what we’ve done as a country and people. This book will almost certainly be a casualty of that willed unconsciousness.
And that’s too bad. America needs a complete and honest accounting of the real Korean War, which is exactly what Cumings provides. Overall, America’s actions in Korea reflect poorly on our country, raising serious questions about our commitment to ideals of liberty, democracy, and freedom.
Daniel N. White has lived in Austin, Texas, for a lot longer than he originally planned to. He reads a lot more than we are supposed to, particularly about topics that we really aren’t supposed to worry about. He works blue-collar for a living–you can be honest doing that–but is somewhat fed up with it right now. He will gladly respond to all comments that aren’t too insulting or dumb. He can be reached at Louis_14_le_roi_soleil@hotmail.com.
*Why was that impossible? For starters, by December 1950 the U.S. had committed every single combat ready division to Korea, save the 82nd Airborne. We had no more infantry reserves. The Pentagon’s own analysis at the time showed that to defeat the Chinese Army would require a war effort comparable to World War II’s, with the same number of divisions put into the field, with no guarantee of success either.
**The same people arguing for the possibility of military victory in Korea almost all also argue about the certainty of a successful invasion of Cuba by the Bay of Pigs Brigadistas if Kennedy hadn’t sold them out by not committing the U.S. Air Force to their rescue. But the order of battle (OB) numbers there were: 1300 Brigadistas, 2/3rds of whom were only partly trained, versus a 60,000 man Castro regular army backed by 250,000 militiamen. The military impossibility there is beyond obvious. That this impossibility remains so deeply entrenched in so many conservative American’s minds requires sociological and perhaps even psychiatric investigation. I’m not joking.