All history nerds have their obsessions and the Korean War is one of mine. Anything I have to say about the subject is going to be skewed by enthusiasm, but I bothered to get a history degree because scholarship matters to me, and Bruce Cumings is an important scholar, mostly because of what he has to say about the Korean War.
You may not agree with his interpretations of things, but you cannot fault him for the facts being what they are, and if a legitimate argument against his findings is out there I have yet to hear it, despite the assorted detractors who delight in despising him.
I wouldn’t call Cumings (or anyone) faultless, but one reviewer went so far as to say that no one in the field of East Asian history takes Cumings seriously anymore, which ignores the fact that the University of Chicago takes him seriously enough to make him chair of the history department.
But about the war . . . it matters, and if you don’t know why, this book is a good place to start. It’s a mostly engaging read, which is to say not painfully academic, though even at the introductory level there’s nothing light-weight about Cumings, and that’s what this is, an introduction. It might more aptly if awkwardly be titled An Overview of the Backstory to and Fallout from The Korean War.
One of the reasons it matters is that “it was the occasion for transforming the United States into a country that the founding fathers would barely recognize. Is this phenomenon well known? It has been to some scholars for a generation. Otherwise it isn’t .” (p. 207) America fought in Korea for only three years, but the war resulted in “a quadrupling of American defense spending. More than that, it was this war and not World War II that occasioned the enormous foreign military base structure and the domestic military-industrial complex to service it which has come to define the sinews of American global power ever since.” (p. 210).
This isn’t Cumings’s only work on the war or the country. He’s also written extensively about American expansionism across the western frontier to East Asia (see 'Dominion From Sea to Sea,' 2009, Yale University Press). When taken of a piece his work is substantial -- as strong as flesh and blood, as Wordsworth might say, and Cumings might quote him. Cumings likes quotes. His histories are richly informed by literature and culture, with a humanizing mix of personal profiles and accounts. He’s not easy but I’d call him a people’s scholar, meaning he cares about being accessible and interesting.
He’s often called a revisionist as if there’s something wrong with that; about the Korean War you have to be if you take scholarship seriously. The study of history is a process of acquiring and vetting information, and accounts must be duly revised. Much information about this war has been obscured or classified for years, and the emerging facts are messing with familiar and comfortable perceptions.
A lot of the classified stuff wasn’t available until 1999, and much has come to light during the last decade through the Korean Truth and Reconciliation Project, undertaken by and in South Korea. Using South Africa’s process as a model, South Korea took “a scrupulous, penetrating, forensic look at the past that investigates and acknowledges buried and suppressed aspects of history. And so, mostly unbeknownst to the American people or press, the Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission has dredged up and verified the massacres of tens of thousands of its own citizens by the Syngman Rhee regime, various villages blotted out by American napalm (in the South), and has reexamined massacres by North Korean and local communists (these were cases endlessly propagandized since the war ended).” (p. 173)
We (Americans) call this the forgotten war but it is more unknown than forgotten. We called it a war in 1950 when the communist north invaded the American-backed south, but it actually commenced “in 1931-32 after Japanese forces invaded the northeast provinces of China and established the puppet state of Manchukuo. They (the Japanese) quickly faced a huge if motley army of guerrilla, secret society, and bandit resistance in which (northern) Koreans were by far the majority.” (p. 44)
President Theodore Roosevelt had made the most of his Nobel Peace Prize by facilitating Japanese dominion over Korea for the allegedly noble purpose of modernizing the latter; “by mid-1942, however, State Department planners began to worry that a Korea in the wrong hands might threaten the security of the post-war Pacific, and made plans for a full or partial occupation of Korea upon Japan’s defeat.” (p. 105)
After World War II, Korea like a lot of other places was divided to serve Soviet or American interests. Communist North Korea invaded the south in 1950 to settle an old score with “the South Korean army, nearly all of whom had served the Japanese. During the Korean War this was barely known to Americans, and when known it was deemed to be of dubious import because by then Japan was our ally . . . The Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945 is akin to the Nazi occupation of France, in the way it dug in deeply and has gnawed at the Korean national consciousness ever since . . . Kim Il Sung began fighting the Japanese in Manchuria in the spring of 1932, and his heirs (including Kim Jong Il) trace everything back to this.” (p. 45)
With the above passage Cumings begins to scratch the surface of the political and cultural dynamics complicating Korea’s civil war; America, in the throes of McCarthyism, was concerned only with running the north out of the south to contain communism, which we did in the summer of 1950.
Then came the big idea to overthrow the north in the winter of 1950/51. That did not go so well and explains why so many personal accounts of the war describe Korea primarily as cold. The weather was intimately understood but little else made sense. (Cumings, an admirer of David Halberstam’s work on the Vietnam War, devotes several pages to critiquing ‘The Coldest Winter’; “Had someone written a book like this about Vietnam,” Cumings writes, “Halberstam would have been the first to criticize it.”)
For America, Korea amounted to two wars: “For the Truman Cold War liberal, Korea was a success, a ‘limited war.’ For the (General Douglas) MacArthur conservative, Korea was a failure: the first defeat in American history, more properly a stalemate . . . The problem for MacArthur’s epitaph is that if MacArthur saw no substitute for victory, he likewise saw no limit on victory; each victory begged another war.” (p. 228)
The fighting became increasingly and brutally indiscriminate, and Cumings does not slight atrocities on either side; detractors who call him an apologist for North Korea cannot be reading him thoroughly. It is not excusing North Korea to acknowledge that while theoretically taking the moral high ground, our side resorted to overwhelmingly mindless tactics and objectives, despite the best efforts of a few exemplary field commanders. We allowed annihilation to become an end in itself, such that, whether in the north or the south, the American enemy was defined as “anybody wearing white,” white being the traditional color of the Korean peasant and of mourning.
The American air force stepped up, as indiscriminate destruction had become its forte. General Curtis LeMay made a point of claiming that over a period of three years “we burned down every town in North Korea and South Korea.” (p. 151)
“In the end the scale of urban destruction quite exceeded that in Germany and Japan; according to U.S. Air Force estimates . . . the United States dropped 635,000 tons of bombs in Korea (not counting 32,557 tons of napalm), compared to 503,000 tons in the entire Pacific theater in World War II.” (p.160)
General Otto Weyland gave the air force credit for securing the armistice, but the facts show “he was wrong, just as he had been in World War II, but that did not stop the air force from repeating the same mindless and purposeless destruction in Vietnam. Saturation bombing was not conclusive in either war, just unimaginably destructive.” (p. 161)
The Korean War matters for many reasons, not the least of which are the lessons to be learned about how we have proceeded to confront our enemies and fight our wars. Bruce Cumings is to be commended for refusing to let us off the hook.