Bruce Cumings's "The Korean War," reviewed by William Stueck

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By William Stueck
Sunday, September 12, 2010


A History

By Bruce Cumings

Modern Library. 288 pp. $24

In 1981, Bruce Cumings, now a professor of history at the University of Chicago, became a hero to left-wing thinkers in the United States and South Korea with the publication of the first volume of his massive study on the origins of the Korean War. Indeed, his arguments that the war originated in conflicts internal to the peninsula and that, during its occupation, the United States consistently favored repressive right-wing forces that had collaborated with the Japanese gained currency with a range of scholars. The volume remains a classic in the literature on the Korean War. Since 1981, Cumings has written widely on Korean history and the international politics of northeast Asia, but he has never matched the quality of his first book.

His latest, "The Korean War," does not break that pattern. Designed for the general reading public, the volume begins with a chronological survey of the war's headline events from the military attack of June 25, 1950, by the Soviet-sponsored communist regime in North Korea on the U.S.-sponsored regime in South Korea to the armistice on July 27, 1953. It then provides a series of topical chapters on the civil conflict in Korea before the war, the brutality of the war itself and memories of the war, or lack thereof, in the United States, Korea and Japan. While he provides insights on the perspectives of North Korean leaders and South Koreans of a progressive stripe, his account falters in other areas.

Most important, Cumings displays a limited grasp of sources that have emerged since he published his second volume on the war's origins in 1990. Since then an enormous number of government documents have become available on the roles of the United States, the Soviet Union and China on the origins, course and impact of the war, and historians have produced a substantial new literature devoted to interpreting them. For example, in "Undermining the Kremlin: America's Strategy to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 1947-1956" Gregory Mitrovich demonstrates that George F. Kennan's version of containment during 1948 and '49 was not limited to Western Europe and Japan, as Cumings suggests. Mitrovich and others have demonstrated persuasively that the Kennan-drafted National Security Council document 48 provided the rationale for an active if non-military campaign to roll back Soviet power. Cumings's apparent unfamiliarity with this revelation leads him to misinterpret the evolution of American views on the nature of the Soviet threat.

Cumings also ignores evidence from archives in China and Russia that sheds light on the lead-up to North Korea's invasion of the south. Cumings lays emphasis on a Chinese role in the attack, but newly released documents show that Beijing was largely left out of the pre-war planning while Moscow was intimately involved.

Cumings's assertion that the Republic of Korea government in the south was "in total disarray" on the eve of the North Korean attack ignores or downplays the fact that it had recently defeated the guerrilla movement below the 38th parallel and implemented important measures to control inflation and advance land reform. Cumings dwells on the failures of South Korea's army during the war, totally ignoring the contribution the army made to the defense of the Pusan Perimeter and its manning by mid-1952 of over 50 percent of the front line on the United Nations side. Cumings makes some striking omissions, too. He spends considerable space on such topics as the North Korean perspective and American atrocities from 1950-53. He fails, however, to explain U.S. policy during the occupation or describe the eventual emergence of the Republic of Korea as an economically prosperous and democratic state that contrasts dramatically with the economic basketcase and brutal regime in North Korea.

Not surprisingly, Cumings declares that the Korean War was "all for naught," that it "solved nothing." In the sense that it left Korea divided and in a tense state that has lasted to this day, he is right. In other ways, though, he is wide of the mark, as the fighting never resumed on a large scale, the Republic of Korea was saved, and the Western alliance grew and armed itself in a manner that made a great power confrontation less likely. For readers desiring a sermon on the shortcomings of the United States in Korea from World War II to the present, this book is a must read. Those wanting an up-to-date account of the war in all its complexity should look elsewhere.

William Stueck is author of, among other works, "The Korean War: An International History" and "Rethinking the Korean War."

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