ONE OF THE PROBLEMS of reviewing journalist Joseph C. Goulden's Korea: The Untold Story of the War is that his blaring claims of having unearthed a treasure of heretofore unused material partially deafens one to what it is he is actually saying. The dust jacket, the press releases, the book's introduction and source notes trumpet that Goulden has dug up "hundreds" of heretofore top secret government documents which have enabled him to tell a story that has not been told before. He has had "unique access" to the "secret files" of the National Security Council and Joint Chiefs of Staff and the "secret cable traffic" between General Douglas MacArthur and the Joint Chiefs and is the first person to "exploit" the Freedom of Information Act on the war. Goulden asserts, not modestly, that his book, "in a sense," could be regarded as "the Pentagon Papers of the Korean War," which I take to mean an expos,e of such sweeping scope that it could alter our perceptions of this period of history and throw the scholars into an intellectual tizzy.

Such loud and important claims invite closest scrutiny. After some weeks with the book, my conclusion is, in a word, poppycock. It may well be that Goulden spent years in various archives (the books is billed as "the fruit of five years of research") ferreting out documents and filing FOIA forms. If so, he sure wasted a lot of time and money. I cannot find a single significant official government document in this book that I have not seen in full or excerpted elsewhere. Some few tidbits from CIA and Tokyo intelligence files which may be new add nothing of consequence.

The trailblazing scholar of the repository of formerly classified Korean War official documents is an able military historian, James F. Schnabel. In 1972, the Army's Office of Military History published Schnabel's Policy and Direction: The First Year, which paraphrased or excerpted many of the important top secret government documents on the Korean War. In 1976, the State Department further enlarged our knowledge with the publication of its Foreign Relations Series, Vol. 7, 1950, containing 1633 pages of hitherto top secret documents on the war, including minutes of some NSC meetings, the full text of many top secret messages between MacArthur and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other valuable documents. (Two or three more volumes for the Korean War period are due this year.) Most useful and important of all for military scholars of this period, in 1978-79 the JCS historical division declassified and released a monumental (1117 single-spaced pages), two-part history of the Korean War from the JCS viewpoint written by Schnabel and his colleague, military historian Dr. Robert J. Watson.

The epic Schnabel-Watson work is based on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of declassified top secret documents in the JCS files, many of which are now in the National Archives and open to scholars. It contains the full text or gist of every single important message between the JCS and MacArthur from June 25, 1950 to April 10, 1951 when Truman relieved MacArthur. Owing to lack of funds, the Schnabel- Watson work was not "published" in the traditional sense, but rather copied and distributed to the National Archives and to various military libraries. Copies can be obtained from the National Archives for a fee or from an outfit which reproduces government documents, Michael Glazer, Inc., in Wilmington, Delaware. In his source notes, Goulden pays tribute to the Schnabel-Watson work, describing it as "a veritable shopping list for documents to ferret out and read" and in his notes he occasionally cites it. In the first seven chapters of Goulden's book (232 pages) which I examined closely, the only top secret messages between the JCS and MacArthur he cites are all in Schnabel-Watson. Moreover, in at least one instance it appears that Goulden freely borrowed from the Schnabel-Watson text itself. His sub-chapter, "A Grim Washington" on page 405-6 is, in substance, a duplicate of pages 355-8 of Schabel- Watson, including the same excerpt from a James Reston "mood" piece in The New York Times.

It seems misleading to me to claim "unique access" when the meat of every single significant government document, at least in these chapters, can be found in Schnabel-Watson, other published official government histories or hearings, or open archives, or other published works I do not have room to list here. You would never know this from Goulden's skimpy, erratic (virtually useless) chapter notes, which often obscure rather than enlighten us as to his sources and would not be acceptable in History 101.

And how well has Goulden handled all this material? A little too imprecisely, I'd say. On the first page, he misquotes JCS Chairman Omar Bradley as saying the Korean War was, "Frankly, a great military disaster, the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong enemy." That quote--the most famous utterance taciturn Omar Bradley ever made--was not about the Korean War, which Bradley and the JCS fully supported, but about MacArthur's proposal to widen the Korean War to Red China. What Bradley actually said was, "Frankly, in the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this strategy would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy." Elsewhere Goulden misquotes Bradley again; has him saying something at an NSC meeting he did not say, and wrongly has him visiting Korea just before the war. Later he misstates a JCS position paper on the occupation of Korean cities. He misnames the job titles of Dwight Eisenhower and General Alfred M. Gruenther. He carries forward Truman's assertion (in his memoirs) that, when asked his opinion on firing MacArthur, presidential assistant Averell Harriman said Truman should have done it two years earlier--ignoring or overlooking Harriman's claim in a 1975 seminar that Truman misquoted him.

All of which is a damned shame. The Korean war, an important milestone in our history that cost some 52,000 American lives, deserves a full-scale popular history, utilizing all the new documentary material that the government, Schnabel, Watson and others have brought to light. Goulden has made a mighty try. It is a good big read for an undiscerning audience. But in panting pursuit of the sensational tidbit, and in straining to pat himself on the back, Goulden has let his material get away from him. Korea: The Untold Story of the War just doesn't do the job, and it's going to make a lot of hard-working military historians mad as hell.