The Korean War

Book by Bruce Cumings; New York, Random House, 2010, 288 pp.

Overshadowed by World War II and Vietnam, the Korean War has long been the "forgotten war" in American memory. Apart from a few notable exceptions, American historians have predominantly accepted the standard propaganda that the Communist North (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea—PRK) was singularly responsible for provoking the war by invading the Southern Republic of Korea (ROK) and carried out myriad atrocities, justifying U.S. action. Mainstream analysts and commentators similarly devour Washington’s line that North Korea today is a threat to humanity which should be contained and its leaders overthrown.

Bruce Cumings’s book The Korean War: A History shatters these conceptions and shows in vivid detail that the Korean War was among the most misguided, unjust, and murderous wars fought by the United States in its history, displaying many of the features of the Vietnam War that aroused mass public protest. Cumings, chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, writes: "Here was the Vietnam War we came to know before Vietnam—gooks, napalm, rapes, whores, an unreliable ally…untrained GIs fighting a war their generals barely understood, fragging of officers…press handouts from General Douglas MacArthur’s headquarters apparently scripted by comedians or lunatics, an ostensible vision of bringing freedom and liberty to a sordid dictatorship run by servants of Japanese imperialism." The most disturbing element was the unrestrained air power that was used to destroy large portions of 18 of 22 major North Korean cities and the indiscriminate killing of civilians by American and ROK soldiers, which exceeded that of the DPRK by at least 50 percent. Hungarian journalist Tibor Meray is quoted as stating: "I saw destruction and horrible things committed by American forces…. Everything which moved in North Korea is a military target, peasants in the field often were machine gunned by pilots, who, this was my impression, amused themselves to shoot targets which moved."

Drawing on material from his magisterial two-volume history, The Origins of the Korean War, Cumings demonstrates that the war began not in 1950, but during the period of U.S. military occupation of the South from 1945-1948, which was a product of America’s imperial ambitions in the Asia-Pacific. After World War II, U.S. policy elites were committed to extending the U.S. informal empire and presiding over an integrated global economic order driven by free markets and trade. The Far-East was seen as a region of vital strategic significance, with Korea envisioned as a repository of raw materials and surplus markets for Japan, the "super-domino" in the containment strategy, which the United States was committed to reconstructing in order to keep it in the Western orbit. In January 1947, Secretary of State George Marshall scribbled a note to Dean Acheson that said, "Please have plan drafted of policy to organize a definite government of So. Korea and connect up (sic) its economy with that of Japan." In order to achieve this objective, the United States divided the country at the 38th parallel (a line which had no historic justification), occupied the south, and put in power the conservative nationalist Syngman Rhee, supporting his campaign of repression against the left.

An Office of Strategic Services (OSS) liaison who had spent over 35 years in exile, Rhee lacked a popular base and relied on former Japanese colonial collaborators, setting off alarm bells in the DPRK, which was run by Kim Il-Sung, a principal guerrilla leader of the anti-Japanese resistance. Rhee’s unwillingness to promote basic land reform and his support for fascistic youth groups ignited a widespread revolt spearheaded by members of people’s committees, who organized democratic governance and social reform at the local level. U.S. policy was especially influential in building up the paramilitary capabilities of the Korean National Police (KNP) consisting of many Japanese collaborators who worked with the youth groups in hunting down leftists. The U.S. also established the ROK Army, which grew out of police constabulary units headed by Colonel James M. Hausman, a contemporary of legendary CIA operative Edward Lansdale in his promotion of violent psychological warfare methods. Characterizing Koreans to a post-war interviewer, as "brutal bastards, worse than the Japanese," Hausman allegedly taught his soldiers how to douse corpses of executed people with gasoline so as to hide the method of execution or blame it on the Communists.

With support from U.S. counter-intelligence, the ROKA and KNP killed an estimated 100,000 South Koreans in counter-insurgency campaigns before 1950. The worst of the violence took place in Kwangju, capital of the rebellious South Cholla province, and in the southern island of Chejudo, where U.S.-backed forces burned houses, tortured en masse, and, writes Cumings, killed anywhere from 30,000-60,000 people (1/6 of the population), driving thousands more into exile. One government report of the period noted "frustrated by not knowing the identity of these elusive men [guerrillas], the police in some cases carried out indiscriminate warfare against entire villages." Cumings wonders if Americans living today who served in the campaigns were ever able to "connect the dots between the indigenous organs of self-government that Koreans fashioned in the aftermath of four decades of brutal colonial rule, and the peasants armed with the tools of their trade, being cut down like rice shoots by the same treacherous Koreans who had served the Japanese?"

The North-South war, which began on June 25, 1950 when Kim’s Korean People’s Army (KPA) crossed the 38th parallel, was equally as brutal as the civil war in the south. While the New York Times likened the northern armies to "barbarian hordes and invading locusts reminiscent of Ghengis Khan" and the Nazi blitzkrieg, new archival evidence and the findings of the South Korean Commission on Truth and Reconciliation show that the torturing and shooting of POW’s was carried out more systematically by the South and that the KNP liquidated the prisons in the aftermath of the DPRK invasion and shot thousands of people in the back of the head, including women and children. Driven by acute racism, U.S. troops were also notorious for their cruelty and carried out numerous civilian massacres while showering the countryside with napalm. Much like in Vietnam, many soldiers were left to wonder why if South and North Koreans were identical, "North Koreans fight like tigers and South Koreans run like sheep."

These comments underscore for Cumings how Americans were ignorant of the political dynamic underlying the fratricidal war and its connection to the past half century of Japanese colonial rule. As he writes: "it did not dawn on Americans that anti-colonial fighters might have something to fight about." Characterized in American propaganda as a Soviet puppet and stooge, Kim Il-Sung presided over a nationalist revolutionary government, which, whatever its flaws, promised autonomy from foreign colonialism and tutelage, and still does today. While harsh and oppressive, the DPRK never was Stalinist or totalitarian and land reform programs were less violent than in China and North Vietnam. Cumings likens the current regime to a modern form of monarchy that draws on neo-Confucianism and other historical traditions in Korean politics. Instead of adopting orientalist stereotypes, he argues, Westerners should try and understand the country on its own terms, including the fact that many of its policies have been designed out of fear of another invasion by the United States and by the threat of renewed domination by Japan. American bellicosity in this latter respect and "axis of evil" rhetoric has done nothing but harm.

One of the greatest tragedies of the Korean War, which was a major watershed in the growth of the American overseas network of military bases and put the country on the path of a permanent war economy, is that it is still ongoing. After all the bloodshed and destruction, the artificial division still endures as do many of the stereotypes and caricatures of the northern enemy in the United States. The one positive development over the last 25 years has been the reemergence of a pro-democracy movement in the ROK (receiving minimal support from the United States) and the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has enabled many South Koreans to come to terms with their losses. While old enmities are starting to break down in the ROK and a more progressive leadership has taken charge, the United States remains locked in a 1950s, McCarthyite time-warp, exemplified in CNN’s ever present warning of the "new North Korean threat." Failing to learn anything from history, Americans are currently replicating their Korean experience in Iraq where, as Cumings writes, "without forethought, due consideration, or self knowledge, the United States barged into a political, social, and cultural thicket without knowing what it was doing and now finds that it cannot get out."

Cumings has written a powerful book which serves to refute many historical myths and distortions in the United States about the Korean War. He shows in lucid detail the vicious character of America’s strategic allies and the barbaric and genocidal nature of the air and ground wars. In spite of the manipulations of Washington and to a far lesser extent the Soviet Union, Koreans were ultimately most decisive in shaping the conflict. And one day, with hope, they will come up with their own solution to the mess which liberal heroes Truman and Acheson helped to create.


Jeremy Kuzmarov is assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa.