The Korean War
by Bruce Cumings
Modern Library, 320 pp., $24
In late 2002 and early 2003, as the campaign leading up to the Iraq war was underway, protests attracted hundreds of thousands in Washington, New York, and across the country. Though outwardly broad-based, mainstream, and “moderate,” reporting revealed that many of these protests were organized by International ANSWER, a group run by a Marxist political party that supports Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro, and Slobodan Milosevic, among other illiberal characters. The Korean War is a bit like one of those rallies: Reasonable and middlebrow though it appears—what could be more mainstream than the Modern Library?—close reading reveals its author to be a defense attorney for arguably the most revolting government on the planet. To oppose American imperialism is one thing; to whitewash the North Korean regime is another, more sinister, undertaking.
Bruce Cumings, a historian at the University of Chicago, is best known for his first book, The Origins of the Korean War (1981). Several of the revisionist claims made in that book were considered path-clearing by scholars, and it remains valued among experts on the subject. But Cumings’s political and historical judgment has worsened with age. His North Korea: Another Country (2003) contained several indefensible claims: “I have no sympathy for the North,” he wrote, “which is the author of most of its troubles” (emphasis added)—a qualification surpassed only by the author’s omission of any active opposition he may have to such a horrid regime. Americans “should do something about the pathologies of our inner cities—say, in Houston—before pointing the finger” at North Korea.
The Korean War is not a straightforward narrative history. It is divided into topical chapters on the war’s legacy, the civil conflict prior to full-blown hostilities, the air war, and McCarthyism, as well as the course of the conflict. It takes as its starting point that the Korean War, and North Korea itself, have been misunderstood, misrepresented, and misremembered in the United States; this is “a book seeking to uncover truths that most Americans do not know and perhaps don’t want to know, truths sometimes as shocking as they are unpalatable to American self-esteem.”
The Korean War had its roots in the artificial, arbitrary division of the country by the Allied powers, according to Cumings: “It is now clear from the Soviet documents that Pyongyang had made a decision to escalate the civil conflict to the level of conventional warfare many months before June 1950, having tired of the inconclusive guerrilla struggle in the south, and perhaps hoping to seize on a southern provocation like many that occurred in 1949.” It could as easily have been the South that began the war, he implies, and it is no immoral act to have been the first to strike. When the South Korean president Syngman Rhee told the American envoy John Foster Dulles that he wanted to unify Korea, “it [was] no different from the threats to march north made many times before.” Dulles was not in collusion with Rhee, Cumings concedes, “but what might the North Koreans have thought?” Cumings has clearly given a great deal of consideration to what the North Koreans thought; but he has gone beyond affection (as Paul Berman said in a different context) and “succumbed to a common syndrome of academic regional specialists: he has ended up adopting several of the intellectual assumptions that ought to be his topic of study.”
On page following page, Cumings exonerates North Korea or overstates American culpability. “Kim Il Sung crossed the five-year-old 38th parallel, not an international boundary like that between Iraq and Kuwait, or Germany and Poland; instead it bisected a nation that had a rare and well-recognized unitary existence going back to antiquity,” he writes. This is false. The 38th parallel was internationally recognized as a legitimate boundary, both by the United Nations and by the two existing superpowers, which is why there was such deep debate amongst the Koreans, Chinese, and Soviets about whether to cross it. The brazenness of North Korea’s invasion also explains why alongside the United States fought Australia, Canada, Turkey, and 18 other nations.
Worse, Cumings underplays the value of a democratic South Korea:
The true tragedy was not the war itself, for a civil conflict purely among Koreans might have resolved the extraordinary tensions generated by colonialism, national division, and foreign intervention. The tragedy was that the war solved nothing: only the status quo ante was restored, only a cease-fire held the peace.
No, the war did solve something, and not something trivial: an anti-Communist, independent South Korea that evolved into a flourishing market democracy. Was authoritarian South Korea worth protecting in 1950? Look at the leadership drama currently underway in the North: More than a half-century after the armistice, North Korea is a ghastly place. And yet Cumings is, at the least, a friendly visitor whose perspective proceeds directly from his political attitude: “North Korean political practice is reprehensible, but we are not responsible for it. More disturbing is the incessant stereotyping and demonizing of this regime in the United States” (italics added).
He complains that “there is no evidence in the North Korean experience of the mass violence against whole classes of people or the wholesale ‘purge’ that so clearly characterized Stalinism. . . . Nevertheless, North Korea remains everyone’s example of worst-case socialism.” Of course, what characterized Stalinism was not only the purges and mass violence but the thought control, suppression of dissent, destruction of opposition, widespread propaganda, cult of personality, and central control of the economy. And by these standards North Korea’s rulers do not just meet Stalin’s record but exceed it. If North Korea remains everyone’s example of “worst-case socialism,” that is because it illustrates precisely what can happen in worst-case socialism.
There are a few points of value here: Cumings provides a sobering reminder of the toll the American air war had on both Koreas, and our postwar occupation was more brutal than most Americans know. But readers interested in a brief, well-informed, and fair-minded guide to the conflict are referred to William Stueck’s The Korean War: An International History.
Jordan Michael Smith is a writer in Washington.