Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History

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William Stueck. Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 2002.


It has been said that all wars share one attribute: While they may begin as one thing, they always end up as another. This seems particularly true of the Korean War, and in his book Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History, William Stueck argues that the conflict (which began as a civil war during the genesis of the Cold War) would nearly start a world war and affect the relations of Communist and democratic nations.

Historically, the Korean Peninsula has been known as the “dagger pointed at the heart of Japan.” Korea's proximity to Japan made it a strategic entity for any party who wished to attack or defend Japan or Manchuria. The Japanese were quick to occupy Korea during the Second World War, and they still had some nine divisions on the peninsula in August 1945. To the U.S.-Soviet alliance, this force had to be demobilized and the peninsula stabilized.

The original plan for Korea went no farther than this: U.S.-Soviet forces in the Far East would occupy the peninsula to accept the surrender of the Japanese there and administrate the territory via a joint commission until a permanent nation-state could be established. These objectives were in keeping with the strategic interests of both the Americans and Russians.

In the wake of the Yalta Conference of 1945, both the United States and the U.S.S.R. had endorsed a model in which each would administrate sectors of occupied territory in accordance with their individual imperatives. This meant setting up governments in occupied territories that would serve as friendly client-states. On some level, U.S.-Soviet occupation and nation-building in the Far East made sense. Having so long been the victim of Russo-Sino-Japanese imperial ambition, the native Korean agents for a Korean state were either expatriated, ineffective, or ideologically divided. With no de facto central government in sight, U.S.-Soviet administration was a virtual necessity. But the convergence of this necessity, the civil war in China, and rising U.S.-Soviet tensions (particularly over U.S. anticommunist aid to Greece and Turkey) created government infrastructures at either end of the Korean peninsula that were incompatible.

But was this proximity of conflicting governments enough to make war inevitable? Stueck argues, and subsequent experience has proven, that Communist and democratic states can live alongside each other. Stueck makes that case that the initiation of hostilities was a civil conflict amplified by regional and global currents.

Above the 38th parallel, the native Korean authorities were mostly former guerillas in the Chinese Civil War and peasants, typified by their leader Kim Il-sung. In the south, authority was more centered on landholders and industrialists. This produced a class-conflict dynamic that drove northern and southern authorities to seek preeminence on the peninsula as a whole. Thus, both ends of the peninsula spent 1946 through 1950 thinking of how to subdue the other end. When the conflict did come, it was the North who initiated it, simply because it had been better supplied with heavy military equipment. But this simple civil war did not stay simple for long.

The United States quickly sought to reinforce its southern ally in two ways: Direct military intervention, and the support of the international community via action by the United Nations. The U.S. action was an extension of the newly articulated Truman Doctrine and a calculated move to protect Japan from possible Soviet hegemony. The United Nations action was calculated to establish itself as a broker of international events.

The new player was the People's Republic of China, which had recently established itself as the Soviet Union’s principal Communist ally in the region. China's willingness to intervene in the Korean War was fueled by a desire to secure Soviet favor (which it needed for military action against its erstwhile Nationalist rival on Formosa) and it desire to establish itself as a broker of regional events. While the Soviet Union remained reluctant to directly intervene, it supplied its allies and endorsed their actions.

Thus, the Korean War quickly grew from a civil war to a regional struggle with global implications. What is odd, according to Stueck, is that the Korean War did not escalate into an East/West world war; with so many combatants so thoroughly engaged, why didn't the balloon go up? Certainly all the makings were there. But just as with cake-making, the ingredients must be in the right quantities and combined in the right order, if the cake is to rise. Stueck makes the case that the U.S. government and military were ready to expand the war to at least include direct military action against airfields in Manchuria, and possible strikes against Chinese coastal targets. But actions of this kind would have undermined the endorsement of the United Nations and America's critical European allies. This, plus economic and social constrictions at home, forced the United States to avoid expanding the war. Stueck goes on to state that North Korean and Chinese leaders were very eager to have direct Soviet military participation in the war, but Stalin had gone to great lengths to avoid committing the Soviet Union to the Korean War, and upon his death, nobody in Moscow felt confident enough to break with this precedent. Thus, according to Stueck, the United States was willing to expand the war but was unable to do so, while the Soviet Union was able to expand the war, but was unwilling to do so. By 1951, this condition had effectively curbed the Korean War. But if so, why did the fighting go on for more than a year? For Stueck, the answer to this question illuminates the Korean War's place in the context of the Cold War.

Traditionally, wars are concluded with a mutual desire to end the violence and to offer at the least the pretense of harmony between the combatants. By contrast, the shooting phase of the Korean War ended with the respective sides striving to demonstrate control of the peace process, a willingness to continue the fight, and a moral sense of justification for every blow. In other words, the degree of hostility with which the Koreans ended the war was only slightly less than that with which they started it. This model suited the sponsoring superpowers (the United States and Soviet Union), who, if they could not win the Korean War, were at least determined not to lose it.

Eventually, the negotiators managed to find sufficient consensus to end hostilities, but the process accomplished little more than that. The Korean Peninsula remained divided, and the two Koreas remained hostile. A far more significant result of the Korean War was that the United States and Soviet Union had learned that their client states could be sponsored in limited wars for regional contributions to the global balance of power.


Stueck's commentary on the Korean War is full of some very thought-provoking insights, specifically the nature of the Korean conflict as a civil war, why the war didn't spread, and why it took so long to resolve, but his lack of a pure native-Korean perspective on the conflict renders it dispassionate to a fault. This demerit leaves unanswered the question of why did the Koreans fight and were they better off for having done so. Never the less, the dispassionate tone of Stueck's work does lend it an air of objectivity which is usually a rare commodity in Cold War books.

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