The Korean War in World History

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William Stueck. The Korean War in World History. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. 2004. 203 pages. $35.00.



William Stueck has edited a series of papers from a symposium on the Korean War. Our knowledge of the Korean War has had a ‘sea change’ (61) since the early 1990’s when Russian archival material as well as memoirs and interviews with participants became available.


Allen R. Millett describes turmoil in Korea at the end of World War II. Everybody who was anybody was struggling for power. Ultimately a Communist, Kim Il-Sung gained control of North Korea and Syngman Rhee led South Korea. Millett believes Koreans were the ‘main architects of the war.’ (3) Kim Il-sung lobbied both Stalin and Mao for support of an invasion across the 38th parallel.


Kathryn Weathersby surveys the ‘state of historical knowledge’ about the Soviet role in the Korean War. Recently available documents ‘show that the idea of gaining control over South Korea by means of a conventional military offensive; originated with Kim Il-sung. (64) According to Weathersby, there are many question open to interpretation, e.g. Stalin’s rationale for attacking South Korea and ‘how this action related to the larger aims’ (64) of the Soviet Union. Another open question is why Stalin did not end his boycott of the United Nations to block its resolution to send troops.’ (70) Weathersby says Russian documents show that allegations about the American use of biological weapons were ‘based on manufactured evidence.’ (84) The documents confirm that Stalin’s death in 1953 was the ‘impetus for the Communist side to conclude an armistice.’ (84)


CHEN Jian’s essay covers ‘China’s Road to the Korean War.’ CHEN claims the Chinese entered the Korean War ‘to protect China’s physical security’ and to ‘pursue a glorious victory over the Americans led UN forces.’ (113) He contends the Chinese suffered from a ‘victim mentality’ (94) believing their nation had lost prestige.


Lloyd C. Gardner discusses American viewpoints for and against support of South Korea. Influencing American thought were several events; ‘the Chinese Revolution, the Russian atomic bomb, and the rise of McCarthyist criticism.’ (142) Gardiner’s article reveals there were qualms about support of South Korea. Rhee was aggressive and he was regarded ‘as a warmonger and a net liability for American policy.’ (138) Gardiner states Dean Acheson rejected the idea of a formal declaration of war by Truman because he was not sure that ‘the nation was truly behind intervention’ and he expected future ‘police actions.’ (142)


Michael Schaller looks at the ‘Economic and Strategic Impact’ of the Korean War on Japan. For Japan, the War ‘revitalized its economy, ended the American occupation and shaped the peace and security treaties that continue to tether it to a Pacific Alliance with the United States.’ (145) When the Korean War broke out in 1950, Japan’s economy was still weak. Once the War began, United States flooded Japan with orders for equipment and material ranging from gunny sacks for rice (for sandbags) to Toyota vehicles, to chemical products. In addition to purchases, Americans brought American technology and capital to Japan and introduced American management techniques notably those of quality control expert, W. Edwards Deming. --Mlinhart 21:02, 7 Feb 2006 (EST)


Mary Linhart, Spring 2006

Weathersby’s article is a fascinating account of the problems historians face as they cope with assembling the jigsaw puzzle of the past. The article demonstrates that the puzzle will never be completely assembled and that there is always risk of error due to incomplete evidence.

William Stueck believes that the Korean War ‘derives at least part of its significance from the developments it made less likely.’ (179) Limiting the War to deterrent action ‘played a critical role in stabilizing Soviet-American competition.’ (179) He believes the United States did not enter the war primarily to protect Japan but because ‘failure to respond effectively would seriously undermine American credibility in Northeast Asia and elsewhere.’ (181)

One of the lessons of post World War II politics appears to be that letting the United States take care of a nation’s defense is good for an economy. Japan and West Germany and even South Korea have had their economic ups and downs but in general their economies have benefited from their American relationship.

Both Gaddis and the essays collected by Stueck show the invasion of South Korea as a communist initiative that demonstrated the aggressiveness of Stalin, even when no direct threat existed for his country. Most of the articles place the responsibility for the initiation of the Korean War in the hands of the Communists and most emphasize the decisive role of Stalin. Weathersby states Kim ‘owed his position solely to Moscow’s patronage’ (65) and recently available documents make it clear that Stalin ‘made the decision about whether or not to invade South Korea.’ (65) The Soviet Union provided ‘military training and air defense’, the ‘bulk of arms, ammunition and supplies’ used by the communist allies. (79) Perhaps Korea proves that the notion of containment was not a bad idea.

All these articles and Gaddis’s book illustrate the role of leaders in Cold War politics. All emphasize that communist leaders were influenced by ideology and their beliefs. CHEN believes expanding Communism and strengthening the Communist position in China were important considerations in entering the fight. Despite losing ‘hundreds of thousands of men’ and spending ‘billions of dollars for military purposes,’ (114) CHEN contends Mao’s regime had ‘extended and deepened’ (114) organizational control of China and that Mao believed that internationally China was accepted as a great power.

The United States and the Soviet Union engaged in struggles over small countries. Millett’s article demonstrates Gaddis discussion of the fact that the Cold War battlefields were peripheral areas. Sadly, this kind of fly-swatter conflict continues today. This type of war seems to be consistent with atomic peace. Strangely enough, by constraining the large powers, atomic peace seemed to embolden smaller countries such as Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam. It is apparent their very insignificance and underdog status gave an advantage in gaining public support and in lessening physical danger. In Millett’s view, the Korean politicians, Il-sung and Rhee, were the winners of the War. Both had been ‘battered and discredited by their dependency’ in 1950 and managed to come through the war so ‘their positions were unassailable.’ (51) The two Koreas had ‘manipulated three major powers as well as the United Nations into guaranteeing the independence of two Koreas not just one.’ (51)--Mlinhart 21:02, 7 Feb 2006 (EST)

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