Synopses & Reviews
A bracing account of a war that lingers in our collective memory as both ambiguous and unjustly ignored
For Americans, it was a discrete conflict lasting from 1950 to 1953 that has long been overshadowed by World War II, Vietnam, and the War on Terror. But as Bruce Cumings eloquently explains, for the Asian world the Korean War was a generations-long fight that still haunts contemporary events. And in a very real way, although its true roots and repercussions continue to be either misunderstood, forgotten, or willfully ignored, it is the war that helped form modern America’s relationship to the world.
With access to new evidence and secret materials from both here and abroad, including an archive of captured North Korean documents, Cumings reveals the war as it was actually fought. He describes its start as a civil war, preordained long before the first shots were fired in June 1950 by lingering fury over Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. Cumings then shares the neglected history of America’s post–World War II occupation of Korea, the untold stories of bloody insurgencies and rebellions, and the powerful militaries organized and equipped by America and the Soviet Union in that divided land. He tells of the United States officially entering the action on the side of the South, and exposes as never before the appalling massacres and atrocities committed on all sides and the “oceans of napalm” dropped on the North by U.S. forces in a remarkably violent war that killed as many as four million Koreans, two thirds of whom were civilians.
In sobering detail, The Korean War chronicles a U.S. home front agitated by Joseph McCarthy, where absolutist conformity discouraged open inquiry and citizen dissent. Cumings incisively ties our current foreign policy back to Korea: an America with hundreds of permanent military bases abroad, a large standing army, and a permanent national security state at home, the ultimate result of a judicious and limited policy of containment evolving into an ongoing and seemingly endless global crusade.
Elegantly written and blisteringly honest, The Korean War is, like the war it illuminates, brief, devastating, and essential.
"For many, the Korean War is remembered more for Hawkeye and Klinger than General MacArthur and Syngman Rhee. But for Cumings (Korea's Place in the Sun), professor at the University of Chicago, the critical issue is not one of memory, but of understanding. In this devastating work he shows how little the U.S. knew about who it was fighting, why it was fighting, and even how it was fighting. Though the North Koreans had a reputation for viciousness, according to Cumings, U.S. soldiers actually engaged in more civilian massacres (including dropping over half a million tons of bombs and thousands of tons of napalm, more than was dropped on the entire Pacific theatre in World War II, almost indiscriminately). Cumings deftly reveals how Korea was a clear precursor to Vietnam: a divided country, fighting a long anti-colonial war with a committed and underestimated enemy; enter the U.S., efforts go poorly, disillusionment spreads among soldiers, and lies are told at top levels in an attempt to ignore or obfuscate a relentless stream of bad news. For those who like their truth unvarnished, Cumings's history will be a fresh, welcome take on events that seemed to have long been settled.
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As Cumings eloquently explains, for the Asian world the Korean War was a generations-long fight that still haunts contemporary events. He shares the neglected history of occupation of Korea and the untold stories of bloody insurgencies and rebellions in that divided land.
About the Author
Bruce Cumings is the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor and chair of the Department of History at the University of Chicago, and specializes in modern Korean history and East Asian-American relations. He lives with his family in Charlottesville, Virginia.