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Book Review


Lee, Steven H. The Korean War (Great Britain: Pearson Educational Limited, 2001). 180 pp, $20.00.

     In an eight-chapter book, the author uses a chronological approach to examine an event that most of the nations involved never mention in their history books. He notes that prior to the conflict, few outsiders knew anything about this divided former nation. Located on the tip of the Asian continent, the military struggles between the multinational forces of the United Nations versus those of North Korea and China were merely a part in a worldwide ideological conflict. However, even today the Korean War is an event that most westerners know little about. Post World War II American society desired to erase it from their memory. So strong was the public's desire to forget that soldiers who fought in the struggle were denied recognition for their valor. Days of remembrance, inclusion in public school curricula and monuments to commemorate their sacrifices are only recently being initiated. Among the various names given the conflict, one that best describes the world's collective attitude towards that historical episode is "The Forgotten War." Yet this conflict presents to the college level instructor and student of international history, foreign policy and politics, one of the most illuminating case studies in the Cold War battle for world supremacy between the communist and democratic ideologies.

     In its historical background section, the text reviews why the world's hopes for peace were dashed so soon after the peace treaties were signed. Great Britain was a mere shell of its former self. Winston Churchill, its wartime leader, was turned out of office and Great Britain soon lost its world wide empire. Post war nationalistic desires and communist uprisings were beyond Britain's war-ravished military and economic ability to cope with. Mainland China came under communist control as Mao Zedong's armies defeated the American supported Nationalist forces of Chang Kai-shek. The United States emerged from the war as the superpower of the free world. However, it was no longer under the stewardship of Roosevelt, who together with Winston Churchill and the Russian dictator Stalin had crafted many of the post war boundaries and agreements. Harry Truman, Roosevelt's untested Vice President was now the leader of the free world. Stalin was the remaining leader of the wartime "Big Three" still in power. However, his paranoia, expansionist desires, and limited respect for Truman—coupled with the new president's hard line approach to the Soviets—created an environment of mutual distrust and fear. Added to this volatile mix were the desires of both North and South Korean leaders to unify Korea under their leadership. Neither Syngman Rhee in South Korea nor Kim Il Sung in North Korea were puppets under the respective control of the United States or the Soviet Union. In addition, the corruption and decay of the Nationalistic regime of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist takeover of Mainland China by Mao Zedong embarrassed and weakened the political influence of the U.S. State Department. Those foreign policy miscues assisted the rise of such hard line, conservative anti- communist stalwarts as Senator Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon.

     The text describes how Russian and US military budgets expanded in such an atmosphere. The United States developed and implemented a foreign policy known as "Containment," which sought to prevent the spread of worldwide communism. The world was being divided into two major camps: the United States and its allies versus the Soviet Union and its allies. Those nations that sought to remain neutral or non-aligned with the competing superpowers were viewed with great suspicion. Depending on the perception of the superpowers, a foreign policy initiative undertaken by the neutral or non-aligned nation could be supported, ignored or undermined by either or both. In such a climate, the fledgling United Nations—together with the non-aligned nations—was drawn into this worldwide conflict.

     This book examines more than the immediate causes of the war. The author's position is that the Korean War, while occurring during the Cold War period, cannot be understood as simply an outgrowth or the clash of conflicting ideologies and foreign policies. He traces the war's antecedents, beginning with early Korean History and its unfortunate, but strategic, geographic location. Situated on a peninsula in the Sea of Japan, the Kingdom of Korea became a pawn in the ongoing, imperialistic struggles between the surrounding Empires of China, Japan and Russia. Korea, though unified at that time, was too weak to stand alone against the encroachments of either China or Japan. Its ruler decided to become a vassal under the more benign rule of Imperial China, hoping to protect his kingdom from the Empire of Japan. Unfortunately for the Koreans, China turned out to be a toothless dragon, devoured by the industrial, military and commercial might of European, American and Japanese forces. Younger Koreans imbued with a sense of nationalism sought to force the Korean Monarchy to modernize, but their efforts failed. Japan's militaristic regime began to expand its grasp on its weaker neighbors. It sought land, workers, and raw materials to support its expansionist policies. Some Koreans looked to the Western world, hoping that the victorious allies of World War I, guided by American President Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points would assist them in throwing off Japanese rule. They were to be sadly disappointed, as President Wilson refused even to meet with their representative, Syngman Rhee. Instead, the Japanese government was rewarded for its support of the Allies during World War I. Under the auspices of the newly created League of Nations, Japan was given a mandate over the lands of Korea. When Koreans sought to embarrass their Japanese masters by staging peaceful protests, the Japanese response was immediate and brutal, although it was ignored by the nations of the world.

     The actions of the Western democracies enabled the Communists to gain many Korean converts. One such Korean Communist was Kim IL Sung. He, like other Korean converts, was given indoctrination training by Russian agents and joined small groups of anti-Japanese gorillas or fought alongside the more numerous Chinese Communist gorilla bands. Similarly, many Koreans who later led or became part of the North Korean Armies learned their military craft fighting alongside Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist soldiers. The North Korean and Chinese armies continued to be supportive of one another after the defeat of the Japanese in World War II. Korean Communists fought alongside their fellow Chinese Communists during the "Long March" and eventual overthrow of the American-backed Nationalist regime in 1949.

     The author details various North Korean leaders' accession to power. In Kim IL Sung's case, he describes how he eliminated political rivals, influenced, and was used by Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. Similarly, Lee examines the path of Syngman Rhee (Kim's South Korean counterpart) to the presidency as well as his policies and difficult relationship with American leaders.

     A focus of the text that is not the norm for a study of the Korea War is the chapter entitled: "Solider, Civilian: A Social History of the Korean War." This chapter investigates and details a more humane side to the war. It focuses on issues pertaining to race relations within the U.S. Army, women and the war, mainland China and home front issues, Korean society during the war, U.S. home front concerns, and public opinion regarding the war effort. The concluding portion of the chapter focuses on more traditional topics, examining issues occurring in the United Nations Prisoner of War compounds.

     The concluding chapters give the reader insight into the political motivations of the Communist and American leaders that resulted in lengthy peace negotiations, and explore the global consequences of the war. Each side used the negotiations to further their ideological agendas regardless of the economic and human costs.

     The text includes a chronology, maps of the areas referenced in the text, a document section that includes a glossary of terms, a "Who's Who" listing that aids understanding of the individuals and issues being discussed, a guide to further reading which references the most recent studies on related topics, and a bibliography which supports additional study and research.

     This is a well-written and highly informative text. The author has woven various strands of history together to illuminate how the current situation in Korea came about. The clarity and depth of research presented enables the reader to understand the many variables that determine the nature of the interactions between nations and their leader's decisions. However, given the scope and content of the text it is too broad for the average high school social studies class. Students in Advanced Placement or college undergraduate courses would benefit from this book. Assigning specific sections or chapters of the text would give students the opportunity to understand cause and effect relationships, and to gain insight on specific foreign policy or domestic issues occurring during that time period.


Herbert Brodsky
Queens College, City University of New York (retired)


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