*The Korean War*

by on August 5, 2010 at 7:30 am in Books, History, Political Science | Permalink

That's the new book by Bruce Cumings and it is as good as the reviews indicate (criticisms here).  Here are a few choice excerpts:

For decades the South Korean intelligence agencies put out the line that Kim Il Sung was an impostor, a Soviet stooge who stole the name of a famous Korean patriot.  The real reason for this smoke screen was the pathetic truth that so many of its own leaders served the Japanese…


…Two Koreas began to emerge in the early 1930s, one born of an unremittingly violent struggle in which neither side gave quarter; truths experienced in Manchukuo burned the souls of the North Korean leadership.  The other truth is the palpable beginning of an urban middle class, as peole marched not to the bugle of anti-Japanese resistance but into the friendly confines of the Hwashin department store, movie theaters, and ubiquitous bars and tearooms.


…Most Americans seem unaware that the United States occupied Korea just after the war with Japan ended, and set up a full military government that lasted for three years and deeply shaped postwar Korean history.


What hardly any Americans know or remember, however, is that we carpet-bombed the North for three years with next to no concern for civilian casualties…The air assaults ranged from the widespread and continual use of firebombing (mainly with napalm), to threats to use nuclear and chemical weapons, finally to the destruction of huge North Korean dams in the last stages of the war.

And, from the entire war:

Perhaps as many as 3 million Koreans died, at least half of them civilians (Japan lost 2.3 million people in the Pacific War).

You can buy the book here.

Roy August 5, 2010 at 7:51 am

Cummings is an interesting writer but…while he is not a exactly a shill for the DPRK, he is the next best thing, a “socialist” with a strange love of Stalinism when it is in Korean guise.

But then what do you expect from a contributor to the “New Left Review” whose entire bibliography has consisted of making excuses for Kim Il-Sung.

John Jenkins August 5, 2010 at 8:16 am

Roy, I think you’re wrong. Cumings really *is* a shill for the DPRK, at least that’s the sense I always got reading any of his stuff back when I did IR. I’m not sure why anyone would credit his history as anything other than dishonest (maybe it’s not, but given his record, it would be hard to take that as the initial position).

john sager August 5, 2010 at 8:46 am

Definitely a shill – chot gat-eun nom.

hates trolls August 5, 2010 at 9:32 am

All you guys seem to be missing the point: North Korea has a reason not to like us. I would imagine also, but can’t prove, that nearly all of you have been born and raised and lived your lives out in nations with no recent history of having your families firebombed the way Japan and Korea were. Address the arguments in the book, not the author. The guy may be a shill but his arguments still might be sound and correct. Geesh.

Todd August 5, 2010 at 9:38 am

The third and fourth excerpts seem very un-historian like. Is he writing this book just for Americans, as some supposed corrective to the nation’s understanding of the war? Very strange wording.

The best book I ever read on the Korean War – “The Korean War” – Burton Kaufman – excellent one volume narrative history (and not even 400 pp.!)

Wonks Anonymous August 5, 2010 at 10:03 am

hates trolls, since Japan and North Korea are so different today, doesn’t that undercut your argument about the cultural effect of firebombing?

Mark Bonica August 5, 2010 at 10:13 am

It always amazes me that Americans have no idea who the combatants were in the Korean war, or how the Korean peninsula came to be divided as it was.

vanya August 5, 2010 at 10:55 am

We wrongly label the country Stalinist, [Cumings] argues. “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,† he writes.

Really? Even though everyone in the country is basically assigned to a caste that dictates their future career? Sure it may be a simplification to argue North Korea is Stalinist. It is actually something even worse – a grotesque amalgamation of Japanese imperial fascist ideology married with Korean nationalism and underpinned by a poorly digested Stalinist economic model. Cuming is a piece of work, I’m surprised Tyler would give a clown like him a positive notice.

Justin Kraus August 5, 2010 at 11:00 am

Cummings has a very unique ‘fireside storytelling’ writing style as a historian. It often gets him in trouble. But his judgments are not nearly as casually made as his style might suggest. He is a serious historian. With that said, like many historians of Asia he does have the self-conscious annoying habit of repeatedly defending the importance of his own topic against perceived (and real) slights. Clear-headed analysis never benefited from this kind of inferiority complex.

vanya August 5, 2010 at 11:10 am

“Most Americans seem unaware that the United States occupied Korea just after the war with Japan ended, and set up a full military government that lasted for three years and deeply shaped postwar Korean history.”

Except this is a blatant distortion. The United States occupied Korea only south of the 38th parallel. The USSR occupied Korea north of that parallel.

Ilya Somin August 5, 2010 at 12:34 pm


I am a big fan of your work. But I am disappointed that you would endorse the book of a ridiculous apologist for communism like Bruce Cumings. He even continues to peddle the communist propaganda line that the US and South Korea started the Korean War, despite the revelation of Soviet documents conclusively demonstrating the contrary (that Kim Il Sung asked Stalin for authorization to invade the South, and Stalin agreed). This is just one of many equally ridiculous claims that Cumings makes in his writings. It’s possible that there is some wheat amidst his huge pile of chaff. But it’s certainly a mistake to describe his work as “good.”

Even the claim about “carpet bombing” that you mention in your post is tendentious. At the time, there was no such thing as precision bombing of military targets located in population centers. Bombing was simply too inaccurate for that. So the US faced the choice of either leaving numerous military targets alone (thereby probably losing the war) or bombing them in ways that risked many civilian casualties. The former choice would have led to vastly greater civilian losses once the North and its allies took over the South and imposed their policies of mass murder and collectivization.

Colin Glassey August 5, 2010 at 12:49 pm

The facts that matter are: 1) N.K. attacked S.K. in 1950. 2) U.S. and a number of other countries sent military forces to defend S.K., the defense was successful. 3) Decision to invade into N.K. thereby provoking P.R.C. response was military justifiable but clearly a political mistake – one that the U.S. would not repeat in Vietnam 15 years later. 4) As of 2010 S.K. is – by any reasonable standard – a great country to live in while N.K. is not.

Conclusion: the war was justified, both at the time and in overall results 60 years later. Q.E.D.

Tyler Cowen August 5, 2010 at 2:18 pm

You all have lots of words, and I am aware of the disputes surrounding Cumings, but still it is a good book.

George August 5, 2010 at 5:08 pm

I cited Cumings work in my dissertation and still assign some of Korea’s Place in the Sun in my Asian politics class. He has done good work–his efforts publicizing the massacre at No Gun Ri comes to mind, the CIA’s role in the Southern civil war 1946-1949 (or so), and he does a good job describing life in North Korea during the “fat years” (relatively speaking) when they were receiving plentiful aid from the Soviet Union, and before South Korea took off. The chip he has on his shoulder about Japan is reasonable too, since it helps give a English-speaking reader a taste of what lots of Korean felt/feel.

The problem is, AFAIK, he’s never come to terms with how utterly wrong he was about the origins of the Korean War–the issue on which he really made his name in Korean history. Until the end of the Cold War his work was famous for arguing–with a lot of historical evidence, granted–that the Korean War was either an unintended escalation of cross-border skirmishes or a Southern conspiracy. Once we gained access to the former Soviet Archives, we learned that Cumings was wrong–the war was planned in Pyongyang and Moscow. The decision that led to all that bombing and napalm and whatnot was Kim Il-Sung’s, not some unstoppable sequence of events that avoids guilt for KIS.

From the blurb on Amazon, it sounds like he’s decided to trivialize Kim Il-Sung’s decision to invade South Korea by surrounding it with so much about Japanese imperialism and US McCarthyism. Eh, I don’t buy it (and I won’t). I would, though, buy a middle ground between the official US Army version that he criticizes and his North Korean apologia.

RW Rogers August 5, 2010 at 7:58 pm

I agree, Tyler. Cumings deserves a Pulitzer Prize for fiction, at least.

Pensans August 5, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Tyler has a lot of words. I too am aware of the controversey surrounding Nazi philosophers but they are still wrote good books.

The difference is this:

endorsing them as good philosophers doesn’t facilitate anyone actively support as does Tyler facile support for Cummings.

Ilya Somin August 6, 2010 at 2:29 am

Me: Even the claim about “carpet bombing” that you mention in your post is tendentious. At the time, there was no such thing as precision bombing of military targets located in population centers. Bombing was simply too inaccurate for that.

Andy: Ilya, how does that not make it carpet bombing? Just admit that it’s carpet bombing. You can still try to defend carpet bombing, but denying that it is carpet bombing makes you look silly…

I notice the same thing when people try to say the US firebombing of Tokyo doesn’t count as terrorism. It’s textbook terrorism. Just argue that terrorism is not always wrong.

My response: My point, of course, was not to argue about the term “carpet bombing,” but to note that Cumings’ argument that the US targeted civilians or didn’t care what it hit was wrong. Rather, it was simply not possible to engage in more accurate bombing of military targets during that period. The US sought to hit the latter, not civilians. But it was not possible to do the one without doing the other (as was also true over Japan and Germany in WWII).

As for terrorism, it is the deliberate targeting of civilians. Killing civilians accidentally as a byproduct of military operations targeting military targets is not terrorism under any reasonable definition of the term. It is sometimes wrong for other reasons, and sometimes is excessive even if not morally unjustified. But calling it terrorism is simply inaccurate.

Steve Sailer August 6, 2010 at 3:42 am

George’s post above sounds the most sensible. I did some reading about Korean history awhile ago, and I was surprised to find a fair amount of validity to Cummings’ arguments about the US and the South Korean government in 1945-1949. But, as George points out, on the big question — June 25, 1950 — Cummings was wrong.

Joe S. August 6, 2010 at 3:54 pm

When I was a small child, I used to think that it was somehow unfair that critters could bite me, but I never had a problem with application of pesticide. Then I grew up. It’s no longer a moral issue. I’m happy to be on the winning side, but I don’t fell morally superior.

Same thing with the distinction between the rules of war and tairism. The rules of war are written by the guys who kill while dressed in natty uniforms. Tairists are more frumpy killers, and don’t write the rules. Funny that.

Matt C. August 7, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Ilya, Six Ounces, and Andy,

I think even if you accept the distinction between “knowingly” and “deliberately,” the historical record pretty clearly evinces that aerial bombing of civilian targets by WWII powers fell squarely in the latter category. One of the earliest articulations of the strategic value of aerial bombing — Giulio Douhet’s “The Command of the Air” in 1921 — is quite explicit that the negative effect of such tactics on civilian morale is a *primary* motivation behind indiscriminate aerial bombing (and the fact that no other kind of aerial bombing was possible at the time does not change the fact that this was considered a feature and not a bug). RAF commander Arthur Harris — nicknamed “the Butcher” — made no attempt to hide the influence of Douhet on his strategy during the second world war. Curtis LeMay was perhaps somewhat less forthright about US intentions, but if you doubt they were the same, might I recommend you watch the film “The Fog of War,” where Robert McNamera will look you straight in the eye and tell you that US forces quite consciously threw out all of those “laws of war” Six Ounces celebrates. In the era before precision attacks were possible, civilian deaths were, again, a “feature” and not a “bug.” Civilians were primary, not secondary targets. The purpose was precisely to inculcate fear (aka terror). The people who made these decisions admitted it themselves, and some even went so far as to worry that they might be prosecuted as war criminals (again, see “The Fog of War,” or if you are pressed for time, skim the Wikipedia articles on Harris and LeMay).

Matt C. August 8, 2010 at 9:33 am

I’m not sure what Douhet’s being an Italian has to do with anything, other than your obvious fondness for the ad hominem. He was also a fascist, so I must be wrong, right? Look, his national and political allegiances did not prevent his book from being on the bookshelf of every air commander in the first half of the 20th century. I’m not sure you are doing LeMay any favors by suggesting he was ignorant of the ideas of one of the most widely read and influential strategists of the time. Or that there was no overlap or cross-inlfluence between the strategies of the RAF and USAF.

You are right: They were not merely population centers. But they were also not coincidentally population centers. Tokyo was not just a ” industrial production targets and command hub.” It was a city, filled with people. LeMay didn’t notice?

I am not suggesting that the ends may not have justified the means — that is a different conversation, and I really don’t need lectures on the evil intentions of our adversaries, thanks. But we need to be honest with ourselves about what both the ends and the means were. The morale of civilian populations was a strategic consideration of all sides in this war, and you would have to do a very selective reading of the historical record to conclude otherwise.

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