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The Korean War: An Exchange

In response to:

Good War Gone Bad from the October 25, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

In the Korean War, Richard Bernstein writes, “the United States decided to fight for a draw rather than insist on victory, and, as MacArthur liked to put it, there’s no substitute for victory” [NYR, October 25]. Doesn’t it depend on how you define victory? The American purpose in going to war was not to conquer North Korea, but to prevent it from conquering South Korea. “Containment,” not “liberation.” We succeeded, Kim Il Sung failed.

The mistake, as Bernstein points out, lay in Truman’s failure to stop MacArthur’s heedless march north. Richard Neustadt recalled years later—speaking of General Marshall, Dean Acheson, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Omar Bradley—“No one went to [warn] Truman because everyone thought someone else should go.”

The point matters. George H.W. Bush won the first Gulf War. If only his son had understood that.

Francis M. Bator
Littauer Professor of Political Economy, Emeritus
Kennedy School of Government
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

In his review of David Halberstam’s book on the Korean War, The Coldest Winter [NYR, October 25], Richard Bernstein mentions the thesis “advanced in particular by Bruce Cumings” that Syngman Rhee or the South Korean military might have provoked Kim Il Sung’s attack in June 1950. In a long chapter entitled “Who Started the Korean War?” I examined just about every thesis on how the war started including this thesis, first advanced not by me but by I.F. Stone in his Hidden History of the Korean War. I used formerly secret archival documents in English and Korean (including a large captured North Korean archive) to conclude this chapter by saying that all the theses were wrong, because civil wars do not start, they come along after years or even decades of internecine conflict—as in Korea.

Because the top US commander in Korea had secretly told his superiors that South Korean military forces started the majority of fighting along the 38th parallel in 1949, with attacks from the South beginning in May and ending in December and with a near war in August, it was incumbent upon me to examine Stone’s thesis in any event. The South Korean commander of the parallel in the summer of 1949 was Kim Sok-won, a quisling who had chased after Kim Il Sung and other guerrillas in Manchuria in the 1930s, on behalf of the Japanese Kwantung Army—an army well known for provoking incidents, such as the one resulting in Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931. My main point, though, was that the commanders of the respective Korean armies had chosen different sides in the long anticolonial struggle against Japan, and it should not have been surprising that once they had the means to do so, they would again clash with each other. What is more surprising is the direct American role, during the US occupation of Korea from 1945 to 1948, in putting in power an entire generation of Koreans in the military and the national police who had served Japanese imperialism.

David Halberstam and I spent an afternoon together before his tragic death, talking about this war, and his warmth and generosity did not hide the fact that he was entirely unaware of what might be found in an archive, apart from selected documents that came out after the Soviet Union collapsed. Neither is Richard Bernstein, whose last review lauded a completely shoddy book on North Korea by Jasper Becker, Rogue Regime [NYR, March 1], a book rife with elementary errors and thus a laughingstock among scholars. I don’t believe The New York Review would treat many other fields of scholarship as if anyone can come along and offer their judgments without the slightest evidence that they know what they are talking about.

Bruce Cumings
Professor and Chair, History Department
University of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

Richard Bernstein replies:

Professor Bator’s point about the similarity of the Korean War and the first Gulf War is well taken. But I was thinking of victory as it was defined in all of the country’s wars before Korea, as the unconditional surrender of the enemy. That we left the aggressor Kim Il Sung in power in Pyongyang was not a defeat, but it does seem to me to have been an unsatisfactory, if necessary, compromise, as Halberstam puts it.

As for Professor Cumings, I have always taken his Origins of the Korean War as the main challenge to the conventional view of the Korean War, which is why I mention that challenge in my review of David Halberstam’s book, even though Halberstam himself doesn’t. Reading the chapter of his book that Professor Cumings refers to in his letter certainly left me with the strong impression that he believes the South Korean provocation to be the most credible of the possible explanations for the war’s origins, though none of the explanations can be conclusively proved. In any case, my point was to exonerate Halberstam for not revisiting Cumings’s lengthy thesis. It would have taken a book other than the one Halberstam wanted to write to do so. Many experts on Korea, by the way, accept the standard explanation for the war, that the North launched a large-scale invasion across the demarcation line—this contrary to Professor Cumings’s implication that anybody who fails to agree with him doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

As for my comments on the Jasper Becker book, Professor Cumings seems to have chosen the route of personal insult, and that’s too bad. In my review—published in these pages more than half a year ago—I did cite an instance where I found Becker jumping to an unsupported and sensational conclusion. But when I checked other seemingly sensational assertions by Becker (for example, that Kim Jong Il flew in an Italian cook to make pizza for him when a million North Koreans were starving to death) I found them to be well documented. If I missed other errors that Becker made, I am at fault. But Professor Cumings doesn’t identify any of these errors. He just tells us that the book is a laughingstock. We have no more than his word for that.

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