Harry Truman
Harry Truman; drawing by David Levine

It is, of course, a mere coincidence that it was exactly one hundred years ago, with the accession of the regent Taiwon-kun, that the modern history of Korea began. But it is a fact it would be an error to ignore. Nothing is easier than to discuss the Korean war of 1950, as Mr. Rees does, as a phase of what he calls “the world struggle against communism”; nothing could be more misleading. Long before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 Korea was an object of conflict between the powers, and what occurred after 1945 was simply a continuation of the old conflict in new circumstances by new means.

When the imperialist age opened in the Pacific, Korea soon assumed a key position. One has only to look at the map to see why. Scarcely a hundred miles from Kyushu, it was Japan’s obvious means of access to the Asian mainland. For Russia it was a sensitive area because it bordered on Vladivostok and the Maritime Province. England and France were interested also, and so was the United States. Indeed, it was the United States, by sending the General Sherman to Pyongyang in 1866, that propelled Korea into the modern world, with consequences from which Koreans have suffered ever since. It was the United States, also, which by the secret agreement between Taft and Katsura in July 1905 gave Japan a free hand in Korea in return for a Japanese undertaking not to interfere in the Philippines. It was aided and abetted by the British who, a few days later, made a parallel agreement in return for a Japanese undertaking to respect British imperialism in India.

From the start, therefore, none of the powers had clean hands in regard to Korea, and when the Japanese empire collapsed in 1945 it was not difficult for anyone with knowledge of the previous history to foresee a revival of the old conflicts. The situation was altered as a result of the successive elimination of Germany, France, Britain, and Japan. But it was self-evident that Russia, thrown back since 1905, would seek to use the elimination of its Japanese rival to reverse the decision of the Russo-Japanese war, and it was a fair guess also that China—whether under Chiang or under Mao—would attempt to restore its traditional relationship with Korea. It was also apparent that the elimination of the second-class powers, leaving only the United States and Russia in the field, was likely to result in an intensification of the conflict. What had been a multilateral now became a head-on bilateral struggle for position between two superpowers—until a resurgent China turned it into a triangular confrontation.

At the same time, it was evident that the conflict would not simply take the form of a resumption of the brash imperialism of the late nineteenth century. Neither Russia, with its heritage of Leninist anti-colonialism, nor the United States, with its heritage of Wilsonian self-determination, could afford—since both were angling for Asian approbation—to think in terms of direct annexation. And, to be fair to both, there is no evidence that either wished to. With the defeat of the Axis powers, unblushing annexation, as practised by Germany and Japan, had been discredited. The alternative was a return to the policy of spheres of interest—in other words, indirect control through the maintenance in Korea of a “friendly” government.

From the liberation of Korea in August 1945—perhaps from the Yalta Conference—we can see this situation taking shape. It did so, almost certainly, without deliberate intent on the part either of Washington or of Moscow, as a result of the intensification of their mutual suspicions; but the Korean historian Lee In-sang is right in saying that it is in this period, between 1945 and 1948, that we must look for the “real causes” of the war which broke out in Korea in 1950. * If the first thing to be said about Mr. Rees’s book is that he ignores the long history of Russian-American rivalry in the Far East, the second is that he deals most cursorily with this crucial period. What Mr. Rees has written is, in fact, a racy account of the military operations in Korea, up to and including the deadlock at Panmunjom, together with an analysis of the disputes and controversies within the American leadership. This will undoubtedly be useful to the reader wishing to recall the events, including the indoctrination of prisoners and the totally unwarranted communist charges of germ warfare; but it may be suggested that it is not sufficient if we are to place the events in the historical perspective which is needed at this distance of time.

In the first place, Korea: The Limited War provides only a very sketchy account of the immediate antecedents of the Korean fighting. The reader who relied on Mr. Rees alone would be left with the impression that, in the period after liberation, there were only two groupings in Korea, one gathered round Syngman Rhee in the south, the other round the communist leader Kim Il-sung in the north. Nothing could be further from reality. Rhee, far from being (in Mr. Rees’s words) “the best known of all Korean leaders,” had no following at all in Korea, where he had not been seen for thirty-three years, and even among Korean refugees in the United States his organization Tongjiwhai had neither the numbers nor the influence of the nationalist association, Hungsadang. In Korea the dominant personality was not Kim Il-sung (in reality the leading communist at this stage was Pak Hyun-yong) but the middle-of-the- road socialist, Liu Wun-hyong, and it was the refusal of the United States commander, General Hodge, to co-operate with the popular forces under Liu that marked the beginning of the Korean tragedy. Hodge’s hostile attitude, as Lee In-sang points out, encouraged the elements which had collaborated with the Japanese during the war to regroup, and it was these collaborators, disguised as the “Democratic Party” (Hankuk), who threw themselves behind Rhee. Nor is it true, as Mr. Rees’s account suggests, that only the communists rejected the unilateral elections carried through in the south in 1948. On the contrary, most of the democratic leaders—including even those well to the right, such as Kim Kyusil—aware that the results would be manipulated in the interests of Rhee, refused their cooperation.


Mr. Rees’s cavalier treatment of these basic facts is perhaps the best commentary on his book. Since he pays virtually no attention to the internal Korean situation between 1945 and 1949, it is perhaps not surprising that he is reduced to speculation about communist motives for launching the attack of June 1950. In fact, such evidence as is available (it is very incomplete) indicates not that it was “a Soviet War plan” hatched in Moscow (as Mr. Rees argues) but rather a local decision by the North Korean authorities which appears to have taken the Russians by surprise. But it is, of course, true that other factors were needed to turn the Korean fighting into an international conflict of first magnitude. These arose from the general situation, as it had developed since 1947, and the heightening of American-Russian rivalry in every respect of international life. If the United States were going to man a forward defense perimeter from the Aleutians to the Philippines, and the opposing communist forces one from Kamchatka to Hainan, nothing was clearer than that neither would look on with equanimity while a satellite of the other occupied the whole of Korea. Even now, if they could have found a formula for neutralization, they might have been glad to disembarrass themselves of what in itself was a side issue. But if in 1945 disengagement might have been possible, by 1950 this was no longer the case. Few people would deny that, when the north attacked, it was no longer possible—in view of the general situation—for the United States to stand aside without seriously damaging its national interests, just as no one with any sense of reality would have expected Russia or China to stand aside and see the north overrun by Syngman Rhee. Mr. Rees, however, apparently takes a different view. According to him, the United States intervened in Korea, not because its national interests demanded action but in pursuit of what he calls a “Jeffersonian tradition of American idealism.”

This was, of course, the position taken up at the time by the Truman administration, at least in its public statements. The United States was “not at war,” Truman said at his first press conference after the crisis; it was merely supporting a United Nations’ police action. This was never literally true, as the sequence of events showed, and the Los Angeles Times bluntly described it as a “fiction.” Often, in fact, the United Nations was dragged in reluctantly at the United States’ coat-tails, and a gap was opened between its Asian, or colored, and its European, or white, members which has never thereafter been properly bridged. But in taking shelter behind the United Nations, the Truman administration also created a confusion in the American mind which was to have long and bitter consequences. The pretence that only altruistic support of the United Nations was involved and the administration’s unwillingness to avow its legitimate strategic interests were not likely to convince those called upon to make the tangible sacrifices, and it is not surprising that G.I.s in the thick of it asked “What is this police action?”

Instead of rallying the nation, the Korean war was the last nail in the Truman Administration’s coffin. Coming on top of the communist victory in China, it fed the fires of McCarthyism and gave rise to the great controversies culminating in the dismissal of MacArthur. Nothing would be gained from raking over these controversies again today, particularly as Mr. Rees’s book adds nothing in this respect to what is common knowledge. But two points are relevant. The first is that MacArthur, whatever view one may otherwise take of his actions, took his stand on American interests. It is perhaps understandable, in the tense international situation of 1950, that Truman and his advisers found it difficult to acknowledge in the face of the world that the United States had an imperial role in Asia, shaped by long history, which it was going to defend. MacArthur made no bones about it. He never hesitated to affirm that the United States was fighting for the maintenance of its outer defense perimeter, the domination of “every Asiatic port from Vladivostok to Singapore.” The implied hostility to England, as well as to Russia, is characteristic of an old American tradition, which saw in Britain the great rival for dominion over the Pacific; but at least MacArthur cleared the air of cant. The second point, however, is whether his conception of the national interest was sound, and this is another question. General Bradley, in a famous statement, said that MacArthur’s strategy would “involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time,” and Admiral Forrest testified that it would “jeopardize our long-term national security on a global basis.” It is difficult to believe that their assessment was far out.


Mr. Rees has much to say of the importance of the “lessons” of the Korean War for the situation in Asia today. In one sense he is right, in another sense wrong. He is wrong in so far as the situation of 1964 is not the situation of 1950 and any attempt to draw parallels between them is fraught with danger. He is right in so far as the Korean War highlighted the uncertainty of the assumption that the United States was well advised, from the point of view of its national interests, to step into the positions vacated by England and France and the other ex-imperial powers. In other words, the question raised by the Korean War was not—as Mr. Rees would have us believe—whether Truman or MacArthur was right (both were right in some things and wrong in others) but whether the whole policy of forward defense bases, five thousand miles and more from the shores of the American continent, has served United States purposes well.

In spite of superficial similarities between the situation in Korea then and in Indo-China now, only confusion can arise if we try, as Mr. Rees seeks to do, to apply the “lessons” of the one to the other. Mr. Rees makes much of the fact that the United States has still not won or (as he chooses to phrase it) reached “a favorable settlement” of the cold war, and therefore that the ultimate object for which the Korean War was fought has still not been attained. Whether the object of the war in Korea was to win the cold war is, however, another question; it was precisely upon this issue that the controversy between MacArthur and his opponents turned. But the essential differences today is that no one in his right mind believes that the cold war can be “won.” Once we realize that what is at issue is not an ideological crusade but the global balance of power, it is easier to see that the most we can hope for—as in the old European system of balance of power—is not victory but equilibrium. That is why it is so important to take the Korean War of 1950 out of its immediate ideological context and see it against the back-ground of developing power relationships in the Pacific region.

Perhaps the greatest change of the post-Korean period in the field of international relations is the subsidence, in Moscow as well as in Washington, of the cold-war mentality. Even Mr. Dulles, before his death, was revising his ideas in this respect. Mr. Rees, it seems, has not yet managed to adapt his thinking to new world conditions. For him “containment or negotiating from strength” is still the only strategy “which can conceivably fulfil any rational purpose.” In 1964 this makes surprising reading. It is not only, as Walter Lippmann once wrote, that it goes against reason to suppose that the smaller number can contain the larger, “and this across two oceans.” More important—and, in view of the sufferings of the Korean War, more tragic—it is hard to find anything in the record to demonstrate that the security of the United States has been enhanced by its interventions in Asian affairs and the immense sacrifices they have imposed on the American people. If we compare the position in 1950, when the policy of building up alliances round the perimeter of the communist bloc got into its stride, and the position today, it would be difficult to maintain with any conviction that the United States is more secure—and easy to argue that it is less secure—for its system of over forty entangling alliances. Surprisingly enough, the most memorable remark in Mr. Rees’s book comes from Senator Taft. “Keep America solvent and sensible,” he wrote in 1947, “and she has nothing to fear from any foreign power.” The hysteria aroused by the Korean War obscured this truism; but if any lesson emerges from Mr. Rees’s book it is this—though, alas, it is the one he fails to draw.

This Issue

July 9, 1964