Michael Howard writes about the Korean War, and about leaders that could not be abandoned
- The Korean War by Max Hastings
Joseph, 476 pp, £14.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 7181 2068 X
- The Origins of the Korean War by Peter Lowe
Longman, 256 pp, £6.95, July 1986, ISBN 0 582 49278 5
- Korea: The War before Vietnam by Callum MacDonald
Macmillan, 330 pp, £25.00, November 1986, ISBN 0 333 33011 0
For twenty-five years, between the studies written in its immediate aftermath and those based on archives opened a generation later, the Korean War was largely ignored. That was natural enough: there is always such ‘dead ground’ as the writing of history moves forward. But that war was so significant as a paradigm for international relations in the post-war world that we can deplore the failure of Western statesmen and, still more, soldiers, to keep it in mind as a guide-post and a warning of what lay in store for them if they attempted any further military interventions in the Third World. For a few years, under the wise guidance of Dwight Eisenhower, American leaders did so bear it in mind, and shaped their policy accordingly: they realised the unwisdom of becoming involved in a land conflict anywhere, especially in Asia. But only ten years after the truce was signed at Panmunjom in July 1953 the slide into Vietnam had begun. The effects of that terrible conflict have been longer-lasting. Even so, the United States has trembled on the verge of military intervention in Central America and does so now in the Middle East. Their present leaders, still obsessed with the memories of Munich, would do better to remember Korea.
The three books under review, all based on British and American archive material, tell the same story, even though they draw different conclusions from it. The defeat of Japan and the occupation of her empire sucked the United States into an Asiatic country about which they knew nothing and which they regarded, initially, as irrelevant to their own security. They accepted for occupation purposes an ad hoc division of the country along the 38th parallel, while looking forward, as did probably the Russians, to a mutual withdrawal of troops and the creation of an independent Korea. But the American military on the spot, ruling through the oppressive machinery inherited from the Japanese, regarded the militant and radical nationalism of the Koreans as ‘communist’ and imported their own surrogate, Synghman Rhee: American-educated, ferociously nationalistic, brutal in his methods and determined to reunite the peninsula under his own control. In the North, from among the Communist factions encouraged by the Soviet authorities, a comparable figure emerged in Kim Il Sung – a man no less ruthless and implacable in his ambitions and equally impatient of foreign direction. Reunification became impossible. A stage-managed election in 1948 enabled Rhee to present his regime to the West as acceptably ‘democratic’, but his oppressive domestic policy and open aggrandisement towards the North made the Americans view him with deep mistrust and provide only light equipment for his armed forces. But Rhee was staunchly anti-Communist, and in 1948-50, in the aftermath of the ‘loss’ of China and the Berlin Blockade, that was all that counted in Washington. The Americans did not like him; they could not spare the forces to defend him; but in the last resort he could not be abandoned. How many such figures have emerged in the Third World since!
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 10 No. 4 · 18 February 1988
SIR: Michael Howard’s review article on the Korean War (LRB, 26 November 1987) does a disservice to serious historical writing. In the first column, he writes that the Americans ‘accepted … an ad hoc division of the country along the 38th parallel’. Anyone who has read anything about Korean history knows that the division at the 38th Parallel was proposed by the Americans in August 1945 (because they were not in Korea at the time of the Japanese surrender) – and accepted by the Russians (who were in Korea, fighting the Japanese). Howard’s statement exonerates the Americans from all responsibility for the tragedy of Korea’s division, which was at the root of the Korean War. He goes on to say: ‘A civil war is one thing: crossing an established frontier … is … quite another.’ Yes, it is. But what does this sentence mean regarding Korea? There was no ‘established frontier’ in Korea. The 38th Parallel was not recognised either in Korea or internationally as ‘an established frontier’. Korea was one country. And the Korean War was a civil war, like the Chinese civil war and the Vietnam War.
The accusation that Acheson ‘excluded’ Korea from America’s defence commitments came from the Right after the Korean War had started; and when the Korean War did start, on 25 June 1950, no one in Washington said the US should think twice about getting into it because Acheson had excluded Korea from America’s commitments. Least of all is there any evidence that Acheson’s speech had the sort of effect which Howard claims it ‘probably’ had – to encourage Stalin and/or Kim II Sung to launch an attack.
Howard is reviewing three books by, respectively, Max Hastings, Peter Lowe and Callum MacDonald. He declares his preference: ‘The sympathies of your reviewer lie on the whole with Max Hastings.’ Anyone can like what they like. But what is dismaying is to see a professional historian writing that ‘so complex … a drama … needs the skills of a storyteller as accomplished as Max Hastings to do it justice.’ Howard does not tell your readers that Lowe and MacDonald have both done far more research than Hastings. Both Lowe and MacDonald have cleared away acres of cobwebs and greatly advanced genuine understanding of the Korean War. Their books are of far more value to historians and students than the Hastings volume. Hastings discusses issues like Khrushchev’s memoirs, or whether Lin Piao was in Korea, not only without using the basic research on these issues, but demonstrating that he is unaware that such research exists. Hastings’s book has many ignorant errors (he mis-dates the Armistice, cannot spell Korean names, trashes good evidence). Above all, there is no re-examination of most of the interesting issues. Of the three books, the one which is by far the least use to historians is Hastings’s. The minimum that Howard could have done as a historian writing in a serious magazine was to say that. Instead, he has done a disservice and an injustice to two first-rate historians, Lowe and MacDonald, and hitched his star to a writer who knows little about Korea and demonstrates an inability to engage in dispassionate examination of the evidence. Hastings has since appeared on TV, getting Rhee’s departure for the US wrong by ten years, giving the wrong date for the key elections in South Korea, skewing chronology and juggling archive footage. If this is the kind of history Howard wants, good luck to him. But it is not what one expects from a professor of history at my old university.
Vol. 10 No. 5 · 3 March 1988
SIR: Mr Halliday obviously feels strongly about the Korean War (Letters, 18 February), but his odium academicum engenders more heat than light. I can only advise your readers to consult my review and see what I actually wrote about the three books concerned: in particular, the reasons I gave for supporting the judgments of Max Hastings on the merits of the war. Whatever the legal situation, the 38th parallel was certainly seen at the time, by the great majority of members of the United Nations, as de facto ‘an established frontier’: at least as much so as that between the Soviet Union and Western zones of Germany, and one possessing much the same significance. An East German invasion of the West, with Soviet military support, would not have been regarded as an incident in a local war of no concern to anyone except the participants. Nor was a North Korean invasion of the South. Max Hastings in his book performs the essential function of the historian. He makes the past intelligible by re-creating the passions of the time. I am afraid that Mr Halliday only confuses the issue by introducing new, and irrelevant, ones of his own.
Oriel College, Oxford