How wars begin

Jon Halliday

  • The Korean War: History and Tactics edited by David Rees
    Orbis, 128 pp, £7.99, September 1984, ISBN 0 85613 649 2
  • Der Koreakrieg 1950 bis 1953: Das Scheitern der Amerikanischen Aggression gegen die KDVR by Olaf Groehler
    Militarverlag der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, 120 pp, DM 6.50
  • The Rainy Spell, and Other Korean Stories translated by Suh Ji-moon
    Onyx, 255 pp, £12.95, December 1984, ISBN 0 906383 17 X
  • The Complete Book of MASH by Suzy Kalter
    Columbus, 240 pp, £15.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 86287 080 1
  • The Last Days of MASH by Alan Alda and Arlene Alda
    Columbus, 150 pp, £8.95, July 1984, ISBN 0 88101 008 1

On 5 July 1953, three weeks before the end of the Korean War, Winston Churchill was about to step out onto the croquet lawn with his doctor, Lord Moran, and with Field Marshal Montgomery, when Monty asked him: ‘What is our policy in Korea? It is no good making war without a policy.’ Churchill replied with a reference to the President of South Korea:

If I were in charge, I would withdraw the United Nations troops to the coast and leave Syngman Rhee to the Chinese. But the American public would not swallow this. Korea does not really matter now. I’d never heard of the bloody place till I was 74. Its importance lies in the fact that it has led to the re-arming of America.

Later that month, just before the Korean Armistice was signed, President Eisenhower confided to his diary:

It is almost hopeless to write about the Korea-Rhee situation ... It has been a long and bitter experience, and I am certain in my own mind that except for the fact that the evacuation of South Korea would badly expose Japan, the majority of the United Nations now fighting there would have long since attempted to pull out ... Certainly we must be extremely wary and watchful of both sides. Of course, the fact remains that the probable enemy is the communists, but Rhee has been such an unsatisfactory ally that it is difficult indeed to avoid excoriating him in the strongest of terms.

It is hard to read these remarks by the heads of the two main Western governments which had been fighting in Korea for three years as suggesting anything other than that they thought supporting Rhee had been rather a mistake. But was Rhee himself the problem? Was it his regime? Or was it the whole Western undertaking in Korea since the Japanese surrender in 1945?

Some of the archives have now been opened in the USA and Britain, and they contain many startling revelations. Much important work has already been done on some of the new findings, particularly in America, and there have also been interesting revelations from the Communist side. The time has come to reappraise the West’s stance as it was publicly articulated at the time, together with the material on the war which has been forthcoming from Communist countries and which has hitherto been subject to dismissal in the West. Probably the single most important basic point which is ignored in the standard Western literature is one made by Edgar Snow in the opening sentence of a little-known article written after visiting US troops in South Korea at New Year 1946: ‘When everything has been said about our occupation of Korea, probably the most significant thing is that we stopped a revolution here.’ This was less than six months after the Japanese surrender, and only four months after US troops had arrived in the southern half of Korea. Few in the West took the trouble then to find out about the nature of the Korean revolution. Few were even honest enough to acknowledge that it existed. And almost no one in the West has conceded that this is what the Korean War of 1950-53 – a civil war delayed by outside intervention – was really all about. Korea was still, de jure, a single nation. In 1949, envisaging the possibility of a ‘civil war’, Owen Lattimore wrote: ‘America, which has in China complained of the bad luck of having inherited the Kuomintang through no fault of its own, has in Korea manufactured its own Kuomintang. To support our proclaimed policy of world-wide opposition to police states, we have in South Korea created a weak and unreliable police state of our own.’

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