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!

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