- Red Wings over the Yalu: China, the Soviet Union, and the Air War in Korea
In spite of its reputation as a "forgotten war," the Korean conflict has become the subject of an impressive number of publications in Western languages. Perhaps more has been written in English about this conflict than about all other [End Page 161] events in Korean history combined. This is undoubtedly because the clash of 1950-1953 was the first large-scale armed conflict of the Cold War era and because the United States was directly involved in the confrontation.
Nevertheless, until recently the literature on the Korean War had been necessarily one-sided. The publications were based largely on U.S. sources and represented an America-centered view where the "enemy" was seen as a faceless and inscrutable mass. Until the late 1980s, the secretive nature of Communist regimes excluded any document-based research into the actions of the North Korean, Soviet, or Chinese governments.
This situation changed dramatically in the early 1990s. The collapse of the Communist system in the U.S.S.R. as well as reforms in China meant that a large number of hitherto secret documents became accessible to historians. The surviving participants of events have also often been willing to grant interviews. The openness of the Soviet and more especially the Chinese archives is far from unconditional, but even the currently available material has changed our perception of the war. Essentially these new documents and publications provide readers with the "other half of the story."
Zhang Xiaoming's work is another example of this "new scholarship" on the Korean War. Zhang makes some use of primary archival material, but this use is quite limited (and anyone who has had firsthand experience of wrestling with the Russian or Chinese archive officials will understand why). Instead, he draws heavily from the recent publications of those scholars who have managed to secure access to the still-closed archives of the ex-Communist states. A large number of relevant articles have appeared in small-circulation periodicals in Russian or Chinese over the last decade. Zhang also interviewed some People's Liberation Army (P.L.A.) veterans who once fought in Korea.
Zhang Xiaoming begins from a detailed account of the early history of the Communist Air Force. The account is perhaps a little excessive (the Daoist experiments of the fourth century A.D. are not particularly relevant to the topic). Nevertheless, the material makes clear that the growth of Chinese aviation in the late 1940s and early 1950s was exceptionally rapid and has few parallels in world aviation history. The force that confronted U.S. pilots over Korea in 1951 was virtually created from scratch—a mere three years earlier, Communist China had had no air force worthy of the name. This was a remarkable achievement, and Zhang Xiaoming's book offers us a compelling account of how this was accomplished.
The P.L.A. Air Force was initially created for an invasion of Taiwan, but it took its baptism of fire in Korea, where the Chinese pilots fought together with their Soviet colleagues. Initially the burden of the air war lay almost exclusively on Soviet shoulders, but eventually the Chinese pilots came to participate in the battles in increasing numbers. Still, out of the 90,000 sorties flown [End Page 162] by the Communist forces during the Korean War, approximately two-thirds were made by Soviet pilots.
The air battle over the Korean skies looks very different when viewed from north of the Yalu. Now it is clear that both the Communist and U.N. forces grossly overrated their pilots' performance. Each side believed that it shot down many more enemy aircraft than the other side actually lost. For decades Western military historians have assumed that the results of the Korean air war demonstrated the overwhelming superiority of the U...