- The War for Korea, 1945–1950: A House Burning
Military historians long have been in agreement that the Korean War started on 25 June 1950 when North Korean forces attacked South Korea. Allan R. Millett, director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, shatters this consensus in the first of a projected two-volume history of the conflict. He contends that the "war began on April 3, 1948" (p. 142) when Communist-led partisans staged an uprising on Cheju-do. His more provocative main thesis holds that "the end of Japanese colonialism marked a rebirth of two competing revolutionary movements" (p. 14) that waged people's war in pursuit "of two different visions of a modern Korea" (p. 5). This argument's validity requires acceptance of Millett's belief that postwar Korean conservatives "had a clear vision of how to balance economic development with public order and individual liberties" (p. 48).
This study opens with a jumbled introduction that highlights the civil origins of the Korean War, explaining as well how "Koreans have a tradition of injustice and supplication to uncaring governments" (p. 9). A summary of Korea's history from 1919 to 1945 follows that provides excellent profiles of major figures in the liberation movement. Millett then covers Soviet-American division of Korea into occupation zones and southern opposition to trusteeship. Updates on developments in the north interrupt a primary focus thereafter on events in southern Korea, where the "Left seemed committed to a position of permanent noncooperation and subversion, while the Right seemed content to build its popularity at the expense of the military government to take its case to the mobs in the streets" (p. 75).
Millett continues to present mostly familiar information for the remaining two-thirds of his account, covering the collapse of the Joint Commission, action at the United Nations, the May 1948 elections in southern Korea, creation of two Koreas, the Yosu-Sunchon Rebellion, the border clashes in 1949, and reluctant Soviet approval for Kim Il Sung's invasion. His interpretations, however, are new, consistently minimizing, excusing, or ignoring American mistakes and misbehavior. Of unqualified value is his detailed discussion of the origins, composition, and activities of the South Korean police and army, especially how the two security units "vied for local favors and American support" (p. 107). Comprehensive coverage of how these forces [End Page 1303] had crushed southern Communist guerrillas by spring 1950 is another worthy contribution. Other strengths include seven maps and a good bibliographical essay, as well as thirty-five photographs of Korean political leaders, American and South Korean military officers, and assorted war-related events.
Despite exhaustive research, Millett's heavy reliance on U.S. and South Korean military records and recollections skews his perspective. His narrative also often depends on the personal accounts of Robert T. Oliver and Louise Yim, rather than recent secondary works. Along with Korean Christians and missionaries, U.S. military advisors who supervised the creation of brutally partisan security units are heroes, while American diplomat Gregory Henderson and journalist Mark Gayn who criticized South Korean human rights violations are villains. Unsavory South Korean military figures like Kim Sok-won receive very gentle treatment. Ironically, Millett searches like Diogenes for an honest—and selfless—Korean politician, but nearly all are targets of sarcastic disparagement. Many Korea scholars will be similarly dissatisfied with the conclusions in this study, but at least it delivers on a promise to show why the war remains for Koreans "neither limited nor forgotten" (p. 2).