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  • Korea’s Martyrdom: The Unlimited “Limited War”
  • Lloyd Gardner (bio)
William Stueck. The Korean War: An International History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995. xii + 484 pp. Maps, notes, bibliography, and index. $35.00.

For some reason Korea has been called the “Forgotten War.” Perhaps that is because before Vietnam only the War of 1812 ended so unsatisfactorily. When the fighting stopped in 1953, John Foster Dulles fretted over an image of stalemate. How would the uncommitted peoples of Asia and Africa view the de facto division of that tormented land? Not a very good beginning, he feared, for a policy that promised a dynamic alternative to communism. Thus he determined get the French out of Vietnam before yet another disaster befell American policy in Asia. A decade later things had come full circle. Promise him Vietnam was not going to become another Korea Lyndon Johnson pleaded with his advisers. LBJ remembered only too well how the war had brought twenty years of Democratic rule to an end.

Dean Rusk tried to get Johnson to see the bright side of the analogy. Korea really ought to be set alongside Greece and the Berlin crisis, he insisted, as Cold War victories. Another Korea was, to his mind, a very good solution for Vietnam. It would mean that the Cold War “system” had survived its greatest challenge. Rusk’s priority was always order. If the Communists would leave their neighbors alone, he repeated at every opportunity he had, we would leave them alone. When Under Secretary of State George Ball expressed concern about the woeful political skills of the Saigon generals, Rusk retorted: “You don’t understand that at the time of Korea that we had to go out and dig Syngman Rhee out of the bush where he was hiding; there was no government in Korea either, and we were able to come through.” 1

William Stueck now argues in his finely textured study that a lot more happened in Korea—and what happened because of Korea—than simply getting through a muddled situation without bringing about a catastrophic war. For Koreans on both sides of the 38th Parallel the war was quite simply the cruelest event yet in a long history filled with tragedy. Once more Korea [End Page 321] felt the full weight of oppression by rival empires—only now the oppressors possessed weapons of destruction that surpassed those of all the other hordes that had swept across the peninsula. An estimated three million Koreans died, a tenth of the total population. Not all died in battle, but all were a direct result of the war. Estimates vary, but the Chinese are said to have sustained at least a million deaths, and probably more. Fifty-four thousand Americans died. Smaller contributors to the United Nations command lost three thousand men. And after all this, as Stueck points out, Korea still remained a divided country.

Little wonder Koreans have not always been happy with American solutions to their problems. At the time of the armistice, Syngman Rhee’s foreign minister, Yung Tai Pyun, angrily charged American officials with failing to treat Korea as an equal. America “had vented all its ‘Machiavellianism’ on Korea,” he accused his listeners, “beginning with [its] ‘sell-out’ to Japan in 1905–1910” (p. 331). Yalta also stands out in Korean minds even today as the root of all the country’s troubles, for it was then, as they believe, their country’s division was decided to suit the needs of the great powers. Add to this list the more recent controversies over the role of the American military in domestic politics, and Koreans have indeed had reason to wonder about the benefits of relying upon Washington’s ambiguous benefices.

If there was any compensation to be found here for Koreans, Stueck opines, it was that the war was unlikely to resume. But there was a great benefit for the rest of the world. Korea’s sacrifice may have allowed the world to escape nuclear armegeddon. “Korea as a Substitute for World War III,” is the subtitle of Stueck’s concluding chapter, and it is a theme that runs throughout. Trying to explain Stalin’s motives, Stueck...

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