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Reviewed by:
  • The War for Korea: A House Burning, 1945–1950, and: The War for Korea: They Came from the North, 1950–1951
  • Qiang Zhai (bio)
Allan R. Millett. The War for Korea: A House Burning, 1945–1950. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2005. xviii, 348 pp. Hardcover $39.95, ISBN 978-0-7006-1393-9.
Allan R. Millett. The War for Korea: They Came from the North, 1950–1951. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2010. xx, 644 pp. Hardcover $45.00, ISBN 978-0-7006-1709-8.

The Korean War was a major turning point in the Cold War that has dominated international politics since 1945. It did for the Cold War what the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did for World War II—globalized it. However, for a long time in the United States, the Korean War has been known as a “forgotten war,” overshadowed by the Vietnam War. In China, the Korean fighting has remained a highly emotional and still controversial event. It has come down to the population older than middle age in a series of unforgettable scenes, including the battle of Shangganling (上甘岭战役) (or the Battle of Sangkumryung Ridge or the Battle of Triangle Hill) and the Kumsong counteroffensive (金城反击战). It has been celebrated as a “good war” by the Communist government, and officially designated “heroes” such as Huang Jiguang (黄继光), Qiu Shaoyun (邱少云), and Luo Shengjiao (罗盛教) are deeply etched in popular memory. The Korean War–related controversies still frequently burst into news headlines. A recent incident occurred during the Chinese leader Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States in January 2011. At the state dinner that President Obama hosted in honor of Hu, the Chinese pianist Lang Lang’s performance stirred controversy when he played a tune that celebrated Chinese heroism during the Korean War. How did the Korean War start? Why did the United States and China intervene and confront each other in the conflict? To understand the causes and development of the Korean War, Allan Millett’s first two volumes of his projected trilogy of that conflict provide a good place to start.

Drawing upon painstaking and exhaustive research into recently declassified American documents and a wide range of Korean, Chinese, and Russian sources, Millett weaves together multiple perspectives across a broad canvas where opposing ideologies, nation interests, domestic politics, and individual ambitions collide. Aware of the common pitfall of treating the war solely from the American perspective or providing a view only according to Washington, Millett pays attention not only to U.S. decision making, military deployments, and intelligence assessments, but also to Communist calculations, maneuvers, and preparations. The result is a highly revealing account of how mutual misperceptions, misjudgments, and prejudices propelled a civil strife in Korea into a major international war.

A House Burning traces the origins of the war to the conclusion of World War II, when Korea was partitioned by the United States and the Soviet Union. In making their decision to divide Korea into two zones of occupation, neither [End Page 355] Washington nor Moscow fully understood the internal political, economic, and social chaos and upheaval in Korea at war’s end or the aspirations of the Korean population themselves. For several thousand years before World War II, Korea had enjoyed a homogenous society with a single language, national heritage, and political culture. Four decades of Japanese colonial domination had failed to erase traditional behavior patterns, but Japan’s rule had disrupted the delicately balanced social and economic structure on the peninsula. As a consequence, when Japan surrendered in 1945, Korea was in political turmoil. Two revolutionary movements, the Communists and the Nationalist-capitalists, emerged from the post-liberation conflict. In the wake of the arrival of the Soviet and American occupation forces, each movement sought the assistance and protection of its foreign patron in its efforts to control the peninsula, plunging the nation into a partisan war and terrorism that claimed the lives of more than 30,000 Koreans. Millett contends that this civil conflict, waged mostly in the southern part of the peninsula, was not so much the cause of the Korean War as its actual beginning.

Millett’s discussion of the breakdown of Soviet-American cooperation...


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