Speaking to veterans on July 27, 2013, at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, President Obama declared the Korean War a victory for the United States in an effort to challenge its status in American memory as a forgotten war. It is worth quoting his remarks at length to appreciate the change in emphasis on the war’s “victory” from what had previously been a focus on the hardships of an unknown war:
That July day, when the fighting finally ended, not far from where it began, some suggested this sacrifice had been for naught, and they summed it up with a phrase — “die for a tie.”… But here, today, we can say with confidence that war was no tie. Korea was a victory. When fifty million South Koreans live in freedom—a vibrant democracy, one of the world’s most dynamic economies, in stark contrast to the repression and poverty of the North—that’s a victory; that’s your legacy.
When our soldiers stand firm along the DMZ; when our South Korean friends can go about their lives, knowing that the commitment of the United States to the security of the Republic of Korea will never waver—that is a victory, and that is your legacy. [End Page 1]
When our allies across the Asia Pacific know—as we have proven in Korea for sixty straight years—that the United States will remain a force for peace and security and prosperity—that’s a victory; that’s your legacy.
And for generations to come, when history recalls how free nations banded together in a long Cold War, and how we won that war, let it be said that Korea was the first battle—where freedom held its ground and free peoples refused to yield; that, too, is your victory, your legacy.1
The Korean War does not stand alone in this renewed effort to valorize American interventions during the Cold War. The last several years have seen milestone anniversaries of two American wars in Asia—the Korean War and the Vietnam War—that have generated a grandiose rhetoric of victory for two of the deadliest wars of the twentieth century outside the two world wars. The sixtieth anniversary of the Korean War Armistice Agreement in 2013 prompted the president to claim victory in his speech at the Korean War Veterans Memorial. In the previous year, the administration issued a presidential proclamation for an unusually long thirteen-year program to commemorate the Vietnam War, designating the period from May 28, 2012, through November 11, 2025, as the official tribute to the fiftieth anniversary of the war, at a cost of five million dollars per year.2 Observing March 8, 1965, as the date when thirty-five hundred marines were deployed to start the American ground war in Vietnam, formal events are planned throughout 2015.
The year 2015 also marks the seventieth anniversary of the division of the Korean peninsula, an action proposed by the United States (and accepted by the Soviets) at the end of the Asia-Pacific War in 1945. Indeed, American involvement in Vietnam must also be traced back to 1945, when the United States threw its support behind France in its bid to recolonize Vietnam. How can we explain the turn of perspective toward such triumphalist rhetoric at this point in time? Similar to the Vietnam War, but in a much shorter span of only three years, the Korean War resulted in an estimated three million civilian deaths, and the unended Korean War continues to elicit tensions along the demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas, and throughout the Asia-Pacific region today. But unlike Vietnam, where American veterans have engaged in projects for peace and reconciliation with Vietnamese partners, peace in Korea seems like a distant dream at best.3 [End Page 2]
The purpose of this special issue is twofold: first, to engage in a critical intervention into the memorialization of the Korean War among the chief participants—the two Koreas, the United States, and China—to disrupt monolithic understandings of its origins, consequences, and experiences; and second, to do so as a necessary step toward reconciliation by placing...