Frustrating, fascinating historyI have been reading and re-reading this slim volume, published in 2001, for several months now and confess to still being puzzled by it. As an introduction to the Korean War, it is useful and interesting, but it lacks a defining theme or themes that would fit the war into its international and domestic context.
By this I do not mean a “white hat, black hat” approach ― evil North Koreans and Chinese and virtuous South Koreans and Americans. But Mr. Lee starts by saying he wants to debunk the idea that the war was a manifestation of Soviet-led global communism on the march, and that has been done already over the past decade. He is careful to footnote some arcane inclusions (“The years since the end of the Second World War have been referred to as the era of ‘the long peace’...”) but asserts without citation that the civilian suffering during the war “was a product of a purposeful policy by both sides in the conflict” (emphasis in the original).
Although Mr. Lee does not directly assert that the issue of prisoner of war repatriation was responsible for the two-year stalemate in armistice negotiations, he gives the issue a weight that makes it clear he believes that was the case. But in the context that he has laid out of an indifference toward Korean lives and brutality in the POW camps of both sides, he fails to make clear just what made those prisoners so important that they could thwart the end to a war that was becoming increasingly unpopular in the United States. And frustratingly, he devotes only a few sentences to Syngman Rhee’s decision to free 24,000 POWs being held in the South. He does an excellent job of documenting Rhee’s hard-line opposition to any cessation of the fighting unless Korea was reunified under him, however.
As the text of a graduate school seminar on the war, this book would be quite valuable, but perhaps not for the reason the author intended. It is maddeningly vague in parts and detailed in other parts, and would be a powerful stimulus for interested readers to do further research. Some of the muddiness in the text stems from a lack of information about what Stalin and Mao were up to in the days before hostilities broke out here, but some also stems from the author’s attempt to touch on elements of social history, such as his sections on black U.S. soldiers and American women in the war zone. They are out of place in a slim overview volume like this, and the book would benefit from a major scrub to better organize the hopscotch presentation.
The Korean War
Steven Hugh Lee
Pearson Education Ltd.
by John Hoog