Max Hastings’s “The Korean War” (Review)

There are no “forgotten wars.”  We may choose to talk about them, to write about them, or to learn from them.  Or we may not.  It is a question of what value we place on the lessons.  Some eras, forged in strife and hardship, embrace history’s lessons, and consume narratives of past conflict with an eager inquisitiveness; other epochs, softened by luxury and lassitude, are largely immune to the lessons of the past.  In the end, it is always a matter of choice.

The Korean War broke out seventy years ago, a span of time long enough for its chief lessons to begin to be covered up by the silt of time.  There is so much of that era’s political history that has already slipped from the collective memory.  Consider the threat posed by the major communist powers:  the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.  We so easily forget that the Soviet Union of 1950 was nothing at all like the Soviet Union of the 1980s.

Stalin still ran the show, and he ran it the way he always had:  that is, with an iron fist.  Soviet Russia was a totalitarian state that tolerated not the slightest domestic dissent.  After his victory in the Second World War, Stalin had installed a buffer zone in eastern Europe along his borders, from which the West was excluded.  Free movement of peoples and goods was not permitted.  These eastern European client states were compelled to host Russian occupation forces.  Their intelligentsias were exiled, repressed, or liquidated.  Their economies were strangled.  Their basic freedoms were ground under Moscow’s heel.  In 1948, for example, a communist regime was installed in Czechoslovakia in a blatant takeover about which the United States and Britain could do nothing.  The lessons of Munich in 1938 were then fresh on everyone’s mind; there was a sense that communism needed to be confronted forcefully in a way that 1930s Germany had not.  Neither should it be forgotten that eastern Europeans genuinely feared and hated the Soviet Union to a degree that equaled—indeed, probably even exceeded—their fear of Germany during the 1940s.

When communist forces took power in China in 1949, the shock to the West was profound.  Since the early 20th century, America’s elites had had something of an infatuation with China and her culture, a product of the brisk trade that had been carried with the country since the early 19th century.  Since the Second World War, the US had lavished training and money on the Chinese nationalist forces, and assumed that they would eventually prevail.  They did not.  The nationalists were too corrupt, too compromised, and too disfavored by the rural population.  And so they were run out of China, and were forced to take refuge in the island stronghold of Taiwan (then called Formosa).  Communist regimes, in theory at least, were committed to worldwide revolution, and at the very least refused to open their countries up to foreign investment and Western financial systems.  Five years after the end of the Second World War, it seemed as if the world was approaching another great crisis.

This is the backdrop against which Max Hastings begins his The Korean War.  First published in 1987, it remains in my opinion one of the critical books needed for a proper understanding of this fascinating conflict that raged from 1950 to 1953.  (The other titles are Joseph Goulden’s Korea:  The Untold Story of the War, Bruce Cumings’s The Korean War:  A History, and C. Turner Joy’s How Communists Negotiate).  Hastings, an accomplished an extremely readable historian, provides us with an unbiased and comprehensive account of the conflict; besides primary sources, he relies on extensive interviews from veterans and other direct participants.  The result is a work of history that allows the reader to understand not just the war’s events, but the reasons behind them and the results that attended them.  Hastings has a practical grasp of events, combined with a dry sense of humor.  Consider this pungent comment from the book’s foreword:

I made a decision at the outset to make no approaches to Pyongyang while writing the book.  If truth remains an elusive commodity in China, in North Korea it is entirely displaced by fantasy.  It seems impossible to gain any worthwhile insights into the North Korean view of the war as long as Kim Il Sung presides over a society in which the private possession of a bicycle is considered a threat to national security.

I first read the book in the 1990s, and have recently returned to it; and it has lost none of its narrative power.  The war itself is high drama:  it started with a naked invasion of South Korea; South Korean and US forces were thrown backwards to a small perimeter around the city of Pusan; General MacArthur then outflanked the enemy with landings at Inchon; there was a reckless rush north to the Yalu border with China; China then intervened in force; and from there the fighting see-sawed up and down the peninsula until an armistice was signed in 1953.  Not only are there dramatic events, but we have dramatic personalities:  South Korea’s Syngman Rhee, Douglas MacArthur, President Truman, Kim Il Sung, Mao Tse-Tung, Matthew Ridgeway, and others.

Hastings does not hesitate to level criticism where it needs to be leveled.  He correctly argues that the West’s blindness to Chinese national interests led to a situation where Peking felt it had no choice but to intervene in full force.  Assuming that communist nations always acted in concert out of ideological motives, Washington refused to consider the possibility that national interests played a strong role in communist decision-making.  Blunders and mistakes are painfully highlighted.  Here, for example, Hastings explains why the 1950 Wake Island conference between Truman and General MacArthur was such a disaster:

MacArthur left for Tokyo in a rage.  He considered himself diminished by the summons to be cross-questioned by a group of political hacks for whom he felt only contempt…Having summoned the general to meet the president, however, the Washington delegation signally failed to use the opportunity to drive home to MacArthur his absolute responsibility to accept instructions from his government…It is difficult to regard Truman’s initiation of the Wake meeting as other than a serious error of judgment by the president prompted by uncharacteristically frivolous political considerations.  Its cost to his stature in dealing with MacArthur, his weakening of his own position in the months that followed, are hard to overestimate.

These are the kinds of acute observations readers will find in Hastings’s book.  Other major events in the way are handled with a deft level of skill, such as the Chosin Reservoir retreat and the events leading up to the armistice in 1953.  In a world where  middling leadership has become the norm rather than the exception, the lessons of history are one of the few resources left that cannot be massaged away.  We will learn our lessons voluntarily or involuntarily; and everyone knows which method involves less pain.