The Koreas

A New History of the Korean War

In The Korean War: An International History, Haruki Wada raises the bar on diplomatic histories of the conflict.

A New History of the Korean War
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On September 22, the Cold War International History Project (CWIHIP) at the Wilson Center tweeted the following: “#OnThisDay in ’89, George Bush issues directive on changing US-Soviet relations and containment policy.” Bush argued that international conditions had changed such that a containment policy was no longer necessary.

The international conditions in the post-WWII world, which lead to the implementation of a comprehensive containment strategy, largely materialized during the Korean War (1950-1953). The economic, political and military goals of a containment strategy, outlined in National Security Council Report 68 (NSC 68), were vigorously pursued after the outbreak of hostilities on the peninsula.

It is directives and reports like those cited above, now mainly declassified materials, which permit scholars to reconstruct diplomatic histories. But one must be careful not to overemphasize one or two national perspectives at the expense of others. The history of the Korean War – like the entire Cold War – is an international history.

Using declassified material from the U.S. archives, Chinese sources and captured North Korean documents, and the Russian materials circulated by the CWIHP, several illuminating diplomatic histories have been published over the last 30 years. William W. Stueck Jr.’s The Road to Confrontation: American Policy toward China and Korea, 1947-1950, the CWIHIP Bulletin, and Shen Zhihua’s The Sino-Soviet Alliance and the Korean War are just a few of the good works written using the wealth of declassified materials now available. Bruce Cumings’ well-known tome, Origins of the Korean War, while a cornerstone work, is less a diplomatic history than it is a “history from the bottom up.” While top-notch histories, these works usually focus on one or two national perspectives, to the neglect of others.

Haruki Wada’s latest book, The Korean War: An International History (not be to confused with William Stueck’s book of the same name), uses multiple perspectives to tell one grand story. Wada, a leading Japanese scholar on Korean history, engages the major debates on the Korean War using the latest archival material from Russia, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, and the United States. All major actors have voice: Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Kim Il-sung, Syngman Rhee, and John Foster Dulles, among others. For this all-encompassing effort, it is a highly valuable contribution to the expanding list of diplomatic histories on the Korean War. The book is a translation and update of an earlier book on the Korean War published in Japanese.

Some nuggets of new information include: Stalin’s relationship with Kim Il-sung, which is argued to be quite close, and a reappraisal of Stalin’s position on ending the war. Contrary to previous findings, Wada concludes that Stalin had indeed approved moves to seek peace in 1952. Context of Japan’s wartime participation is provided and the activities of the Japanese Communist Party are covered in what amounts to more than a few pages worth of discussion and analysis. Wada also devotes significant attention to the destruction wrought by U.S. air power – something Cumings has done in the United States.

The layer upon layer of facts presented in the book are, of course, interesting in themselves and the elite-centered narrative constructed using telegrams and other communiqués gives voice and agency to individuals like Kim Il-sung and Syngman Rhee. However, Wada’s greatest achievement is not in the details; it is, rather, in the scope. Using material in five languages and the latest archival materials, the remit of his analytical gaze, stretching from Moscow to Washington D.C., does indeed make his book on the Korean War an international history. Wada does this in at least three ways.

First, he splits the Korean War into “two” distinct wars: a civil war and a Sino-American war. This may seem a rather minor point, but it is one worth making. Before the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) entered Korea, and after, were two entirely different geopolitical contexts. The civil war is seen depicted primarily as early state-building efforts led by Kim Il-sung and Pak Hon-yong in the north and Syngman Rhee in the south. By the time the PVA entered the fighting, Kim Il-sung and Rhee played significantly diminished roles.

Second, Wada shines a light on the politics of the Yoshida Doctrine and the conclusion of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (1951), an enormously important development during the Korean War and in the early Cold War era. His analysis here is particularly insightful. As Chalmers Johnson in his work on postwar Japan found, Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru deftly out-politicked his U.S. interlocutor, John Foster Dulles, who had been tasked with working with him on a post-World War II peace settlement. By getting the U.S. to provide a security guarantee without having to rearm, Yoshida, Kishi Nobusuke, and others could get busy with economic development. In return, the U.S. got its garrison at Okinawa. Thus was born the “hub-and-spokes” system, based on America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” (i.e., Japan).

Lastly, Wada gives recognition to the broad processes working in the geopolitical background. He identifies the Chinese Communist Revolution as giving impetus to the outbreak of war and inspiring “red scares” on the peninsula and discusses, throughout the book, the policies that built the foundation of America’s expansionist foreign policy and the early formation of what Cumings has styled an “archipelago of empire.” Wada’s use of National Security Council reports (e.g., NSC 68) as signposts helps the reader follow the slow unfolding of events taking place as the backdrop to war and understand how America became a global power and presence via the Korean War.

Future authors of diplomatic histories of the Korean War will find the Wada has set the bar high.