Robert Dallek: Wrong Turns in Korea

Roundup: Talking About History

[Robert Dallek, a finalist for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for History for Nixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power (HarperCollins 2007), is author of the new book The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945–1953 (HarperCollins 2010).]

On its 60th Anniversary, the Korean War looks much like Vietnam, a pointless conflict that gained nothing for those who began it: North Korea’s Kim Il-sung and South Korea’s Syngman Rhee, with the consent of the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong. Yet it was far worse than that: The bloodletting in that corner of the northeast Asia was an exercise in human folly that cost all sides in the fighting nearly 4 million lives lost, missing, and wounded, not to mention the devastation of the peninsula from Pusan in the south to the Yalu River in the north. Not a single northern or southern Korean city escaped the ravages wrought by modern warfare. Public buildings and private homes were turned into piles of rubble, while thousands of refugees fled from the scenes of battle.

Despite a monument to its fallen heroes and considerable retrospective praise of Harry Truman for standing up to communism, America’s leaders—the president, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Far Eastern Commander Douglas MacArthur, and Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy—cannot lay claim to much, if any, praise for their parts in the conflict. As America wrestles with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and debates how to end U.S. involvement, the Korean War may be a useful cautionary tale—a reminder of how false assumptions about the benefits of military action can be so costly and unproductive and how political pressure to satisfy demands for military steps against perceived enemies can be worse than inaction.

By June 1950, anyone focusing closely on events of the previous two to five years should not have been surprised that a Korean civil war was in the offing. The governments of both the North and the South stridently proclaimed their determination to unify the country under their respective regimes....

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