Last updated on December 31, 2019
On June 25, 1950, 75,000 soldiers from the North Korean People’s Army marched across the 38th Parallel and into the Republic of South Korea. In the wake of World War II, the country had been split between the Communist North under Kim Il-Sung (1912-1994) and the Democratic South under Syngman Rhee (1875-1965). The 38th Parallel served as the demilitarized zone between the two nations and remains in place to this day. In response to the growing North Korean advance, South Korean Troops with the assistance of the United Nations and the Unite States, mounted a counter-offensive to repel the invasion. As a tactical measure, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), appointed Gen. Douglas McArthur (1880-1964), to lead the resistance against the communist advance. As the conflict unfolded, Korea became ground zero in the struggle for peace and a pawn in the brewing Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union.
The North Korean advanced surprised the South but the tide of the war was soon turned as American troops marched on and captured Pyongyang. To all it seemed as if the conflict would soon be over and for Syngman Rhee, it appeared that his dream of reunification would come to pass. However, in October, 1950, all of that changed as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army crossed the Yalu River, lending their support to North Korean troops. In Washington, alarm bells sounded and it soon became known and accepted that the Korean War would not a “short” conflict. Instead, the war nearly turned into World War III and the world found itself on edge wondering if the United States would once again use an atomic weapon. Behind the scenes, Washington was doing its best to remain calm while avoiding another world conflict while its top commander in field was doing the opposite. This their story, told beautifully by H.W. Brands in this book that it sure to leave you astounded.
Truman, largely unpopular across the country, finds himself at odds with the most popular general in America. To the public, McArthur was a legendary figure beyond reproach, committed to the safety of the United States at home and around the world. To the White House, he was a rogue soldier, interfering in foreign policy and possibly providing the spark that would ignite the next world conflict through public statements and unauthorized expansion into Chinese territory. To understand these two powerful and dynamic figures, it is necessary to understand their backgrounds. Brands provides a brief autobiography of the two, giving readers a complete picture of each and their importance to the story at hand. As the war rages, they take their place as opponents in a power struggle that coincided with the loss of large numbers of U.S. military personnel and a Congress salivating at the thought of punishing the White House for what it believed to be unauthorized military action on foreign soil.
The book is written in a thoroughly engaging style and once I began I could not put it down. Readers familiar with the Korean War from either reading about it or living through it will recall many of the facts in the book. But where the book excels is in its deep analysis of the battle between Truman and McArthur, and the political maneuvers occurring in Washington to prevent Chinese escalation, retain the territory of Formosa and possible involvement by the Soviet Union. Some parts of the book are absolutely chilling and the late Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) is vindicated in his belief that McArthur was at that time, the most dangerous man in America. Brands includes quotes directly from the central players, giving the book the authentic feel that is has. It is not simply the author telling the story, but the major players giving their side of the story. And through their words, we can come to understand McArthur’s belief in his actions which could have escalated the war and the administration’s response in relieving him of his command and substituting him with Gen. Matthew B. Ridgeway. And the result is a roller coaster ride that begins with a Korean invasion and ends with an armistice under President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and the downfall of a military legend. Truman did not seek reelection but remained a powerful voice in American politics up until the time of his death.
It will soon be sixty-five years since the armistice was signed, and the 38th Parallel continues to be a source of tension between North and South Korea with both sides on high alert at all times for possible escalation and even invasion. The story of the two Korean nations is a long and tragic story, beginning with occupation by the Japanese military during World War II. The division of the country by the Soviet Union and the United States was a scene that played out in many nations following the defeat of the Axis powers. Peace became a central goal across the world but in 1953, North Korea decided that there was more at stake than civility. But due to the efforts of leaders who understood the dangerous nature of the conflict, the world was given a brief reprieve until the United States and Soviet Union once again clashed during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962. That conflict would also be resolved, due in part to the efforts of the administration of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963).
The story here is at times mind-blowing and shows just how close the world came to Armageddon. There were no scripts and the central figures were not actors on a studio in Hollywood. The events were frighteningly real and if we are to prevent future conflicts from going down the same path, we owe it to ourselves to remember the conflict by use of books such as this one by H.W. Brands. Those who are students of history and in particular the Korean War, will thoroughly enjoy and appreciate Brands’ work.