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.
It is sometimes called the forgotten war, the conflict which remains in the background as World War I, World War II and Vietnam take center stage as the wars that defined the United States Military and U.S. foreign policy. Unbeknownst to many Americans, the Korean war never officially ended. An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953 bringing a halt to the firing from all sides. But the armistice did not permanently resolve the conflict and to this day the 38th parallel, instituted after World War II, remains as the dividing line between the Communist North and the Democratic South. Recently, U.S. President Donald J. Trump attended a peace summit with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. Washington claimed the summit a success but only time will tell if the Korean War will officially come to an end and peace is finally obtained. For veterans of the conflict, feelings run deep and mixed thoughts on the summit are bound to exist. Two years ago, a veteran of the war close to my family died after several years of declining health. Curiously, he never spoke of the war, preferring to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself for more than 50 years. And as he went to his grave, he took with him, knowledge of the war and memories that most people would never want to have. But the questions still remain, what caused the conflict and why did war wage for three years? Furthermore, why did the fighting eventually cease?
Author T.R. Fehrenbach (1925-2013) served in the Korean War and was later head of the Texas Historical Commission. In 1963, this book was published, ten years after the fighting had ceased. His memories are crisp and the reporting second to none. He takes us back in time as history comes alive, letting us step inside the war beginning those fateful days in June, 1950 when the North Korea People’s Army invaded its southern neighbor. Under the direction of Kim Ill Sung (1912-1994), North Korea initiated the opening salvo in a war that claimed over two million lives. News of the invasion sent shock waves through Washington and President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) was faced with a decision that would change the course of history. On June 30, 1950, he ordered ground troops into South Korea to assist the Republic of Korea Armed Forces (ROK). At the time no one could have imagined what lay in store.
From the beginning the story pulls the reader in as Fehrenbach recounts the Japanese occupation of Korea and the long-lasting effects of Japanese rule on Korean society. In fact, to this day, influences of Japanese culture can still be found in Korea. Following the falls of the Japanese Army in World War II, Korea found itself in a position to chart a new course. But similar to Germany and Japan, the country became a pawn in the chess match between the United States and the Soviet Union. Unsure of what to do with South Korea, the nation remained in a vulnerable position until the North made its move. And once the fighting began, the speed picked up and refused to die down. North Korean and U.N. forces lead by the United States, engaged in deadly combat that saw casualties climb exponentially on both sides. but what was clear from the beginning as we see in the book, is that Korea was an entirely new type of conflict for America.
Savage is the adjective that comes to mind to describe the fighting between opposing nations and ideologies. Beyond brutal, the Korean conflict was akin to hell on earth for all of its participants. And just when we think that the war might swing in the favor of the U.N. forces, the war takes a darker and more dramatic turn as the People’s Republic of China enters the fray changing the scope and the rules of the Korean War. At the time China enters the story, the fighting has already claimed thousands of casualties. But it is at this point that the battle reaches a higher and more deadly level. Quite frankly, the world stood on the verge of the next holocaust. Today we know that did not happen. But why? America had the troops and the money to fund the war but what was it that held back the United States from entering into a full-scale ground assault? The answers are here and this is the crux of the book. Following World War II, American attitudes towards war began to change and Korea was the first testing ground for the gaining influence of politics over armed conflict.
What I liked most about the book is that aside from the statistics of casualties and the descriptions of the deaths that occur in the book and POW internment camps is that Fehrenbach explains how and why events progressed as they did and also why Washington was committed to fighting on a limited scale. The fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was still fresh in the minds of nations across the world. President Truman gave the order to drop the bombs and I believe no one doubted his willingness to use them again if necessary. Whether he would have eventually given the order is unknown as his time in office came to an end and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower succeeded him. But for the new president, the conflict still raged and opinion towards the war had become negative. And while peace did come during his term, the body count climbed up until the very last day.
The story of the Korean War is one that is rarely mentioned in textbooks and never discussed today. But this book by Fehrenbach truly is a classic study of the war. In a meticulous and chronological order, he tells the story from start to finish and along the way, incorporates relevant parts of American society and world history into the story. Although not a “textbook” in the classic sense, the book very well could be for it gives a concise explanation for the causes and effects of the war and how it was eventually resolved. If you are interesting in expanding your knowledge of the Korean War, this is the perfect place to start.