Foreign Affairs

Cold War International History Conference: Paper by William Stueck

Session IV

The Korean War As History:
David Rees' Korea: The Limited War In Retrospect

William Stueck
University of Georgia
September 1998

Copyright 1998 by William Stueck

To most diplomatic historians, there is no more exciting development than the release by a government of new documentation regarding its foreign relations. For historians of the Korean War, the last quarter century has been a prolonged feast, as first American, then British, Canadian, and Australian, and finally Chinese and Soviet records emerged in substantial quantities.

We like to think that the new information and detached perspective that time affords produces better history. Yet the record of the past is never complete, and a partial record--even if fuller than that which existed previously--can mislead as easily as it can enlighten, especially when an issue holds strong ideological and/or professional significance to those who have already or are about to stake out their ground. Those established in the field possess a natural tendency to defend the interpretations on which their reputations are based, while those entering it are predisposed at least to qualify them, at most to offer alternatives. As new evidence accumulates over many years, works that decades ago dominated the field sometimes get ignored. This is unfortunate, as such works help us escape the present, thus expanding our imagination of the past, and remind us of the importance of published sources from the period being studied. When compared to some of their successors, distinguished older works also serve as a reminder that the advancement of historical understanding is far from linear.

With such thoughts in mind, I seek here to assess the present state of Korean War literature in the West by looking back to the first major scholarly synthesis of the subject, David Rees' Korea: The Limited War, published in 1964. Note 1 The book remained the standard single volume study of the event until 1986, when it was in some respects superseded by Burton I. Kaufman's survey based on a wealth of new documentation from the American side, a few tidbits from the Communist camp, and a substantial body of revisionist literature.Note2 Kaufman labored at a time when Chinese and Soviet archives remained locked tight, however, so the bountiful crop of articles and books dealing with the Korean War that have emerged in the last five years draw upon a greatly enriched empirical base. Thus more recent studies, especially on the North Korean, Soviet, and Chinese sides, provide the test of how far the field has advanced since Rees produced his classic over a generation and a half ago.

I divide my presentation into five topical/chronological sections, beginning with the origins of the war from World War II to the end of June 1950, when the United States committed ground forces to repulse the North Korean military offensive across the 38th parallel. Next I turn to the fall of 1950 and the decision of the United States to alter its objective from the containment of North Korea to its liberation from Communist rule, the subsequent decision by the People's Republic of China to intervene, and the resulting development of "an entirely new war" by the end of November. The third section covers the winter of 1950-51 through to the early summer of 1951, during which time the conflict shifted from a dangerous struggle that at any moment could have expanded into a regional or even a global war to a relatively static struggle characterized at the top level on both sides by a willingness to end the fighting short of clear-cut victory. Fourth I treat the armistice negotiations, from their beginning in July 1951 through to their stalemate over the prisoner-of-war issue in the spring of 1952 and their suspension by the United States in the following autumn. Finally I address the factors leading up to the resumption of negotiations in April 1953 through to the actual signing of an armistice three months later.


Writing at a time when nuclear weapons made the kind of total wars fought during the first half of the century a recipe for annihilation, Rees approached Korea primarily as a manifestation of limited war. He was a partisan of the West in the Cold War and a British intellectual disdainful of what he viewed as the American tradition of "absolutism" or "idealism" in approaching war. He admired President Harry S. Truman and his advisers for their courage and insight in departing from this tradition in Korea. Yet Rees also criticized them for failing at times to link military action with political objectives. Far from certain that the United States would eventually bury the Soviet Union, he wondered if it would have been better to fight for a total victory in Korea while U.S. industrial and nuclear superiority was clear cut.Note3 Communist charges during the war that the conflict in Korea was essentially civil in nature and that American intervention there was illegitimate, which would engage many scholars of the next generation, were to Rees unworthy of consideration.

Rees devoted well under ten percent of his space to origins. World War II and the division of the peninsula at the 38th parallel in August 1945 between Soviet and American occupation forces received a mere four paragraphs. The hardening of this division by the fall of 1948 through the formation of rightist and leftist regimes in the south and north respectively generated only eight more. In seven pages, Rees raced through the American strategy leading to the total withdrawal of troops in 1949, the internal warfare in the U.S.-sponsored Republic of Korea in the south, and the Communist decision to attack. His intensive treatment began with the North Korean attack on June 25, 1950, and the subsequent U.S. decision to intervene militarily.

Given the centrality of origins to the subsequent literature on the Korean War, an examination of how well Rees' limited coverage has held up and how far we have gone beyond is essential. The study of origins goes back to the division of Korea into American and Soviet occupation zones at the end of World War II. Without this division, and the failure later on of the Americans and the Soviets to reach agreement on its elimination, the Korean War as we know it could never have occurred.

Rees did little more than tie the decision on the 38th parallel, first, to the wartime assumption in Washington that Korea should receive its independence but would need tutelage through a multipower trusteeship to prepare itself for self-rule and, then, to the rush of events at the end of the war against Japan.Note4 It was left to others to explain that trusteeship leading to independence represented U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's pet idea for moving colonial peoples toward freedom and that its multipower dimension in relation to Korea was a way of preventing the peninsula from becoming a source of international conflict as it had been at the turn of the century.Note 5

By the 1980s, scholars possessed enough documentation on the U.S. side to show that, during the summer of 1945, Roosevelt's successor, Harry S. Truman, briefly contemplated abandoning the multipower approach in favor of sole American control. Despite U.S. employment of atomic weapons, however, Japan did not surrender before the Soviet Union entered the Pacific war and sent forces into Korea. Ultimately, American leaders were unwilling to rush troops to the peninsula to head off the Soviets, but they did propose to Moscow a joint occupation separated at the 38th parallel.Note 6

Historians came to agree that the American proposal represented an effort to contain Soviet influence on the peninsula. While traditional scholars saw the U.S. interest in Korea as reasonable given the impending destruction of Japanese power, the continuing weakness and division of China, and the resulting possibility that the Soviets would fill a vacuum in continental northeast Asia, revisionists led by Bruce Cumings disagreed, suggesting that at the very least Washington should have tried before the end of the war to reach agreement with Moscow on Korea's neutralization.Note 7 As for Rees, he undoubtedly would have been surprised at the amount of thought given by American planners to Korea's place in the postwar world. In the end, though, he would have judged them wanting for their failure to fully integrate military means and political objectives.

It was not until 1989 that a Western scholar making extensive use of Russian language sources provided an indepth analysis of Soviet policy. In a work that received far less attention than it deserved, Erik Van Ree pointed out that the lack of initiative from Moscow on Korea during World War II most likely reflected a belief that Soviet bargaining power would improve after Germany was defeated and large numbers of Soviet forces moved from eastern Europe to northeast Asia. Even as late as the Potsdam conference in July 1945, Van Ree suggests, the Soviets showed no sign of an interest in pinning down the Americans on Korea, believing as before that a waiting game would produce a more advantageous position for them on the peninsula than the three- or four-power trusteeship put forward earlier by the Americans. The Soviets were right, of course, as demonstrated by the subsequent U.S. proposal for a two-power occupation splitting the country roughly in half. The Soviets readily accepted the proposal because it fulfilled their basic needs for a buffer and warmwater ports and because holding out for more might lead to Japanese-American military cooperation at a time when the bulk of Soviet forces in the region were preoccupied in Manchuria. The implication of his account was that peaceful unification was largely precluded after the August 1945 agreement and that the Soviets bore a fair share of the responsibility both for the initial division and its perpetuation.Note 8

Van Ree's research and analysis for the occupation period also undermined the revisionist assertion that North Korea developed largely autonomously, and even called into question Rees' assertion that, from early 1946 to early 1947, "an embryonic Korean People's Republic ... [was] smoothly created." Note 9 Indeed, Van Ree found considerable Soviet control, even an elaborate military government, and plenty of turmoil caused by the social and economic reforms imposed.

Armed with documents from the Russian archives, Kathryn Weathersby soon extended the analysis of Soviet influence into the period between the withdrawal of Soviet troops at the end of 1948 and the outbreak of war in June 1950. "Soviet officials continued to maintain close supervision over events" in North Korea, she wrote in 1993.Note 10 She concluded two years later that, with North Korea "utterly dependent economically on the Soviet Union," it was "simply unable to take any significant action without Soviet approval....Note 11 She reinforced her case regarding the origins of the North Korean attack in June 1950 by revealing concrete and indisputable evidence of intimate Soviet involvement in the decisionmaking process.Note 12

Nevertheless, Weathersby disputed Rees' assertion of a "Soviet war plan," pointing out that the initiative for an attack southward clearly came from North Korean Premier Kim Il-sung. This point had first been made by a person in a position to know in 1970 in the memoirs of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Note 13 On the other hand, if Rees' characterization is read narrowly rather than broadly--that is, if his contention is merely that the Soviets drew up the specific plan for war--it is probably correct. A North Korean exile involved in the process has testified that that is precisely what happened. Note 14

Documents from the Soviet and Chinese sides have also proved Rees correct in his surmise that the People's Republic of China was involved in the process leading to war. Drawing on information in Allen S. Whiting's 1960 study of China's entry into the war in the fall of 1950, which was based on U.S. intelligence records and published Chinese sources, Rees noted the return of thousands of Korean nationals to the peninsula who had fought in the Chinese civil war and their integration into the North Korean army in early 1950. He noted as well that, in the spring of 1950, substantial Chinese army units redeployed from south China to Manchuria, much closer to the Korean border.Note 15

Rees did not know, however, that Koreans returned to the peninsula during 1949 and early 1950 numbered at least 50,000; that Stalin did not begin to come around on Kim Il-sung's idea until the end of January 1950 and did not approve it until early April; that even then approval was conditional on Kim's receipt of Mao's blessing; that Stalin also made it clear to Kim that, if he ran into difficulty with the Americans in his venture, he would have to depend on Mao to bail him out; that in mid-May Kim solicited and received Mao's blessing; that Mao offered assistance by stationing three additional Chinese armies along the Manchurian border but was assured by Kim that this was unnecessary; and that Kim probably did not share the exact date of the planned attack with Mao. Note 16

Despite all this new data, we are still not much further along in comprehending Stalin's motives than we were when Rees wrote. For Kim, the motive was simple, as he viewed the situation in local terms. He wanted passionately to unite Korea under his control. The guerrilla movement in the South, despite aid from the North, showed no sign of achieving that purpose and Kim's own armed forces, particularly if supplied with heavy equipment from the Soviet Union, held a distinct if possibly temporary advantage over those in South Korea. Under the circumstances, it is no wonder that thoughts of unification gave him insomnia. For Stalin, though, the issue was more complicated, and Rees offered what remains as good an explanation as any in focusing on three basic developments. First, prospects for Soviet expansion in Europe and the Near East had for the moment been stymied by the Truman doctrine and NATO. Second, the United States withdrew troops from Korea in June 1949 and in January 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson left South Korea out of the American defense perimeter in the Pacific, events which reflected both U.S. military weakness in the area and a lack of will to defend the southern half of the peninsula. (The latter was important, as the United States still stationed some 80,000 troops in Japan, which could be moved quickly to Korea in an emergency.) Third, the United States clearly was moving toward a separate peace treaty with Japan, which could lead to that nation's eventual rearmament. The seizure of all of Korea by a Communist regime might create problems for the United States in integrating its former enemy into an anti-Soviet system. Note 17 I would attach an addendum to Rees' first point and add a fourth. In Europe, Stalin was not only stymied in his expansionist ambitions; he may have felt threatened with a serious rollback of his influence. Tito remained defiant and in power in Yugoslavia, with Mao's rise in China a dangerous example of a renegade Communist, and Western attempts at subversion were on an upswing in eastern Europe. In east Asia, on the other hand, conditions were ripe for revolution, and a Soviet nudge to the tide there might divert American attention and resources from the European theater. Already Stalin had encouraged China to take the lead in advancing revolutionary forces in Southeast Asia. And in January 1950 the United States showed signs of taking the bait when it recognized the anti-Communist regime of Bao Dai in Vietnam. Such a diversion of attention to Asia, of course, could include direct U.S. intervention in Korea, right on the Soviet border, which Stalin appears to have neither wanted nor thought likely. Yet he knew it was a possibility. He proved willing to take the risk in part because any U.S. military intervention in Asia would divert resources from the more vital European theater. Note 18

The risk also was worth taking because any expanded American intervention in Asia would insure China's continued isolation from the West. Mao long had displayed an independent streak, and Acheson's National Press Club speech indicated that the Americans were trying to encourage it. Evidence from the Chinese and Soviet sides advanced in Sergei Goncharov, Xue Litai, and John Lewis' Uncertain Partners indicates that Stalin worried that Mao would seek relations with the United States, a danger that would be greatly reduced by any American counter to a North Korean attack.Note 19 And the risk to the Soviet Union of such a counter would be diminished by the Communist Chinese presence on Korea's border. Rees ignored this likely aspect of Stalin's calculations, but he at least averted the fundamental error of the revisionists in viewing the Soviet Union as largely out of the loop in North Korea's plans.

Rees had more to work with on the American side, and in explaining the U.S. response to the North Korean attack he placed extensive weight on Truman's account in his memoirs, which emphasized the lessons learned from the experience with Japanese, Italian, and German aggression during the 1930s. "The 38th Parallel had to be defended if the whole cycle of Twentieth Century wars was to be broken," Rees wrote, and he quoted Truman's recollection that "we considered the Korean situation vital as a symbol of the strength and determination of the West." He described Truman's decision to fight in Korea as "a heroic and deliberate attempt to uphold the rule of law in international life." "Rarely," Rees wrote admiringly, "has a great power sacrificed so much for so little material gain as the United States would do in defending the barren hills of Korea." Note 20

At the same time, Rees explained U.S. unpreparedness for the attack in terms of the absolutist tradition in American history and the resulting failure to develop a military policy consistent with the containment strategy, which departed from that tradition. The United States before June 1950 was in a transitional stage in its global policy. It had thrust outward as never before after World War II and taken political, economic, and even military action to contain Soviet expansion. Yet its military planning and power remained focused on the idea of total war, on the ability to strike the Soviet Union with a devastating nuclear attack from the air. And legislators in charge of such repugnant measures as taxes and the military draft liked this approach for providing defense on the cheap. The failure to plan for limited war left American conventional forces weak, which in turn led to the withdrawal of troops from South Korea and a less than diligent effort to deter a North Korean attack. Note 21

Rees added that the inadequate effort at deterrence grew out of a failure to anticipate a shift in North Korea from a strategy of guerrilla and psychological warfare against the South to one of overt attack, and that this failure rested in part on the fact that attacks had often been predicted in the past but had never occurred. Past false alarms, in short, bred complacency. Note 22

Revisionists going all the way back to journalist I. F. Stone in 1952 and forward to Bruce Cumings in 1990 have advanced another hypothesis: the Americans, or at least key ones such as Secretary of State Dean Acheson, either knew an attack was coming and did nothing to deter it because they needed a crisis abroad to implement their plans for rearmament at home; and/or, for the very same reason, they actually tried to provoke it. Note 23 In the most sophisticated and well informed analysis, Cumings centered on Acheson and his National Press Club speech of January 12, 1950, which omitted South Korea from the American defense perimeter in the Pacific. Cumings conceded that the evidence is circumstantial that Acheson did this purposely to encourage a North Korean attack, but he sees it as fitting with Acheson's general character and his broad assessment of the international and domestic situation of early 1950.

Although the hypothesis cannot be disproven, other considerations more plausibly explain Acheson's behavior during the early months of 1950. First, he was under pressure at home to increase U.S. aid to Chiang Kai-shek on Taiwan, which he thought a bad idea. Chiang had a far larger constituency in the United States (notably in Congress, the press, and the military) than did Syngman Rhee and his Republic of Korea, so it would have been extremely risky to advocate a commitment to South Korea but not Taiwan. Second, South Korea was, according to prevailing Pentagon wisdom, a bad place to commit U.S. forces in the event of a broader armed conflict with the Soviet Union, and Rhee was a bit of a loose cannon in a tense situation on the peninsula. A commitment in advance to American military action there was, to say the least, imprudent. Third, as Rees argued, an overt North Korean attack was not considered imminent given the ongoing prospects for subversion in the South. Given all the other pressing issues demanding the attention of the Secretary of State, including what seemed to be the more likely prospects for Communist military offensives against Taiwan and in Indochina, not to mention all the difficulties in developing an effective policy of deterrence in Korea, it should be no wonder that Acheson dropped the ball there.

If Rees' account has stood up well to the revisionist onslaught, it omitted one important aspect of American Korea policy between September 1947 and June 1950, namely the almost constant struggle between the State Department and the Pentagon. State consistently supported a substantial U.S. effort to save South Korea while the military, with the partial exception of the army, favored a rapid withdrawal from the territory even if it meant its loss to the Communists. Revisionists and traditionalists disagree over the reasons for the State Department interest in the peninsula, with the former arguing that the diplomats tied South Korea's survival to Japan's economic recovery while the latter emphasize their concern about American credibility worldwide over an area in which the United States and the Soviet Union competed directly as a result of joint occupation.Note 24 Whatever the reason, State Department concern about Korea explains the fits and starts of the troop withdrawal process and the continued economic aid, and it shows a degree of continuity in U.S. thought--on the State Department side at least--leading up to the military intervention in June 1950.

One final matter requires attention in the area of origins, namely the balance between internal and external forces. Although Rees argued that, "politically, the destinies of the north and south [in Korea] had been polarized long before the joint occupation of 1945," he devoted little space to the internal forces at work in Korea.Note 25 He implied that the division between left and right followed north-south lines, which was untrue even though Kim Il-sung was from the north and Syngman Rhee spent most of his life in the south before going into exile early in the 20th century. More accurately, Rees reported the widespread and intense opposition in the south to trusteeship as a significant factor in the stalemate over unification during 1946 and 1947. Yet he downplayed the role of peasant and labor unrest in the south as a preliminary to all-out war. Note 26 It was not until Cold War revisionism hit the Korean War in the early 1970s that Western scholars began to see the Koreans themselves as leading agents in the origins of the conflict that broke out in June 1950.Note 27 Typically, however, they went too far, a point well illustrated by their dismissal of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs, which identified Kim Il-sung as initiator of the idea to attack the South and gave considerable weight to the internal unrest below the 38th parallel in explaining his confidence in success, but also insisted on critical roles for Stalin and Mao in moving the idea forward to execution.Note 28 With the exception of the remarkably nuanced study of John Merrill, those from 1972 to 1990 which emphasized internal factors displayed such an intense hostility to traditional Cold War thinking in the West that they seriously distorted the pattern of events in Korea. Note 29 Not only was the Soviet Union denied its proper place in the immediate origins of the North Korean attack; its role in North Korea from nearly the outset of its occupation in 1945 was grossly underestimated. Such distortions either have been or are in the process of being rectified in the new literature grounded in Soviet and Chinese sources.

Much to the good, however, the revisionists have made it impossible to devote as little attention as Rees did to internal forces in either North or South Korea. Indeed, this attention has covered and will continue to cover Syngman Rhee's manipulation of the Americans as well as Kim Il-sung's manipulation of the Soviets.Note 30


The key questions regarding the first five months of the war following American intervention are, why did the United States alter its initial objective of containing communism to one of rollback? why did the Chinese decide to intervene? and, after the initial contact of Chinese troops with U.N. forces, why did the latter fail to halt their advance? Rees addressed all three in some depth, and his successors have done so with an alacrity equal to their focus on the origins of the war itself.

"Containment," Rees wrote, "was the chief policy casualty of Inchon."Note 31 This view that General Douglas MacArthur's audacious counteroffensive well behind enemy lines on September 15, 1950, was the primary factor in the expansion of U.S. war aims reflected conventional wisdom. Yet much of the evidence Rees presented indicated that Washington had been moving toward such a shift for some time. On August 17, Warren Austin, the American delegate to the United Nations, opined in the Security Council that the international body should see to it that all Koreans had the opportunity for "complete individual and political freedom" as called for in the November 1947 General Assembly resolution on the peninsula. In a radio address two weeks later, President Truman made a similar statement. Then, on September 11 he approved an NSC paper that called on MacArthur to extend military operations into North Korea for the purpose of occupying that territory. The one qualification, as outlined by Truman in his memoirs, was that "there was no indication of threat of entry of Soviet or Chinese Communist elements in force." What Inchon did, in Rees' mind, was to diminish the weight of fears of Chinese and Soviet intervention in proportion to the sense of opportunity to achieve "a clear-cut, absolute solution for Korea in the pre-cold war tradition of American political thought." Note 32

Subsequent accounts have used piles of records unavailable to Rees to show that much sentiment existed in the Truman administration prior to Inchon in favor of some effort to roll back communism in Asia, and that this sentiment grew particularly strong in July and August regarding Korea. Even so, the basic argument that only the striking success of Inchon and the opportunity it seemed to offer for the achievement of total victory at a low cost turned sentiment into action remains the consensus view.Note 33 By virtually destroying North Korean resistance below the 38th parallel, the Inchon landing and its rapid follow-up in the recapture of Seoul and the breakout of the 8th Army from the Pusan perimeter brought to the fore in Washington military planners anxious to obliterate the enemy quickly so American troops could be redeployed elsewhere. It also increased MacArthur's prestige enormously and heightened expectations in the general public, thus magnifying the immediate political risks for Truman of a policy of restraint. Finally, it sped up the processes of diplomacy and policymaking in a manner that served to downplay the perceived risk of Chinese intervention. By the time an explicit threat of such intervention appeared in early October--a threat which, according to a precise reading of established policy, should have brought the movement of U.N. troops across the 38th parallel to a grinding haltNote34--the momentum for a campaign in North Korea was so great as to defy careful reconsideration. The facts that the Chinese lacked methods of direct communication with the Americans and communicated their warning through the Indian ambassador in Beijing, who was widely distrusted in the West, compounded the problem.Note 35

Despite the emphasis on specific circumstances created by Inchon, Rees was by no means insensitive to the impact of longstanding American misperceptions of Communist China. He noted the tendency of the State Department to view the new Chinese government as more nationalist than communist in outlook and, therefore, disinclined to do the Soviets' bidding in Korea. The deemphasis on ideology in the Chinese attitude toward the United States led Acheson and others to underestimate the degree to which Mao and his advisers viewed the Americans as a threat.Note 36 Later analysts added to the equation the significance of the ongoing underestimation in Washington of Chinese capabilities.

Combined with the belief that the Soviets would hesitate to encourage Chinese intervention in Korea for fear of reducing their own influence on the peninsula, this attitude led to the conclusion that the Soviet Union was more likely to jump in than China. When after Inchon there was no sign of a Soviet intention to do so, the way seemed clear.Note 37

Rees had no way of peering inside the Chinese decisionmaking process and his focus on the practice of limited war by the United States justified his treatment of the Communist side in a summary fashion. Yet it is instructive to compare his characterization of Chinese thinking with the more detailed accounts that have emerged from the new Chinese and Soviet documentation. Rees' key paragraph on the perspective of China merits quotation at length:

... With its Marxist-Maoist framework it seemed as if the US and its allies could menace China, if not its territorial integrity then its internal stability and its position as a great Asian and Communist power.... To Peking [sic] ... the whole of American policy ...was an expression of a historic imperialist force which could easily attempt the destruction of the new China. Helping North Korea was not merely a defensive measure ... but the necessary means to the end of upholding Communist power in Asia for further advances. A determined opponent in a position of strength in a unified, independent, non-Communist Korea could exploit opportunities inside China. Thus initial intervention in Korea, with no professed ends beyond keeping some part of Kim Il-sung's state in being, was partially defensive, but with offensive possibilities, depending on the developing situation, and with the ultimate end of advancing Peking's interests in Asia....Note 38

A comparison of this characterization with the most systematic of the recent accounts, Chen Jian's China's Road to the Korean War, leaves us nodding with approval. Chen takes most earlier accounts to task for viewing Chinese policy "as totally reactive and without its own consistent inner logic." Note 39 Rees certainly understood that there was an "inner logic" in Chinese thought, both communist and nationalist, and he sensed as well that Mao's concerns extended beyond the mere defense of the northeastern border of China to its internal development and its larger role in Asia.

If Rees had the right idea in general, it was left to Chen and others to both complete the skeleton and provide it with substantial flesh and muscle. Chen demonstrated that, "from the very beginning," Mao regarded the Korean War in the context of "the dialectic Chinese strategic culture," which defined "crisis as a combination of danger and opportunity." Communist ideology taught Mao that confrontation between the United States and the Chinese revolution was inevitable, sooner or later, and American intervention in Korea and Taiwan provided the opportunity to further mobilize the Chinese people and, as an internal government directive declared on June 29, 1950, "to strike firmly the arrogance of the U.S. imperialist aggressors." Note 40

During July, the Chinese government began to mobilize the populace against the United States and formed the Northeast Border Defense Army to redirect its military strength from the provinces opposite Taiwan to the region adjacent to Korea. On August 4, Mao told the Politburo that,

If the American imperialists won the war, they would become more arrogant and would threaten us. We should not fail to assist the Koreans. We must lend them our hands in the form of sending our military volunteers there. The timing could be further decided, but we have to prepare for this. Note 41

Mao instructed his commanders to be ready to intervene in Korea by the end of August, a date he later pushed back in the face of reports from his field commanders. As August ended, Chinese military leaders assumed that entry into the Korean fray was only a matter of timing, that the propitious moment "might be when the UN forces had counterattacked back across the 38th parallel, because this would put China in a politically and militarily favorable position to defeat the enemy." Mao and much of the party leadership, Chen claims, were "inclined to send Chinese troops to Korea" and Mao spent much time in September trying to persuade his comrades that China could defeat the United States there.Note 42

Chen concedes that Mao faced certain constraints. Although he thirsted for "a glorious victory in the Korean conflict," he recognized that persuading the party and the Chinese people would be easier once "China's territorial safety was directly threatened by the Americans." Since "Mao's underlying calculus for entering the Korean War ... [was] to mobilize the party and the nation under the banner of patriotism and nationalism," a premature move could compromise his purposes. Furthermore, if China was to fight successfully in Korea, it needed the approval and cooperation of the Soviet Union and North Korea, which did not come before Inchon. Determined to win with its own forces, the North Korea of Kim Il-sung was particularly standoffish regarding a high-level Chinese presence in its territory. Note 43 Whatever Mao's preference in the abstract, in early September he remained a good distance from ordering intervention.

As it turned out, the order, or at least its final confirmation, did not come until October 18. Chen sees the die as being cast as early as October 2, by which time South Korean forces had moved beyond the 38th parallel and Mao had requests from both Stalin and Kim to intervene and a general commitment from the former of substantial materiel and air support. Subsequent delays, in Chen's mind, were designed merely to solidify support within the Politburo and nail down the specifics of Soviet aid.Note 44

There is reason to dispute Chen here, both with regard to the significance of various decisions and the relative weight of the reasons for them. For one thing, it is now known that the telegram for Stalin that Mao drafted on October 2 declaring China's intention to intervene and outlining the rationale for it was never sent. In fact, another telegram announcing the opposite was dispatched.Note 45 For another, Chen's own analysis suggests the importance of the deliberations within the Politburo on October 4 and 5, especially of General Peng Dehuai's support for Mao's position on the latter date.

Chen is probably correct, nonetheless, that Mao's initial order to dispatch troops on October 8, one day after American forces had crossed the 38th parallel, approached finality, that the subsequent reevaluation was partly a bargaining ploy to get the firmest and broadest possible commitment of support from Stalin and partly a consensus-building exercise to insure support from Mao's immediate subordinates for the dangerous venture before them.

Given what we now know of the complexity of Mao's relationship with Stalin and Kim, of the dissent within Mao's own Politburo regarding intervention, and of the intense emotional stress that Mao endured through the final process of decisionmaking, it is best not to stray from the conclusion of Rees and Whiting--on whose account Rees' analysis was largely based--that the precipitating event for China's entry was the movement of non-Korean forces across the 38th parallel. Certainly Chen demonstrates that the appeal of intervention for Mao extended well beyond a concern to defend the borders of China and the revolutionary process therein. Chen and others also show that Mao did not conceive of intervention solely in terms of reestablishing the 38th parallel, that he looked to chase the Americans off the peninsula entirely. Yet the odds are that Mao would have chosen against massive intervention had the United States restricted its aim to restoring South Korea. (It is clear that Mao anticipated during the summer that the United States would alter its aim once military conditions changed, which merely reinforces the point that his early inclination toward intervention was to a considerable extent reactive.) The key and essential element leading to intervention, in other words, must be separated from the host of benefits Mao hoped to achieve from it. Surely there existed an inner logic to Mao's foreign policy that included a strong domestic dimension and an expansionist thrust to promote revolution in Asia and Chinese influence in the borderlands. At the same time, strong internal and external forces provided constraints on its implementation. The new documentation reveals the constraints as well as the logic.

Whatever the differences between Rees and the new literature on the origins of Chinese intervention in Korea, they agree that, once it occurred, the issue was joined, that a halt to the U.N. offensive at the narrow neck of the peninsula above Pyongyang and Wonsan in October--or a retreat to it in November--would not have prevented China from attacking.Note 46 Thus the new evidence appears to undermine the view, popular among American scholars during the 1970s and 1980s, that until as late as mid-November the United States had a chance to avert a major clash with China. Note 47

As an admittedly self-interested party, I would like to urge caution here. Whatever the inner logic of Mao, Chen's account, reinforced by more recent discoveries regarding the telegrams of October 2, shows in rich detail the twists and turns of Chinese decisionmaking during the critical month after Inchon. The final decision was for intervention, but it came amidst continuing doubts within the Chinese high command, which derived in large part from uncertainty regarding the extent and timing of Soviet air support.Note 48 Although Mao did not alter his decision to intervene in Korea, he did adopt a defensive plan for the early stages of the intervention.Note 49 Had U.N. forces dug in at the narrow neck in November, there is good reason to believe that a large-scale Sino-American engagement would have been postponed until the following spring. Much could have happened in the intervening period, including negotiations. Even without successful talks, the political and military equations might have looked far different in the spring of 1951 than they had in November 1950. General MacArthur's insistence on pursuing the offensive and Washington's refusal to stop him remain key points in the evolution of the Korean War, therefore, and for reasons potentially greater than their impact on military conditions narrowly conceived.

Why did the United States follow what in retrospect was a clearly unwise course in continuing offensive action following the initial Chinese contact with U.N. troops in late October and early November? Rees cited several factors. The Joint Chiefs of Staff resisted the temptation to halt MacArthur because of his tremendous prestige after Inchon and because they respected the traditional freedom granted to the commander-in-the-field to conduct his campaign as he saw fit. They "deferred to State," which could halt MacArthur as a matter of "policy." Acheson was on the defensive politically and reluctant to propose a course that would be opposed by military leaders and possibly the President, who often held generals in awe. Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall, as the former boss of both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the Secretary of State, "was toppling over backwards not to meddle with his successors." With none of his advisers willing to take the initiative in proposing a halt to offensive action, Truman followed his own inclination to give the commander on the scene the final say. Note 50

The claims that the Joint Chiefs deferred to State or that Marshall strained to avoid interfering with his successors' jobs have been disproven by new documentation. The Joint Chiefs clearly lobbied against altering MacArthur's orders and Marshall's sentiments were consistent with theirs. Note 51 With those exceptions, Rees' analysis contains at least part of the story.

More recent accounts have added an important dimension, however. Revisionist Barton J. Bernstein argues, by and large correctly, that "Washington shared [with MacArthur] ... the same aims, the same information, and the same estimates of Chinese behavior.Note 52 Decisionmakers in the United States wanted to roll back communism in Asia, they knew the Chinese were in Korea but not in what strength, and they believed the best time for China to intervene had passed. In any event, China was a backward nation ill-prepared to contest American power. He might have added that Washington also shared MacArthur's fear that U.S. hesitation would simply embolden the Chinese. Note 53

What Bernstein ignores, though, is the difference in degree between Washington and Tokyo. MacArthur was a theater commander with Olympian pretensions. He regarded his area as the center of the universe. If China intervened en masse in Korea, he would counter by attacking Manchuria. Washington, in contrast, looked to Europe first. Korea was important but secondary, not an objective over which the United States should commit the bulk of its strength. As a result, there was far greater ambivalence in the State Department and the Pentagon than in the Dai Ichi Building. Had a Europe-firster and traditional soldier, such as Matthew Ridgway, presided in Tokyo, American troops probably would never have crossed the narrow neck in October. Nor would the U.N. commander have been surrounded by sycophants anxious to tell him what he wanted to hear. As a result, the full implications of intelligence and POW reports on the Chinese presence in Korea might have been grasped. Note 54 And decisionmakers back home would not have feared a public confrontation with their field commander if they called his advance to a halt. MacArthur, in sum, made a difference--in part because his thinking was not totally out of phase with Washington but in part also because he was who he was.Note 55 Another commander might at least have saved the United States a major military setback in North Korea; at most he might have prevented a dangerous confrontation with China altogether.


The "entirely new war" that began with the Chinese counteroffensive of late November 1950 ushered in the most prolonged crisis of the Cold War. Sticking to his main purpose, Rees detailed the U.N. military retreat in Korea for the rest of the year and during early January 1951 and showed how Washington stuck courageously to its limited war strategy, reverting almost immediately to its original aim of containment. Rees also recounted the effort of MacArthur to manipulate the administration into expanding the war by creating what a later biographer would label "a false dilemma"--that is, a choice between expanding the war and total defeat in Korea. Note 56 He proceeded to show how the field commander's public dissent from established policy and fears at home regarding his continuing effort to expand the war produced his April dismissal. Note 57

Had Rees held access to then classified American and British records, he probably would have stuck to the broad outlines of his story while altering some of the details. Revelations of the extent of defeatism in the Pentagon in January and impatience with restricting operations to Korea might have led him to give greater weight to the role of the British in bucking up American morale during the darkest days and of the United Nations in providing a multilateral framework within which the British and others could maneuver together to restrain the United States. Note 58 On MacArthur's dismissal, he surely would have noted the desire of the Joint Chiefs to give their field commander authority to retaliate with air power in Manchuria under certain circumstances. But they feared MacArthur would misuse such authority, thus giving them strong reason to favor his relief on "military grounds."Note 59 In addition, revelations that Truman ordered A-bombs sent to Guam on the eve of the firing might have induced Rees to take more seriously U.S. consideration of their use, diplomatically and militarily, during the first year of the conflict.Note 60 All in all, the new evidence suggests that the commitment to limited war of the Truman administration, especially its military leaders, was less firm than Rees thought.

At the same time, we now have a greater understanding of the risks that existed for the United States in fighting an all-out war with the Soviet Union. Rees never challenged "MacArthur's underlying preoccupation that the early 1950s was the last period when the United States could have risked with impunity total war with the USSR."Note 61 Recent scholarship grounded in American military planning records of the time indicates otherwise. As Marc Trachtenberg has pointed out, the United States possessed a very limited capacity to deliver to Soviet territory its quite limited stockpile of A-bombs, which in themselves were judged inadequate to destroy the warmaking capacity of the Soviet Union. Much of that capacity depended upon the availability of air bases for U.S. bombers in Great Britain, which was itself vulnerable to Soviet air attack. Top military personnel in Washington anticipated that any all-out war with the Soviet Union in 1950-51 would be long, extremely costly, and uncertain in outcome. Note 62 No fan of MacArthur, Rees still did not fully appreciate the weakness of his case.

Despite his superficial treatment of the Communist side, Rees concluded accurately that Mao's basic goal from the success of the Chinese counteroffensive at the end of 1950 through the spring offensives of 1951 was to drive U.N. forces off the peninsula, that there was little chance for a negotiated settlement until those latter offensives were decisively defeated. In addition, Rees showed how Mao's theories of warfare, developed in the context of the Chinese civil war, were of limited applicability in Korea.Note 63 It was left to Shu Guang Zhang in 1995 to provide a detailed account of the Chinese perspective based on Chinese sources. What Zhang portrayed was a leader determined to demonstrate the superiority of manpower and the human spirit over Western technology. The "military romanticism" of Mao led him to overestimate the capabilities of the Chinese People's Volunteers and overrule his more cautious field commander, Peng Dehuai, in pushing them forward. In a situation that could hardly have differed more than the one between Truman and MacArthur, Mao attempted to manage details of the Korean venture, almost constantly pressuring Peng to be more aggressive. Mao's reach exceeded his grasp, and that fact cost Chinese forces dearly. Zhang also showed that Kim Il-sung pushed constantly for offensive action to produce a total enemy defeat, and that Chinese and North Korean forces in Korea sometimes had a stormy relationship that affected all levels-- from top to bottom.Note 64

Where was Stalin through this period of greatest tension in Korea and the world? Rees largely ignored the question, one of the most glaring omissions in the entire book. The most detailed account of the Soviet side thus far is in Vojtech Mastny's larger study of the Cold War, which draws extensively on recently available Soviet sources.Note 65 Mastny shows Stalin consistently trying to embroil China in Korea while striving to keep the Soviet Union involved only indirectly and protecting the bulk of his resources for the European theater. Obviously the Soviet leader wanted to avoid a direct confrontation with the Americans in Korea and elsewhere, to get the Chinese to do his fighting for him, but once they were doing so he was more than willing to exploit any advantage to the fullest, even overplaying his hand with regard to the key issues of Japan and Germany. Mao, in contrast, constantly attempted to draw the Soviets more deeply into the Korean enterprise through appeals for air and materiel support and, in June 1951--as the Communist side moved toward an effort at a negotiated settlement--through a request that Stalin direct the talks. Although Stalin gave substantial if belated military aid, China was to pay for it with interest, and he refused to become directly engaged in negotiations to end the fighting. Mastny's Stalin is a man at once fearful yet bold, declining in judgment from the infirmities of age and excess yet calculating and dogged, a man not unlike Adam Ulam's earlier version, who was determined to act aggressively to hide his and his country's fundamental weakness.Note 66 Unlike Ulam, though, Mastny speculates that, through espionage sources, Stalin knew with some confidence of America's relative unpreparedness for a larger war.

Given the extended length of the armistice negotiations that began in July, the question remains as to whether the United States could have further exploited the military situation within Korea that emerged after the debacle of the second Chinese spring offensive in late May and, if it had, whether it would have expedited an end to the fighting. Despite the preoccupation of Rees with the coordination of political and military power, he does not offer a firm opinion on the matter. Note 67 Clay Blair, author of the most serious recent military history of the war, revealed that the Joint Chiefs in late May were divided on whether or not to push forward aggressively at least to the narrow neck of the peninsula. The more cautious view prevailed, and the subsequent offensive effort of U.N. forces was restricted to the reestablishment of a battle line roughly similar to that which had existed prior to the Chinese offensives (meaning one slightly below the 38th parallel in the extreme west but substantially above it overall, especially in the far east). Blair also pointed out that the process of reestablishing the line during the first half of June was a good deal more difficult than the Eighth Army commander, General James Van Fleet, had anticipated. Blair's clear message was that a further advance at that time would have been costly and risky and that the orders of the Joint Chiefs were sufficiently flexible to enable the field commander to maintain military pressure on the enemy. Note 68 Zhang's account of deliberations on the Chinese side of late May and early June indicate that, although there was general agreement on a retreat from an effort to drive the enemy out of Korea, at least for the time being, considerable sentiment remained against moving to negotiations until another offensive had restored the 38th parallel.Note 69 There is no evidence that the Communists doubted their capacity in the short term to repulse an all-out U.N. counteroffensive.


Communist tactics in the negotiations that began in July certainly indicated no sense of weakness. The North Korean delegation, which took the lead in the talks for the Communists while deferring to the Chinese behind the scenes, threatened, cajoled, and insulted the Americans, and even moreso their South Korean ally.Note 70 While there is some ambiguity in the evidence on the Chinese side, on balance it appears that Mao wanted and expected an early end to the fighting. He took very seriously, however, a settlement based on the 38th parallel and an early withdrawal of foreign troops. When the Americans adamantly rejected both of these terms, Mao dug in his heels and explored the military option.Note 71

As Rees pointed out, the Americans reciprocated and battlefield events of the late summer and fall of 1951 revealed an advantage to U.N. forces. Limited U.N. offensives pushed the battle line further north several miles in some sectors and the Communists called off their own plans for major offensive action. Having again overplayed his hand, Mao agreed in late November on an armistice line based on the present battle line, which was north of the 38th parallel in all but the extreme southwest. It was at this point, Rees claimed, that Washington made a critical error by forcing the U.N. command to agree to accept this line as the final armistice line if all other issues were resolved in 30 days. This gave the hard-pressed Communists a month-long de facto ceasefire--and perhaps even a longer one than that, since the 30-day agreement would be difficult not to extend if it ran out while agreement on other issues appeared to be within reach. With military pressure on the ground subsiding, the Communists could strengthen their defensive positions and draw out the talks indefinitely, which in fact is what they did. Put succinctly, the United States failed to coordinate the military and political dimensions of the war.Note 72

Rees conceded the difficulty for Truman, from the standpoint of domestic and allied politics, of insuring a continuation of military pressure once he had fought an intense battle with MacArthur in favor of limiting the war.Note 73 He also conceded that pushing the battle line to the Yalu or even the narrow neck would have required reinforcements and perhaps even air attacks against Manchuria, not to mention extremely high casualties. Still, he insisted that continued limited offensives would in all likelihood have forced the Communists to make early concessions on the other issues. Without such offensives, Mao actually saw virtues, both domestic and international, in prolonging the war.Note 74

As with all counterfactuals, this one is impossible to prove or disprove; but the argument was far from new when Rees wrote. Others since have pointed out that responsibility for the letup in military pressure must at least be shared between Washington and Generals Ridgway and Van Fleet in the field. It was Van Fleet who ordered an end to all offensive operations after agreement was reached on the armistice line on November 27. Ridgway did not have prior knowledge of this order and objected to it, but he refused to push hard--as he was most capable of doing when his convictions were strong--to insure that U.N. ground forces continued to maintain the initiative. Note 75 Yet even had U.N. field commanders continued significant offensive action, the remaining unresolved issues in the armistice talks--the repair of airfields in North Korea, the rotation of forces and military inspections on both sides, and, most important, the disposition of prisoners of war--were all difficult ones in which the Communists had a considerable stake. Recent evidence from the Communist side indicates that, although the Chinese and North Koreans were weary, the former possessed the capacity to augment their forces in Korea, that Mao remained determined to face down any "bullying ... by foreign imperialists," and that Stalin consistently advised him to maintain a hard line. Note 76 Unlike their counterparts in the enemy camp, Communist leaders appear to have had no concern for casualties on their side so long as manpower reserves were available.

That said, it is hard to deny that the United States erred in largely abandoning military pressure on the ground at a time when important issues remained to be negotiated. The error grew out of domestic and allied political pressures, of course, which included humane concerns about casualties to friendly forces, but it also resulted from failure to think through and adopt a firm policy on the POW issue prior to its being addressed in the negotiations. No one on the American side fully appreciated the difficulty ahead, in part because no one understood that American views regarding the disposal of POWs would evolve into a highly unconventional and divisive position. By April 1952, when a clear impasse on the issue had emerged as a giant roadblock to an armistice, the Chinese were much better dug in than they had been the previous November.

Rees did not realize that much debate had occurred within the Truman administration on the POW issue and that the President only adopted a firm position on it in February. Nor did Rees know that Truman's personal view was critical in the process. He attributed the American position against forced repatriation, first, to humanitarian considerations and, second, to propaganda advantage in the ideological Cold War.Note 77 Rees also recognized that, once reports of Communist mistreatment of American POWs reached the public at the end of 1951, there was a domestic political aspect to the issue as well.Note 78 What he did not know was how emotional Truman was at the time of the decision. The emotions appear to have derived in part from Truman's memory of the United States forcing Soviet POWs back to their homeland against their will after World War II and in part from his general revulsion over the lack of "honor" and "moral code" of Communist governments. Truman also expressed concern about the fate of the rearmament campaign at home in the event of an armistice.Note 79 If he was not willfully blocking a settlement, neither was he desperate to reach one.

Rees sympathized with the American position on moral grounds and his lack of access to internal documents prevented him from appreciating the complexity of that aspect of the POW issue. As more recent scholarship has shown, the UN POW camps were highly politicized, with camp authorities often holding little control over their internal workings. Chinese prisoners were organized into pro-Communist and pro-Nationalist groups that ruled individual units with an iron grip. Prisoners who dissented from the dominant group in their unit were beaten or even killed. Under such circumstances, any expression of opinion by a prisoner, even if given while he was separated from his unit, was just as likely to be rooted in local conditions as in deep conviction.Note 80 Thus the idea of "no forced repatriation," however appealing to Westerners in the abstract, was of questionable applicability to the specific situation. The American stand on this issue not only generated Communist resistance in the armistice talks; it produced a massive counter-propaganda campaign in the form of accusations that the United States was engaging in bacteriological warfare in Korea. Rees wrote that "its appeal lay in the 'scientific' image of the West in Asia, and in the fact that United Nations air power was the single most powerful weapon its Command possessed in its attempt to force the truce talks to an end on reasonable terms." The charges of germ warfare "would rally the Chinese and North Korean homefronts ... [and] create maximum confusion amongst liberal opinion in the West."Note 81 Using evidence that the confessions of U.S. airmen were forced and false, that the Communists prevented objective outside observers from examining the evidence, and that those outsiders who were permitted to examine the evidence were dupes, Rees concluded that the campaign reflected a classic employment of the "big lie" technique. Note 82

Revisionist historians challenged this conclusion, although they conceded that the evidence to disprove it remained unavailable.Note 83 Recently, Steven Endicott and Edward Hagerman, using American records opened during the last decade and bits and pieces of evidence from China, Canada, and Australia, presented a circumstantial case that the United States did, indeed, employ bacteriological weapons in North Korea and China on an experimental basis.Note 84 Documents on the Soviet side also have appeared, however, and they undermine the revisionist case. The Soviet evidence is far from complete, but it shows the Soviet leadership in the aftermath of Stalin's death in March 1953 calling off the campaign because, as Kathryn Weathersby writes in the latest issue of the Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project, "the allegations ... were false and consequently potentially damaging to the Soviet Union." Note 85 Milton Leightenberg, an authority on arms control issues, adds to Weathersby's discussion by integrating this new evidence with older rebuttals to Communist claims.Note 86 Endicott and Hagerman contest the veracity and meaning of the Soviet materials, but their own failure to explore alternative interpretations of earlier materials casts doubt on their objectivity Note 87. Much remains to be learned on the bacteriological warfare issue, but on balance the currently available evidence indicates that Rees was correct in labeling Communist charges as fabrications. Bruce Cumings and Jon Halliday insisted that, if the Western case of denial is to be believed, "it is also necessary to take it through to its logical conclusion, which is that the North Koreans and the Chinese[--they could have added the Soviet Union--]mounted a spectacular piece of fraudulent theater, involving the mobilization of thousands (probably tens of thousands) of people in China and Korea; getting scores of top Chinese doctors and scientists and myriad lesser personnel, as well as Zhou Enlai and other senior Chinese figures, to fake evidence, lie and invent at least one extremely recherche medical fraud." Note 88 Yes, indeed.


The POW issue held up an armistice for over a year. It was not until new leaders emerged in the United States and the Soviet Union that the shooting finally stopped in Korea. The question of the role of these changes has tended to preoccupy scholars seeking to explain the denouement made possible by the Communist concession on the POW issue. Following the prevailing wisdom in the West at the time, Rees emphasized the impact of Stalin's death and the new Eisenhower administration's reported threat to use atomic weapons against China.Note 89

New evidence has raised serious doubts about the mere existence of a nuclear threat, much less its impact. It also has left the role of Stalin's death up in the air. Note 90 Clearly, however, the Soviets did approach the Chinese about ending the Korean War while they were in Moscow attending Stalin's funeral during the third week of March; just as certainly, the Chinese readily agreed to do so "on the basis of reasonable compromises with the enemy side."Note 91

The problem with attributing this move to Stalin's death, however, rests with the claim of the now deceased Russian biographer of Stalin, Dmitri Volkogonov, that the Soviet dictator told his subordinates in late February to approach the Chinese with the advice that they should seek the best deal possible but bring the war to an end.Note 92 The document that Volkogonov claimed to quote has not surfaced, nor has other evidence to corroborate or repudiate it.

It is apparent that hard bargaining occurred between the Communists and the U.N. command for a month after the armistice talks reconvened in late April, that in mid-May the Americans commenced bombing of irrigation dams above the 38th parallel (which threatened the North Korean food supply), and that on May 25 American negotiators at the armistice talks presented a proposal on POWs that was defined as their last. Surely the Communists got the message that military escalation was on the horizon if they rejected the proposal and that it might include strikes, nuclear or otherwise, against China. (Even before Dwight D. Eisenhower took office, the Chinese had estimated that his election was likely to produce greater rather than less American military pressure.)Note 93 Leaders in Beijing and Moscow probably also recognized that, whatever the balance in Korea, Western rearmament over the past three years had made the Soviet Union relatively weaker militarily. And the political turmoil at the top in Moscow, plus the broader turmoil developing in eastern Europe, put the Soviet Union in a shaky position to back up the Chinese in once again facing down the Americans in Korea. Under the circumstances, and given U.S. concessions on some details in the May 25 proposal, Mao, who with Stalin's encouragement had previously resisted yielding on the POW issue, chose to end the fighting and get on with his nation's economic development. Note 94 In sum, Rees may have gotten the specifics wrong on the U.S. nuclear threat and perhaps even on the impact of Stalin's death, but he was probably correct in the more general sense that increased U.S. military pressure on the Communists contributed to the end of the war.

David Rees' Korea: The Limited War was the first book I ever read on the Korean War. Rereading it last summer after 30 years was at once a trip down memory lane and a test of whether or not all my labors, not to mention those of many others, have been worth the effort. Have we really contributed important knowledge, and, if so, how much? Although I came away feeling that the answers were "yes" and "a goodly amount"--and I trust that the account above has demonstrated these points--I was reminded as well that old classics never lose their value. I hope this essay also shows that, despite our discovery of new information and the formulation of new questions, we can still read old histories with profit. In particular I found that I had retained in my own work a fair portion of Rees' perspective. It is with such thoughts in mind that I turn to some final comments.

Rees wrote at a time of great division in the United States over the meaning of the Korean War. In an age that seemed at best to be one of nuclear stalemate, at worst nuclear annihilation, many Americans of the early 1960s viewed Korea as a lost opportunity to win a decisive victory over Communism while the balance of nuclear weapons was clearly on the American side. Some American veterans of the conflict still think that way, as do some older Koreans who long for the unity of their country. But with a knowledge of the West's victory in the Cold War and a better understanding of the limits of U.S. power in the early 1950s, American scholars show little of even Rees' ambivalence on the matter. Indeed, those who reject Rees' emphasis on Korea as an effective exercise in coalition warfare in which "the whole fabric of Western defense was immeasurably strengthened" regard the story of U.S. intervention on the peninsula as a tragic case of unnecessary and illegitimate meddling in the affairs of a distant land. Rather than regarding the U.S. response to the North Korean attack of June 1950 as a prudent act of containment and its general follow-up in Korea and elsewhere as a largely effective exercise in the deterrence of military aggression, these revisionists see the Americans as overreacting to an event of merely local significance out of motives that derived from the perceived needs of their capitalist world system. Note 95 Documentation can go only so far in undermining such interpretations, which are based in part on structural rather than empirical reasoning, not to mention ideological passion. The recent materials from the Soviet and Chinese sides, however, at least show clearly that North Korea was highly dependent on its great power neighbors. More broadly, they show a general commitment by China and the Soviet Union to revolution abroad and to an expansion of the influence of the Soviet and Chinese states.Note 96 Thus while most recent scholars can join Rees in mourning the huge losses of Korea in the war--and of the other belligerents as well--and in believing that more consistently sound American policies could have averted most if not all of the death and destruction, they also see virtue in the repulsing of aggression and in the strengthening of the West's military, political, and economic cohesion along the way.

This view can now be carried well beyond Rees' analysis. The linkage between the war and the Sino-Soviet split, for example, seems clear-cut, as does the relationship between the split and the eventual Western victory over the Soviet bloc in the Cold War.Note 97 So does the tremendous cost to the Soviet Union, in both economic and political terms, of the military expansion heightened by the war. With the collapse of the Soviet empire in the l990s, the unrest in eastern Europe of 1953, which was in part a result of the turn in economic policy there induced by the Korean War, takes on a significance not apparent to Rees.

To be sure, the lingering bitterness resulting from the war in Sino-American relations played a central role in the ill- advised U.S. intervention in Vietnam in the mid-1960s, and the potentially explosive situation involving Taiwan reminds us to this day of the war's negative impact. The dangers related to North Korea's possible acquisition of nuclear weapons reflect the costs of the ongoing division of the peninsula and the continuing existence of a bellicose totalitarian regime covering its northern half. The negatives as well as the positives seem all the more apparent with the passage of time.

In closing, it is appropriate to point to one last difference in perspective between the Rees of 1964 and ourselves. A key thread throughout Rees' account was the challenge posed to the United States, given its historical proclivity to seek absolute solutions and its commitment to a messy democratic system, to sustain itself in a complex and dangerous world of possibly unending competition with hostile totalitarian regimes. Rees recounted to us a short-term success in Korea, while conveying the awkwardness of the process and wondering if, in the end, that awkwardness would bring the United States to ruin. With the press and special prosecutors having assumed roles barely imaginable in 1964, we can hardly claim to be less aware than Rees of the awkwardness of American politics. Still, in rethinking Cold War history it is reassuring that perhaps its most distinguished interpreter, John Lewis Gaddis, has suggested recently that the American political system and the culture it produced was one of the decisive advantages of the United States in its competition with the Soviet Union. Note 98 American statesmen acted far more prudently in constructing and sustaining an alliance system than did their Soviet counterparts, and the reason for this, according to Gaddis, is that their pluralistic political culture, with its emphasis on constant give-and-take, proved far more compatible with relations between nations than did the Soviet way of doing things.Note99 In this light, the Korean War was significant less because of what happened on the battlefield in a remote peninsula than because of the political and diplomatic processes that played out in Washington and other Western capitals during its course. As one who has read the New York Times daily through the entire war, with its never-ending reports of disagreement and tension between the United States and it allies--not to mention the constant bloodletting among political groupings in Washington--it seems a miracle that anything more than disarray emerged at its end. Yet by 1953 American diplomats had gone far in cobbling together a durable alliance system adequate to meet the challenge of Soviet communism. Rees can look back with pride and satisfaction on his early effort to assess the process, and with comfort to the outcome of the larger phenomenon of which the Korean War was a part.

End Notes

  1. David Rees, Korea: The Limited War (New York: St. Martin's, 1964). [Back]

  2. Burton I. Kaufman, The Korean War: Challenges in Crises, Credibility, and Command (New York Albert A. Knopf, 1986). [Back]

  3. Rees, Korea, 447-49. [Back]

  4. Rees, Korea, 8-10. [Back]

  5. William George Morris, "The Korean Trusteeship, 1941 1947: The United States, Russia, and the Cold War" (Ph.D. diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1975), 13-38; James Irving Matray, The Reluctant Crusade: American Foreign Policy in Korea, 1941-1950 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1985), chapt. 1. [Back]

  6. Matray, Reluctant Crusade, chapt. 2; Michael Sandusky, America's Parallel (Alexandria, Va.: Old Dominion Press, 1983), chapts. 7-8. [Back]

  7. For a traditional analysis, see William Stueck, The Korean War: An International History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 16-19; for the revisionist view, see Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, vol. 1 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), 113. [Back]

  8. Erik Van Ree, Socialism in One Zone: Stalin's Policy in Korea, 1945-1947 (New York: Berg, 1989), chapts. 2-3. [Back]

  9. Van Ree, Socialism in One Zone, part II; Rees, Korea, 12. [Back]

  10. Kathryn Weathersby, "Soviet Aims in Korea and the Origins of the Korean War, 1945-1950: New Evidence from the Russian Archives," Working Paper No. 8, November 1993, Cold War International History Project (henceforth referred to as CWIHP), the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington, DC. [Back]

  11. Kathryn Weathersby, "Korea, 1949-50: To Attack, or Not to Attack? Stalin, Kim Il Sung, and the Prelude to War," Bulletin of the CWIHP, Spring 1995, 2. [Back]

  12. See ibid., 1-9. [Back]

  13. Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers, introduction, commentary, and notes by Edward Crankshaw, translated and edited by Strobe Talbott (Boston: Little, Brown, 1970), 368. [Back]

  14. Yu Song-chol, "My Testimony," Foreign Broadcast Information Service, December 27, 1990. [Back]

  15. Rees, Limited War, 19-20; Allen S. Whiting, China Crosses the Yalu The Decision to Enter the Korean War (New York: Macmillan, 1960). [Back]

  16. The best sources of translated documents from both the Chinese and Soviet sides are the publications of the CWIHP cited in footnotes 10 and 11 above and Bulletin 6-9 (Winter 1995/1996 and Winter 1996/1997). For important secondary sources, see Chen Jian, China's Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 106-13; Sergei Goncharov, Xue Litai, and John Lewis, Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War (Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press, 1993), chapt. 5; Vojtech Mastny, The Cold War and Soviet Insecurity: The Stalin Years (New York: Oxford University Press, 1396), chapt. 5; and Zhang Shu Guang, Mao's Military Romanticism: China and the Korean War, 1950-1953 (Lawrence, KS.: Regents of Kansas Press, 1995), 44-45. [Back]

  17. Rees, Korea, 18-19. [Back]

  18. For an expanded analysis, see William Stueck, The Korean War: An International History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), 31-37. [Back]

  19. Goncharov, Litai, and Lewis, Uncertain Partners, chapt. 2. [Back]

  20. Rees, Korea, 28-31. [Back]

  21. Ibid., 13-18. [Back]

  22. Ibid., 17-18. [Back]

  23. I. F. Stone, The Hidden History of the Korean War (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1952); Bruce Cumings, The Origins of the Korean War, vol. 2 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), chapt. 13. [Back]

  24. For the revisionist view, see Cumings, Origins of the Korean War, 2: part 1; for the traditionalist, see William Stueck, The Road to Confrontation: American Policy toward China and Korea, 1947-1950 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1981), chapts. 1, 3, 5, and 6. [Back]

  25. Rees, Korea, 10. [Back]

  26. Ibid., 11-12. [Back]

  27. The major revisionist studies include Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, The Limits of Power: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1954 (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), chapts. 10 and 21; Frank Baldwin (ed.), Without Parallel: The American Korean Relationship since 1945 (New York: Random House, 1973); Robert R. Simmons, The Strained Alliance Peking, Pyongyang, Moscow, and the Politics of the Korean Civil War (New York: Free Press, 1975); Cumings, Oriqins of the Korean War, 2 vole.; and Bruce Cumings and Jon Halliday, Korea: The Unknown War (London: Viking, 1988). For detailed critiques of revisionist works on the origins of the Korean War, see William Stueck, "Cold War Revisionism and the Origins of the Korean War: The Kolko Thesis," Pacific Historical Review 42 (November 1993): 537-60; ----, "The Soviet Union and the Origins of the Korean War," World Politics 28(July 1976): 622-35; ------, "In Search of Essences: Labelling the Korean War," paper delivered at international conference "The Korean War: An Assessment of the Historical Record," Georgetown University, Washington, DC, July 1995. [Back]

  28. Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers, 367-68. [Back]

  29. For Merrill's work, see John Merrill, "Internal Warfare in Korea, 1948-1950: The Local Setting of the Korean War," in Bruce Cumings (ed.), Child of Conflict: The Korean-American Relationship, 1943-1953 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1983), 133-62, and ------, Korea: The Peninsular Origins of the War (Newark, Del.: University of Delaware Press, 1989). [Back]

  30. For analyses of Rhee's influence on U.S. policy, see Stueck, Korean War, 22-23, 24, 29-30; ------, "The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Division of Korea: A Comparative Approach," Journal of American-East Asian Relations 4 (Spring 1995): 1-27; Matray, Reluctant Crusade, 58, 102-103, 112-113, 119, 136, 160-62. [Back]

  31. Rees, Korea, 108. [Back]

  32. Ibid. [Back]

  33. Bruce Cumings, the most aggressive scholar in emphasizing the rollback component in American thinking, has written that, "up to the Inchon landing, U.S. policy had determined only to wait until the moment arrived, when the realm of the feasible might present itself, or might not; the decision would be taken accordingly." See his "Introduction," in Cumings (ed.), Child of Conflict, 52. In addition to showing in detail the evidence of thoughts in Washington during the summer of 1950 in favor of rollback in Korea, the post-Rees documentation also makes it clear that American analysts fully expected the Soviets or the Chinese to intervene in North Korea once the military situation in the South changed (see Stueck, "The March to the Yalu: The Perspective from Washington," in ibid., 200, 204). [Back]

  34. See the Joint Chiefs of Staff order to MacArthur of September 27, quoted in Rees, 102-103. [Back]

  35. Rees, Korea, 110-11. [Back]

  36. Ibid., 112-13. [Back]

  37. See, for example, my analysis in Road to Confrontation, 219. [Back]

  38. Rees, Korea, 112-13. [Back]

  39. Chen, China's Road to the Korean War, 4. [Back]

  40. Ibid., 128-29. [Back]

  41. Quoted in ibid., 143. [Back]

  42. Ibid., 143-54. [Back]

  43. Ibid., 153-56. [Back]

  44. Ibid., 154-56, 158-64, 171-89, 196-209. [Back]

  45. Shen Zhihua, "The Discrepancy between the Russian and Chinese Versions of Mao's 2 October 1950 Message to Stalin on Chinese Entry into the Korean War: A Chinese Scholar's Reply," translated by Chen Jian, Bulletin of the CWIHP, 8-9 (Winter 1996/1997): 237-42. [Back]

  46. Rees wrote that "there was no possibility that MacArthur had provoked the Chinese counter-offensive. What would be held against him ... was that he failed to make preparations to meet the attack, and that his judgment had been grievously wrong." See Rees, Korea, 150. Interestingly enough, Whiting refused to speculate on this matter in his more detailed account (see Whiting, China Crosses the Yalu, 147-48, 160-62). [Back]

  47. See, for example, Stueck, Road to Confrontation, 251. [Back]

  48. For the latest analysis on this point, see Bin Yu, "What China Learned from Its 'Forgotten War' in Korea," Strategic Review 26(Summer 1998): 6-8. [Back]

  49. Chen, China's Road to the Korean War, 202, 204-205. [Back]

  50. Rees, Korea, 150-51. For his analysis here, Rees depended heavily on Richard Neustadt's account in Presidential Power: The Politics of Leadership (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1960), 139-46. [Back]

  51. See Stueck, Road to Confrontation, 244, and U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, vol. 7 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1976), 1205. [Back]

  52. Barton J. Bernstein, "The Truman Administration and the Korean War," in Michael J. Lacey (ed.), The Truman Presidency (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 431. [Back]

  53. Stueck, Road to Confrontation, 245. [Back]

  54. One author plausibly suggests that General Charles Willoughby, MacArthur's G-2, knowingly falsified intelligence reports to give MacArthur what he wanted. See Clay Blair, The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953 (New York: Times Books, 1987, 375-79. Yu points out, however, that the Chinese "also released some 100 POWs (including 27 Americans), who were deliberately told that they had to be released because the CPV [Chinese People's Volunteers] had to go back to China due to supply difficulties." (See Yu, "What China Learned," 8.) Conflicting intelligence, of course, simply makes it easier for officials to believe what they want to believe. [Back]

  55. Stueck, Road to Confrontation, 256-57. [Back]

  56. See D. Clayton James, The Years of MacArthur, vol. 3 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985), 547-59. [Back]

  57. Rees, Korea, chapts. 9-12. [Back]

  58. On the flirtation in Washington with an expanded war, see Rosemary Foot, The Wrong War: American Policy and the Dimensions of the Korean Conflict, 1950-1953 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985), 118-23. On the U.N. and British roles, see Stueck, Korean War, 138-42, 148-57, 164-66. [Back]

  59. Stueck, Korean War, 180-81. [Back]

  60. On U.S. deliberations regarding atomic weapons during the war, see Roger Dingman, "Atomic Diplomacy during the Korean War," International Security 13 (Winter 1988/89): 61-89. [Back]

  61. Rees, Korea, 282. [Back]

  62. Marc Trachtenberg, "A 'Wasting Asset'? American Strategy and the Shifting Nuclear Balance, 1949-1954," International Security 13 (Winter 1988/89): 5-49. See also John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 102-103. [Back]

  63. Rees, Korea, 171-72, 177, 194, 244-45. Rees did err in characterizing Lin Biao as the leader of Chinese troops in Korea until March 1951, when Peng Dehuai took over. Peng was the leader from the start. [Back]

  64. Zhang, Mao's Military Romanticism, chapts. 2 and 6. [Back]

  65. Mastny, Cold War and Soviet Insecurity, 98-125. [Back]

  66. See Adam Ulam, Expansion and Coexistence: The History of Soviet Foreiqn Policy, 1917-1967 (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1968), and ------, Stalin (New York: Viking, 1973). [Back]

  67. Rees, Korea, 256-59. [Back]

  68. Blair, Eorgotten War, 905-21. [Back]

  69. Zhang, Mao's Military Romanticism, 155-57. [Back]

  70. Rees understood that the Chinese dominated behind the scenes, as did the American negotiators at the time (Rees, Korea, 306-307). Zhang confirms it, making clear that, in the early stages of the talks, Mao payed very close attention to the talks and dictated the Communist position from Beijing (Zhang, Mao's Military Romanticism, 219). [Back]

  71. Ibid., 216-20. [Back]

  72. Rees, Korea, 301-309. [Back]

  73. Rees left it to others, however, to fully develop the domestic political and allied context within which Truman made his decisions in the fall of 1951. See Rosemary Foot, A Substitute for Victory: The Politics of Peacemaking at the Korean Armistice Talks (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990, 54-73), Blair, Forgotten War, 955-61, and Stueck, Korean War, 236-48. [Back]

  74. Rees, Korea, 306-307. [Back]

  75. Blair, Forgotten War, 960. [Back]

  76. Stueck, Korean War, 247-48. It remains uncertain whether Mao at this point regarded growing domestic hardships and rumblings from businessmen as an inducement to make further concessions or an opportunity to further mobilize the public and suppress "counterrevolutionaries." In December he commenced the "three anti, five anti" campaign. See Zhang, Mao's Military Romanticism, 223 and 258. The most detailed account in English of China's domestic campaigns is Lawrence Stephen Weiss, "Storm Around the Cradle: The Korean War and the Early Years of the People's Republic of China, 1949-1953," Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1981. [Back]

  77. Rees, Korea, 318. [Back]

  78. Ibid., 316. [Back]

  79. Stueck, Korean War, 244-45, 250-51, 252, 258-59. For other analyses of the POW issue, see Barton J. Bernstein, "Struggle Over the Korean Armistice: Prisoners of Repatriation," in Cumings, Child of Conflict, 261-307, and Rosemary Foot, A Substitute for Victory: The Politics of Peacemaking at the Korean Armistice Talks (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), chaps. 5. [Back]

  80. Ibid., 109-21. [Back]

  81. Rees, Korea, 352. [Back]

  82. Ibid., 352-63. [Back]

  83. Cumings and Halliday, Korea, 182-89. [Back]

  84. Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1998). [Back]

  85. Kathryn Weathersby, "Deceiving the Deceivers," Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project, no. 11, p. 177. [Back]

  86. Milton Leightenberg, "New Russian Evidence on the Korean War Biological Warfare Allegations: Background and Analysis," ibid., 185-99. [Back]

  87. Stephen Endicott and Edward Hagerman, "Twelve Newly Released Soviet-Era Documents and Allegations of U.S. Germ Warfare during the Koran War," in [Back]

  88. Cumings and Halliday, Korea, 185. [Back]

  89. Rees, Korean War, 406, 417. [Back]

  90. For questions about the nuclear threat, see Rosemary Foot, "Nuclear Coercion and the Ending of the Korean Conflict," International Security 13 (Winter 1988/89): 92-112, and Mark A. Ryan, Chinese Attitudes toward Nuclear Weapons: China and the United States during the Korean War (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1989), 152-62, 264-69. [Back]

  91. Stueck, Korean War, 327. [Back]

  92. Dmitri Volkogonov, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy, edited and translated from the Russian by Harold Shukman (New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1988), 570. [Back]

  93. Zhang, Mao's Military Romanticism, 233-34. Studies late in 1952 indicated that an amphibious attack deep behind the lines in North Korea would be the most likely form of U.S. military escalation. Atomic attacks on North Korea and/or China were considered a possibility, but less likely than other methods due to world opinion and possible Soviet retaliation. [Back]

  94. See my more detailed analysis in Korean War, 325-30. [Back]

  95. For Rees' conclusion regarding Korea as an exercise in collective security and deterrence, see Korea, 443-46. [Back]

  96. See Gaddis, We Now Know, esp. chapts. 1, 2, 7, and 10. [Back]

  97. Rees fails even to mention the eventual split as being promoted by less than total Soviet support of the Chinese effort in Korea, or by the growth of Chinese self assurance that emerged from their ability to fight the Americans to a standstill there. [Back]

  98. Gaddis, We Now Know, chapts. 7 and 10. [Back]

  99. One might compare Soviet methods of dealing with the Chinese over the bacteriological warfare campaign in the spring of 1953, recounted in Kathryn Weathersby's "Deceiving the Deceivers," 179-80, with American methods of dealing with its Western allies over Korea during the peak of crisis from late 1950 to the summer of 1951. [Back]