Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History. By William Stueck.(Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2002. Pp. xi, 285. $29.95 cloth.)
Bill Stuecks third and most recent book on the Korean War is his best yet and makes him the reigning American authority on the war, no mean achievement for a traditional diplomatic historian who rose beyond the limits of his tribe. Through more than a decades teaching and research in Korea, assiduous use of newly translated Russian, Chinese, and Korean sources, Professor Stueck, who holds a special professorship at the University of Georgia, has written an international history of the Korean War in all its complexity. Rethinking the Korean War is now the best single book on the war as a global Cold War conflict, a regional struggle, and a Korean civil war.
Stueck writes with grace and clarity. His treatment of the Russian and Chinese roles still enforces his conviction that the war was an international phenomenon, unimaginable outside of the Soviet-US global rivalry. This position, utterly defensible, is also still controversial. What Stueck brings to this book is a much more nuanced analysis of the complex interaction of China, Russia, and the United States. He is especially good at showing that the patron-states all showed little toleration for losing Korea, after the collapse of Nationalist China (a U.S. loss) and growing Western success at blocking Communism in Europe (a Russian loss). Also at risk were Soviet-Chinese relations and U.S.-Japanese rapprochement.
If Stueck's volume has a weakness, it is a reflection of its strengths. The book requires some background in Cold War history and American political history. Nevertheless, the level of necessary prior knowledge is by no means prohibitive. Unlike other scholars of postwar Korean politics, Stueck tries to keep the personalized politics of Korea as simple as possible and does not penalize a reader who cannot distinguish between Kim Ku and Kim Kyu-sik. Stueck does notlike many Korean and American scholarsdescribe the American military officers and diplomats as racist buffoons. The irreconcilable Korean political movements, released by the Japanese surrender in 1945, could not resist exploiting foreign patrons, a weak-state regional strategy that Koreans had used for centuries. In this case the war of the two Koreas took over three million lives.
Another approach the author adopts is to use each of eight chapters to address a major historical issue attached to the Korean War. In part, each chapter is a historiographical essay as well as narrative analytic history. Stueck keeps the story line chronological for the most part, a great help for non-experts.
In sum, Stueck's contribution to our understanding of the Korean War is substantial and should be required reading for all Cold War specialists.