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March 2005

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No Cold War,... No Korean War
Review by Allen R. Millet
Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic HistoryRethinking 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.)

"Stueck's 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."

Bill Stueck’s 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 decade’s 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.

Rhee
The two Korean regimes were hardly passive victims, twisting and turning to make their patrons sensitive to the dire consequences of abandoning their Korean clients. Syngman Rhee had a more demanding challenge than Kim Il-sung. Neither Rhee nor Kim were pliant puppets, and Stueck is especially good at describing the Rhee-American marriage as a dysfunctional reunion from 1945 until 1954 when Rhee finally blackmailed the U.S. into a generous foreign aid program, a military alliance, and protection from Japan and the United Nations.

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 not—like many Korean and American scholars—describe 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.

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Allan R. Millett, a preeminent authority in U.S. military history and the Korean War, is Mason Professor of Military History at The Ohio State University. He has written six books on modern military history, most recently Their War for Korea (Brassey’s, 2002), a study of individual wartime experiences. He is currently writing a two-volume history of the Korean War.

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