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The Korean War: A History

(Modern Library Chronicles #33)

3.76  ·  Rating details ·  563 ratings  ·  94 reviews
A bracing account of a war that lingers in our collective memory as both ambiguous and unjustly ignored
For Americans, it was a discrete conflict lasting from 1950 to 1953 that has long been overshadowed by World War II, Vietnam, and the War on Terror. But as Bruce Cumings eloquently explains, for the Asian world the Korean War was a generations-long fight that still haunt
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published July 27th 2010 by Modern Library (first published January 1st 2010)
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This is not a survey of said conflict and is such an unusual choice for the Modern Library Nonfiction catalogue. Cumings asserts that for myriad reasons the Korean War drifted out of collective consciousness. The American stewards of the War (Acheson MacArthur) never understood the origins and prosecuted it in a heavy handed way which only exacerbated antipathy between North and South. The author asserts that the war can only be understood in the context that Japan made Korea a colony in the ear ...more
Simon Wood
Feb 11, 2015 rated it it was amazing

While reading through the reviews of Bruce Cummings "The Korean War" I noticed more than one reviewer complain that Cummings book isn't a history of the war. Up to a point they are right, it is not a conventional history of that war beyond the first thirty-seven pages of two hundred and forty-three that narrate the actions of leaders and armies from beginning to end of the "war". But it only takes a moment of reflection to realise that the remainder of the book is a
Jul 10, 2013 rated it it was ok
I had issues with this book. Many, many issues (though, I didn't outright hate it, I have to give it that).

The first being that, for all the title is "The Korean War", this book really isn't about the Korean War. The first chapter is a brief summary, and then they talk about the atrocities committed during the war, but it's hardly the focus of the book. While I found a great deal of what he wrote about interesting, such as pre-Korean War rebellions, that's not what I bought a book to read about,
Alan Jacobs
Apr 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This is the book to read for an understanding of Korea--not just the Korean War, but Korea itself, north and south. North Korea will be much less enigmatic once you read this book. Cumings goes deep into Korean history, and especially into the Japanese occupation of Korea and Manchuria from the 1930s until the end of WWII. In Cumings' retelling, the North under Kim Il Jong was heroic in its determination to rid the country of their Japanese overlords and return to Korea to the Koreans. The South ...more
Aug 08, 2010 rated it did not like it
About the worst book I've read about the Korean war,
the author tries so hard to discredit others who have written about this war.
And the American men who fought and suffered there.

I assume the author never fulfilled his military obligation.

When GI's were dying in Asian countries,
he was probably sipping mint julips and playing with himself.

The author has a very scattered style of writing with mentions of Marilyn Monroe, Picasso, and a lot of other silly trivia.

He does the usual MacArthur ba
Lauren Albert
Other reviewers have already pointed out that the title is a misnomer. While Cumings manages to cover the history of the war (as well as the pre- and post- history), it is definitely not a straight narrative history.

The book is a revisionist look at the "forgotten war" which tries to show the darker side (atrocities by our soldiers and allies) of our participation rather than just that of the North Koreans. I don't know enough about the events to judge his point of view but I found it interesti
Doreen Petersen
Jan 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
Very interesting read about the Korean War which in my opinion the US should never have been involved in.
Jan 20, 2014 rated it really liked it
I've read a lot of criticism of this book and it's author in the past, so much so that I delayed reading it for a long time. I'm glad I finally read it because, while there are certainly problems with it, it certainly does fill in the gaps in the literature in regards to atrocities committed by allied, and, especially, South Korean forces.

Not too long ago I visited the POW camp on Goeje Island while on vacation and many of the things I saw there didn't make any sense, like signs explaining the p
Mar 25, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
This should not be the first book that you read about the Korean War. Cumings assumes that the reader has a basic understanding of events and then proceeds to explain how and why our common America understanding of this "forgotten war" is false. Very interesting but I need to read more basic historic narratives before jumping into this discussion.

What I liked: 1. 38th parallel was an imaginary boundary that we have enforced for more than 60 years. The Korean War was and is a civil war that we st
Richard Macquarrie
Jul 26, 2014 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-i-rated
This book was informative about mostly ghastly and terrible war crimes that were committed during the Korean war. It did not go in depth about the actual battles or the White House strategy of the war as I was hoping. It was clearly written by a hard core liberal with a lot of anger built up for his own country. The book demonized the South Koreans and the Americans in the war while trying to make Kim Il Sung look not so bad. The most damning part of the book was when he stated and I'm paraphras ...more
Apr 22, 2017 rated it liked it
Although the scope of this book was wide-ranging and brought an informed and intriguing perspective, this book tried to do too much. Reading this book felt like joining Cumings as he continued a dialogue in an excellent Korean War 301 class, but I had missed the first two courses. It also was really segmented, and didn't have a strong overall flow. However, I plan to keep it and refer back to it for extra insight when I learn about the topics in the book again, as his writing added nuance to my ...more
Dec 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
4.25 / 5.0

Surprisingly little discussion of "war" as we understand it. Focus on behind the scenes untold political facets and how history of conflict on peninsula translated and continues to translate into a divided people. Goes beyond simple good us bad them interpretation of conflict.
Alstan Walker
Oct 26, 2017 rated it really liked it
If this is your first-time learning about The Korean War. This book would be great place to start. The way this war is told will grab your instantly. In the beginning, I wasn’t excited to read a history book but, what drove me is all the facts I didn’t know about the war. This war is unlike any other war that has happened. I feel that it still could have been prevented. The book shows things that could have easily been changed. The book also shows the pettiness of people and the mistakes they ma ...more
Dan Gorman
Feb 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
A good book, this history of the Korean War still suffers from a non-linear format, which jumps forward and backward in time to such a degree that the argument gets muddled.

Bruce Cumings is right to critique American involvement in Korea, especially the permanent military-industrial complex and forward-deployed military bases created by the Korean War. Cumings also does an admirable job of drawing out the atrocities committed by Syngman Rhee's regime and borderline-fascist youth groups in South
Mark Desrosiers
Nov 01, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, weaponized
Leave it to Bruce Cumings to write a history of this forgotten war where the order of battle -- the major military operations agreed upon by most historians -- occupy only the first 36 pages. The rest of the book is both a resurrection of the tragic periphery, and an argument about what this war means, for Koreans and The United States.

Facts are facts: the U.S. (and UN) intervened in a civil war occasioned by the humbling of Korea's long-time occupier, Japan. Cumings is right on the money in co
David Roberts
May 20, 2014 rated it it was amazing
The book I read to research this post was The Korean War: A History by Robert Cumings which is an excellent book which I bought from kindle. This book was written by an American author about a war that was largely fought by America although other nations like Britain & China were involved. The roots of the war go back to the Japanese invasion of China & Korea around 1910 which the west welcomed because they thought it would help modernize Korea. Of course Japan had a brutal and totalitar ...more
Jul 16, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: hookah
one can imagine the steel nerves
required of leaders in Pyongyang, observing
a lone B-29 simulating the attack lines that
had resulted in the devastation of Hiroshima
and Nagasaki just six years earlier, each time
unsure of whether the bomb was real or a

with lines like this, we call Bruce Cumings a "pinko" or "Commie" and return to our mint juleps on dis heah hot suh-thern daye.

ah have read three accounts of thuh korean woah ... and this is the mos' leftie of them.

are you a communist sir? are y
Alyson Hagy
Sep 12, 2010 rated it liked it
I am still sorting through my thoughts about this book. I have read perhaps ten other books about the Korean War (including the Halberstam book, The Coldest War), but Cumings has pressed me to rethink some of the conclusions I may have drawn from those more "traditional" (and American-centered) volumes. I knew nothing about the extended bombing campaign against North Korea. I knew little about the tangled history of poor relations between Japan and Korea. I did know a few isolated facts about th ...more
E. Kahn
Oct 24, 2014 rated it really liked it
As almost every other reviewer has noted, this book is not a history of the Korean War, despite the title. It's more of a collection of historical essays on the Korean War, focusing largely on atrocities committed by US and ROK forces on South Korean civilians and the lack of balance in what little there is written about the war. Cumings is not shy about his political sympathies, which will turn off many readers.

That said, every horrifying event presented in the book is backed up by thorough res
Jan 29, 2018 rated it did not like it
I learned stuff... but that was about it.
Maybe if I had knew more prior to reading this, then maybe... but I could not stand the writing style. I was confused and I felt it was a wee too all over the place fer my tastes *shrugs*
Salvatore Leone
Sep 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
An engrossing, complete history of the war. For those interested, I would recommend this very highly.
Marcel Patulacci
Sep 04, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: korea
I had already read "Korea's place in the sun" also from Cumings and had appreciated his work. This is the reason why I chose his book among others related to the Korean War. However, this book is not exactly related to the conflict, or should I say to its military aspect. Indeed, the war processes are quickly summarized in a single chapter.

Cumings move on with the relative oblivion of the Korean war in American collective memory. Locked between the "triumphant" World War II and the traumatic Vie
May 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I'll give it five stars even though I disagree with some of Cumings' conclusions, because his books on Korea are always a fresh and welcome wind to the stale flatulence emanating from the bowels of the Washington Consensus. Especially now, as we forbear under a president determined to rival the PDRK in levels of perceived looniness. It's too much to hope that Cumings' plea for the party of memory can ever prevail over the party of forgetting/ignorance, for as he suggests it would mean dismantlin ...more
Glen Chern
Oct 13, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An Historical Eye-Opener

Bruce Cumings’ “The Korean War” is the first book I’ve read about the war. I decided to read it because my father, a Naval officer, served as part of the post World War II occupation of Inchon, an element of America’s involvement prior to the start of the Karan War on June 25, 1950. Cumings brilliantly examines the history of events which eventually resulted in this military campaign.

What truly captured this reader’s attention is Cumings’ discussion of America’s military
Jon Lisle-Summers
Here we go again: Korea, the sound of history repeating

A shocking reappraisal of the Korean War, a war which was little known to me, and, as the author so rightly says, the vast majority of people not directly affected.

What makes it shocking is that it's like reading the media relating to today's conflicts in the Middle East with just a change of venue. What I gain from this book, besides a much better grasp of what happened and why, is that "Nobody knows nothing" (Hollywood's motto).

It seems t
Nov 25, 2018 rated it did not like it
Cummings book is another attempt of a liberal academic to write a convincing apology for the U.S. overthrow of the Korean people’s government that emerged from efforts by efforts of Korean workers and peasants in 1945. Cummings apology extends to the subsequent repressive US military occupation and setup of the US sponsored Rhee dictatorship. Korean collaborators with the Japanese from northern and southern Korea, many of whom officered in the Japanese Imperial Army in its subjugation of both Ko ...more
Jul 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: world-history
This important book is less a typical history than a series of ruminations about everything from Nietzsche to the nature of memory. That said, it does include the history.

Key points:

*The 1950-1953 War was an episode in a conflict that began in the Thirties with a Korean rebellion against Japan, Japan’s invasion of Manchuria and later China, in which Koreans, later big-shots on both sides, participated. The South Korean régime began as a clunky US satellite.

*The war was plenty bloody, with us a
Aug 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
A collection of essays about the Korean conflict, rather than a linear history. Discursive and hard to follow at times; nevertheless, a fresh approach.

Near the end, the author interrogates the job of the historian:

"To take everything with a sunny, fact-based equability (were the ianfu forced or not?) to get angry at nothing (was Curtis LeMay a pyromaniac or not?), to indulge in the empirical at the expense of judgement (did we really burn down every North Korean town?), to offer silly equivalenc
Feb 22, 2018 rated it did not like it
This is one of the worst books I have ever read.
After reading this book I know everything about what happened in the US during the war but know very little about what happened in Korea. I also know everything about what the author and Americans think on the subject but I have to guess what the Koreans think and feel about their war. There are a lot of useless quotes from philosophers, writers, poets and so on, the author even mentions what happens when you type 'Korean War' in Amazon but I foun
May 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
Thought provoking study of a war America could have won....a war that set into motion the military industrial complex that still rules the Us. The state Department and President Truman decided to intervene in an Asian civil war at enormous human costs. The americans saw a monolithic communism driving out neo colonial puppet governments. After communism. we fought rogue states, after rogue states, Islamic terrorism. Constantly seeking new enemies to justify the enormous expenses, nineteen times b ...more
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A specialist in the history of Korea, Bruce Cumings is the Gustavus F. and Ann M. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in History, and former chair of the history department at the University of Chicago.

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“In fact the United States has had no exit strategy since 1945, expect in places where we were kicked out (Vietnam) or asked to leave (the Philippines): American troops still occupy Japan, Korea, and Germany, in the seventh decade after the end of World War II. Policymakers – almost always civilians with little or no military experience (Acheson is the archetype) – get Americans into wars but cannot get them out, and soon the Pentagon takes over, establishes bases, and the entire enterprise becomes a perpetual-motion machine fuelled by a defence budget that dwarfs all others in the world.” 0 likes
“Eventually the Korean War will be understood as one of the most destructive and one of the most important wars of the twentieth century.” 0 likes
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