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The Korean War: A History

3.74  ·  Rating details ·  777 ratings  ·  124 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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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,
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
This work is not "a full and many-sided account of the Korean War" (p.231) as the author himself concedes. In large measure this is because, unlike the United States and South Korea, the archives of North Korea are unavailable. We know enough from recently opened Soviet archives that "it was exactly the war Truman said It was at the time: Kremlin aggression" (p. 228). We know even more from American and Korean archives, and from the work of the Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that U. ...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
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
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
Sep 21, 2019 rated it did not like it
This book is awful! I picked it up because a book club group I semi-follow was reading it and I had just read another book on the history of the war. I really tried, but I just couldn’t make myself finish it. Gave up with about 70 pages to go. The book isn’t really a history of the actual war itself. Author is clearly anti-American, attempts to portray North Korea as the victims, seems to think bashing other books and authors on the subject make him more credible, and uses the New York Times as ...more
Cumings has accessed recently declassified documents, as well as testimonials from survivors, to paint a portrait of Korea that no American has ever seen before. He attempts to bring the mysterious war-between-the-wars into the light--a conflict forgotten even before it was finished--while casting doubt on our perceptions of heroes and villains.

The fights against Communism and colonialism are the backdrop for this painful dissection that begins with Korea's nineteenth-century occupation by Japan
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
Aug 16, 2019 rated it did not like it
Revisionist. Op Ed pieces from the NYT and official North Korean Army documents seem to be the main source documents. To suggest that a full retreat from the Pusan Perimeter to the Yalu was "strategic" and that the Inchon landings were fully anticipated is buying into DPRK propaganda as much as journalists buying into McArthur's censored reports, whom Cumings clearly detests. Pot calling the kettle black. Comparing atrocities is a fool's game: lots of bad things happen to innocents on all sides ...more
Elizabeth A.G.
Aug 31, 2019 rated it liked it
I appreciated that this book, despite its title, is not a blow by blow history of the war activity in North and South Korea. While Cumings describes the atrocities of the Korean War (1950-1953), his focus is also on the historical background events of Korea, the involvement of the Soviet Union and China, the Japanese occupation, the internal guerilla activities and American intervention. Understanding the past ellucidates the present. I have not read enough books or studied the Korean War (this ...more
Nov 13, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
First, despite the title this is not a book about the Korean war. It is about all the things around the war and about the atrocities in it. I could handle the pro north bias of the author but not his pompousness. The writing style is smug condescension and the author comes across as the epitome of ivory tower intellectual. I gave it 3 stars as I learned quite a few new things and got to see this conflict from a very different perspective and that alone is worth it getting 3 stars
Doreen Petersen
Jan 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: post-wwii
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: history, non-fiction
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
Paul Haspel
Jan 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: korea
The Korean dimension of the Korean War may have been too long overlooked. We Americans tend to think of Korea as “the forgotten war,” a lacuna to be placed between the great victory of the Second World War and the shocking defeat that was Vietnam; but in his book The Korean War: A History, University of Chicago historian Bruce Cumings takes pains not only to demonstrate that the “forgotten war” has never been forgotten, in either part of long-divided Korea, but also to place the war of 1950-53 w ...more
Warren Wagner
Feb 22, 2021 rated it liked it
read this for my modern korean history class, and it was super great at unraveling the american propaganda that we are taught as the "korean war." he makes it clear that the korean war was not really one defined by 'international' aggression by NK, since that border was created by the united states only 5 years prior ! instead it is much better understood as a civil war, not just between communism and some particularly authoritarian capitalists, but between NK leaders who had a history of guerri ...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
Angela Han
2.0 💫 Didnt love the book.

I expected to read about the Korean War.

*While listening to the book, I did not get a full picture of the war. Instead, i learned....various information surrounding Korean War.

1.) Rebellions

2.) Atrocities taken on both sides

3.) Bits of details of the war. Example includes how China sent reinforcements.

4.) Issues with ROK

5.) Poltical views of the war and why it was started.
Proletarian Bästärd
Oct 15, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a very informative book which is very critical of US policy in Korea before, during, and after the Korean War. BUT it assumes the reader already has a bit of knowledge about the Korean War and the major players of the period - Singman Rhee, Kim Il Sung, Truman and Eisenhower, etc. If you are new to the subject, I would recommend reading a more run of the mill history of the war first.
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.
Jasey Christensen
Feb 16, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: history-tbr
Wouldn’t recommend as an audiobook. He jumps around a lot and i had a difficult time keeping everything straight as I was listening. Had some good tidbits of information though! I’ll probably reread as a physical book so I can make notes and underline things
Jul 25, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
The roots of the Korean War go back much further than the war itself (1950-1953). That much this book really makes clear. The division began with Japanese occupation between 1910-1945. North Koreans see the war as beginning in 1932 with anti-colonial uprisings against the Japanese and their collaborators in Manchuria. Kim Il Sung and the North Korean leadership fought the Japanese occupiers, whereas South Korean leadership after 1945 consisted largely of the much detested collaborators of the Ja ...more
Aug 02, 2019 rated it it was ok
I wasn't going to even give a review of this book... until yesterday, when I found Cumings had written a foreword on a book about Korean and Japanese women in politics by a Korean man, whose content left something to be desired, to say the least. The author, who unironically included a foreword apologising for abandoning his daughters (!!!!!!) while writing about the lives of other women (no woman in the 90s, when this book came out, would ever have got away with that - I'm sorry, not good enoug ...more
Nov 01, 2019 rated it it was ok
Shelves: history-war
The title of this book is misleading. It is less about the Korean War than it is about the troubled history of the Korean Peninsula leading up to the Korean War. It doesn't necessarily make it a bad book but simply not what I was expecting or wanting. ...more
Mar 20, 2020 rated it liked it
As my first real exploration into this war’s history, I found the format of this book a bit confusing. Perhaps reading a hard copy would be better? It’s real benefit lies in taking the information as a whole to make a picture of what the war was and what it meant for the nations involved. So, absorb what you can as you go and then fit the pieces together.
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
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
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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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134 likes · 24 comments
“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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