Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Korean War: A History” as Want to Read:
The Korean War: A History
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

The Korean War: A History

(Modern Library Chronicles #33)

3.72  ·  Rating details ·  617 ratings  ·  104 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)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about The Korean War, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about The Korean War

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
3.72  · 
Rating details
 ·  617 ratings  ·  104 reviews

More filters
Sort order
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
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
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
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
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
Elizabeth A.G.
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
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: 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
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
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
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.
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
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
Shelves: library-books
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
Sep 14, 2019 rated it did not like it
Shelves: did-not-finish, korea
This is a historical analysis of the Korean War heavily drenched in the author's own political philosophy.

Unfortunately, there are few books written about the war, unlike each that preceded and followed it that are heavily documented and written about. Not many American soldiers wrote about their Korean War experience. I would find their take on the war far more valuable than that of a journalist, historian, or military/government official. I have a basic knowledge of Korean history and modern
« previous 1 3 4 next »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Sources of Korean Tradition: From Early Times Through the Sixteenth Century
  • The Coldest War: A Memoir of Korea
  • The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties
  • Chosin: Heroic Ordeal of the Korean War
  • A History of Korea: From Antiquity to the Present
  • Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq
  • The Hidden History of the Korean War: 1950–1951 (A Nonconformist History of Our Times, #2)
  • The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents
  • To the Last Round: The Epic British Stand on the Imjin River, Korea 1951
  • 1812: The Navy's War
  • God's Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan
  • Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean
  • The Korean War
  • The Imjin War: Japan's Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China
  • Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq
  • A Fiery Peace in a Cold War: Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon
  • War on the Run: The Epic Story of Robert Rogers and the Conquest of America's First Frontier
  • The Operators: On The Street with Britain's Most Secret Service
See similar books…
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.

Other books in the series

Modern Library Chronicles (1 - 10 of 34 books)
  • The Renaissance: A Short History
  • Islam: A Short History
  • The Balkans: A Short History
  • The German Empire, 1870-1918 (Modern Library Chronicles)
  • The Catholic Church: A Short History
  • Peoples and Empires: A Short History of European Migration, Exploration, and Conquest, from Greece to the Present
  • Communism: A History
  • Hitler and the Holocaust
  • The American Revolution: A History
  • Law in America: A Short History
“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
More quotes…