The War For Korea, 1945-1950: A House Burning, by Allan R. Millet
Success has a million helpers, but failure is an orphan. It is a telling sign of the author’s modesty and ambition that his book begins with a lengthy set of acknowledgements to those who helped the author with historical research and cultural understanding of Korea. This book has both a challenge and an opportunity in its approach, a challenge in that few people (even those deeply interested in the military and political history of the mid 20th century) know anything about its subject matter, and an opportunity to provide a great deal of context and information about a subject of interest in setting the stage for the Korean War while providing a balanced perspective. For the most part, this particular volume manages in about 250 pages of solid historical text to present a balanced view of a wide variety of participants in Korea, from the exploitation of the Japanese to the caution of the Soviets to the naked greed and ambition of Kim il-Song and his rise to power in North Korea to the fractious and divided South Koreans to the American attempt at giving assistance to South Korea on the cheap, managing to make South Korea look weakly defended and an easy target for takeover.
One area where this book particularly excels is its demonstration of the naked power and ambition upon which power in Korea rested in the decisive period after the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, as various brands of exiles and homegrown leadership attempted to increase or hold onto their power base with varying degrees of success. In our present world, South Korea’s robust economy, powerful cultural influence, and stable representative democracy can often make it easy to forget that they were destitute and desperately weak in the period before 1950, where North Korea appeared to have the stronger economy despite a smaller population in the immediate postwar world. What a difference decades of Communist misrule as opposed to a legitimate government makes on the destiny of nations, something that ought to give hope to other peoples around the world that leadership can be decisive in providing a nation with opportunity or dooming it to starvation and despair.
One of the challenges that readers will find in trying to understand this book is making sense of all of the names. Given the fact that this book uses a variety of systems of Romanization to try to standardize the pronunciation of Korean names, and the fact that so many of the Koreans involved have very similar names (and many of the Americans in this story come from the same few missionary families) makes it hard to keep some of the people in this very complicated story apart. When one combines this with the fact that some of the people are involved in long stretches of Korean history for a couple of decades of complicated political history, often with changes in political behavior based on opportunism or a timely arrest. The amount of Korean politicians who had a second chance despite being arrested for treason and even murder is a bit alarming to this very western reader, but history is history and one has to recognize the raw facts of history, even one as confusing as that of Korea between 1945 and 1950.
The history of Korea was decisively affected by World War II and its aftermath in a wide variety of ways. For one, the end of World War II led to a de facto partition of Korea on a border that no one liked but that no one was willing to give up because South Korea was hostile to the North Korean Song dynasty (which still rules that benighted land) while North Korea saw no reason to respect the potential demographic strength of a South Korea that had been strengthened through dispossessed and fierce Korean refugees from Communist misrule. Indeed, much of the tale focuses on North Korea’s strength through Communist largesse while South Korea languished with Americans who were trying to avoid paying money to help rebuild South Korea’s economy or support them with military infrastructure. Ironically enough, America’s commitment to protecting South Korea became much more expensive because it was too cheap at first to deter North Korean aggression. That, however, is a story for the second volume, and it is a tribute to the skill of Millett as a writer and historian that a reader of this book would look forward to the insights provided by the second volume of his history of the Korean War.