The War for Korea, 1950-1951: They Came from the North

  • Published

The War for Korea, 1950-1951: They Came from the North by Allan R. Millett. University Press of Kansas, 2010, 816 pp.

The Korean War transformed the post-World War II contest between the Soviet Union and the United States from one of advancing distrust to an arms-race death pact that appeared to drown out the possibility that the second half of the twentieth century would be less conflicted than the first half. Although a number of histories have situated and addressed the place of the Korean War in the larger context of world and political-diplomatic history, a notable paucity of practiced attention has been paid to the essential military aspects of the conflict. In this area Millett carries out his duty with aplomb, calling into question not only the vicious first year of the war but also how the military consequences of that year goaded decision makers in Washington. With great exactness, Millett proceeds in his effort.

The author begins by predictably grounding his account in the larger milieu of Korean and international politics that set the stage for the multinational war that would consume the peninsula. In so doing, however, he offers an unpredictable assessment that the Korean War was an extension of a Korean civil war that had been in progress since the partitioning of the country in 1945, and by arms since 1948, as much as it was a conflict between compliant proxy states--as the orthodox argument holds. With the proper training and research, most professional historians could understand this conclusion and, given the needed time and perspective, tease it out of the historical record. Millett, however, is not a typical historian in this regard. Having undertaken extensive and evident research in support of his effort, Millett offers a revisionist assessment that is both striking and unexpected; it is also effective.

Much like the oft-applied term 9/11 in the United States, South Koreans typically refer to the invasion from the north as the 6.25 War. Similar to the September 2001 attacks, the 1950 invasion is remembered as a national tragedy that drew South Koreans together more than it ever did to unify the partitioned totalitarian north and nominally democratic south. Why this attack became known as a catastrophe of epic proportions among the South Korean people becomes immediately evident in Millett's passages. He relates the smashing North Korean surprise attack, enabled by numerous and lethal Soviet arms, and the resulting defeat it initially dealt the Republic of Korea Army--as well as the American advisors assigned to it. Thus Millett brings to life the environment in which a palpable sense of fear developed among American leaders that a larger Communist onslaught was a very real possibility. Standing in the present with the clarity of over 60 years of history to inform contemporary sensibilities, one finds it challenging to discharge the sense of doubt that can readily cloud the once plain emotions and motivations of the past. Millett's work makes it impossible to walk away from this conflict without accepting the once clear sense of fear as quite real and the Western responses to it as justified. In so doing, Millett tacitly reminds readers of the prescience of military history and why it cannot be relegated to the back shelves of popular history or fringes of academic discourse.

As is often the case with many military histories and historians, there is a tendency toward fixation upon the role of military hardware and "order of battle" analysis. Millett fares much the same as his brethren in this way. However, unlike many of his less-grounded colleagues, Millett turns this tactical approach into a strategic lesson that should not be glossed over: there are winners and losers in war, and the winners tend to be better equipped and better prepared. It becomes clear, in the long run, however, that the West was more ideologically, doctrinally, and technologically prepared than its counterparts in the Communist bloc. This advantage, nonetheless, would not be readily apparent in the 1950-51 period covered by Millett.

Ultimately, the author offers several consistent conclusions, most notably within the chronological confines of the present study. The success of the South Korean state would not be dependent upon the ability of the outside world to defend it but would be a responsibility of the Republic of Korea Army. It is difficult to dissent with the author on this account--or with his conclusion regarding General MacArthur's relief by President Truman and the failure of Communist forces to unite the Korean peninsula under a singular and like-minded regime by mid-1951. Given his evidence, the logical approach to marshaling these facts into arguments, and the confluence of these ideas into a singular narrative, Millett's conclusions are likely to stand the test of time.

The specific facts, arguments, and conclusions of this book aside, Millet is known as a sterling scholar for the very same reasons that reside in this work: it is fluidly delivered and introduces the reader to a terrible war with a level of cogency seldom found elsewhere. Though a father to some flaws, those transgressions are but specks against a larger canvas that readily finds success on a macro scale. Pulling few--if any--punches, Millett's work should have strong appeal to scholars of twentieth-century political-diplomatic and military history alike, as well as among those political, diplomatic, and military professionals who can consider Korea and its history an important aspect of their duties. A dense read for those that do not have a particular scholarly or professional need to engross themselves in such a study, undertaking a read of this scope might, nonetheless, inform the average American as to why the United States continues to post troops in the region--and why that effort remains an important one.

Trevor D. Albertson, PhD
Shingle Springs, California

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."