Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History

By William Stueck | Go to book overview

in the key theater of superpower competition. If the United States and the Soviet Union, and their allies, were better armed than before, there was less chance that either of the principals would employ their forces in a manner leading to direct confrontation.

This book is an interpretive account of the major diplomatic, political, and strategic issues of the Korean War. Rather than providing a lengthy narrative of the international dimensions of the conflict as I did in my 1995 volume, my approach here is issue-oriented and synthetic. 4 My aim is to provide an overview, of interest to specialists and general readers alike, that takes into account the vast body of new documentation that has surfaced in recent decades.

When I began studying this event in 1968, the standard synthetic treatment of the event was David Rees's Korea: The Limited War, which was based almost entirely on published sources. 5 Then, during the 1970s a wide array of official records and private papers became available in the United States. From the Soviet side, there emerged the memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, although their legitimacy and/or accuracy was questioned in some circles. 6 During the next decade, this wealth of new material began to be exploited in scholarly monographs and new narrative syntheses. 7

There also appeared a major new revisionist account, the first volume in Bruce Cumings's magisterial Origins of the Korean War. Cumings exploited Korean-language sources as never before and challenged other treatments for their downplaying of internal Korean factors in the coming of the war and their emphasis on Soviet and North Korean aggressiveness. 8 Since the appearance during the war of journalist I. F. Stone's Hidden History of the Korean War, a revisionist literature had existed in the United States; but the firm grounding of Origins in archival and Korean sources gave the genre a new legitimacy. 9 Cumings's follow-ups, a brief coauthored volume designed for a popular audience in 1988 and then his massive second volume of Origins two years later, ensured that the revisionist perspective on the conflict as essentially a “civil war” would continue to receive a wide hearing. 10

Nonetheless, by the time Cumings's second volume appeared, revisionism was on the verge of facing major new challenges. As early as

-2-

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