Rethinking the Korean War: A New Diplomatic and Strategic History

By William Stueck | Go to book overview

led by systems of seemingly iron discipline. Indeed, David Rees concluded in his classic treatment of the war that, although in keeping the Western “coalition intact,” repulsing “the Communist aggression,” and bolstering North Atlantic Treaty Organization defenses the United States produced its greatest political victory since World War II, it also missed a possible opportunity “to unite Korea and to inflict a decisive defeat on China” while the relative military and industrial strength of the West was far superior to what it would be in the future. Whether or not history would judge as correct Truman's decision to fight a limited war in Korea was far from clear to Rees. 16 Rees wrote while the outcome of the struggle between socialist authoritarianism and capitalist democracy remained uncertain. With the uncertainty gone, we can now say with some confidence that Truman made the wise decision. The democratic system in the United States did not always produce advantageous results—either before, during, or after the Korean War, in relation to either the nation's interests abroad or its ideals at home. Yet on balance that system performed better than its Soviet or Chinese counterparts. With new studies emerging on American political culture during the Cold War and with new and complex challenges confronting the United States both at home and abroad, the time is ripe for a fresh examination of democracy's performance during the Korean War era. 17

The Korean War was a multifaceted event, the mastery of which challenges the capacity of the most diligent of historians. I make no pretense herein to cover the major battlefield events of the contest or to provide details of the civil conflict that occurred on the peninsula from 1946 to 1953. Although the general outlines of the latter, especially prior to June 1950, are integrated into the analysis, my emphasis is on the broader strategic, diplomatic, and political issues that preoccupied the three great powers most concerned about Korea—the United States, the Soviet Union, and China—and on the ways in which Korean political leaders influenced their more powerful allies. If much remains to be learned about the war, and if much that is known is omitted from this account, my hope is that this limited effort at synthesis will further understanding and debate through a focused discussion of many of the key issues raised by a truly momentous event.

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