Arts and Culture

The Korean War: Convenient Forgetting

By Michael Drohan

Review of Book: The Korean War by Bruce Cumings, 2010

The Korean War is often referred to as “the forgotten war,” a name which was first used in an article in US News and World Report in May 1951, according to Cumings. Cumings goes on, however, to assert that the unknown war would be a more appropriate title, since for most Americans the Korean War is a never-known war as well as a forgotten one.

Further elaborating, he comes to the conclusion that it is a very convenient forgetting. One example of why the US government elite, the military, former servicemen and the population at large may wish to forget the Korean War is the fact that Korea also had its My Lai massacre in a village named Nogun Ri. In September 1999, a Korean female survivor of this massacre was quoted in an Associated Press report as saying that “American soldiers machine-gunned hundreds of helpless civilians under a railroad bridge.” A follow-up article in the Washington Post reported that civilians were huddled in a railroad tunnel for as much as three days while American soldiers returned to check every wounded person and shoot them if they moved. It took 50 years for this atrocity to appear in the US press, albeit in very muted form, and to this day hardly any American knows of or is aware of this crime.

The story of Nogun Ri is but one of the atrocious crimes committed in Korea, especially North Korea, in those dim and distant days of the early 1950s. North Korea was carpet bombed for three years, with absolutely no concern for civilians. Cumings reports that the US used magnesium alloy sticks to not just destroy but to burn Korean cities. General Curtis LeMay, then Chief of the Air Force, is reported to have wanted to burn down every city in North Korea. On July 11, 1952 Pyongyang was bombed by 1,254 air sorties by day and 54 B-52 attacks by night. Cumings reports that General Ridgway wanted bigger and better napalm bombs to “wipe out all life in tactical locality and save the lives of our soldiers.” The then Secretary of Defense, Robert Lovett, adds, “If we keep on tearing the place apart we can make it a most unpopular affair for the North.”

What emerges from this narrative of the conduct of the war is that the US state and military had every reason to prevent the American public from knowing these unconscionable policies and deeds. Hence the effort to banish this history down the memory hole. The American press colluded in not informing the people and helped the forgetting process. The North Koreans, however, have not forgotten these crimes and they are still determined to prevent their repetition.

Another aspect of the crimes commited against the Korean people by the US military, described by Cumings, was the bombing of the dams which provided irrigation for Korean rice paddies in June, 1953. The bombed dams provided water for 75% of North Korea’s food production. In a word, it was total warfare on the people of Korea, with no distinction  made between civilians and combatants, thus breaking all accepted norms of traditional warfare, including the Nuremberg principles. In this same month of June 1953 President Eisenhower told the National Security Council that using nuclear weapons in Korea would be cheaper than conventional weapons, and a few days later the Joint Chiefs recommended launching nuclear attacks against China. Accordingly it should be little surprise that North Korea seems somewhat paranoid about being attacked by US nuclear weapons, given the rhetoric of Donald Trump and his “button being bigger.”

One of the great merits of Cumings’ book is that he lays out the broader context in which the Korean War took place. At the end of World War One the US had been a supporter of decolonization by the European powers. However, the Korean and Vietnam wars revealed something utterly unimaginable at the end of World War Two–the US was prepared to intervene militarily against anti-colonial struggles in East Asia. Korea and Vietnam were fighting against colonial powers, in one case Japan and the other France. In Korea,the US took the side of the collaborators with Japan, against whom the insurgents, many of whom were Communists, were fighting. This aspect of the war is just not forgotten in the US at large but is mostly if not totally unknown.

Although the Korean War is unknown to most Americans, it marked the most amazing turning point in US history. The Korean War was used to change US foreign policy from containment to roll-back of Soviet influence in the world and to stem the thrust of ex- colonies to get out from under the imperial yoke of the West. This shift in focus has resulted in the US having 400 military bases in over 70 different countries in 2017. Cumings explores these and other effects of the Korean War on the US political economy.

Michael Drohan is a member of the Editorial Collective and of the Board of the Thomas Merton Center.

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