Who Really Started the Korean War?

by John Lewis Gaddis


by Sergei N. Goncharov, John W. Lewis, and Xue Litai. Stanford. 406 pages, $45.00.

WHEN the first spacecraft to orbit the moon transmitted their grainy photographs of its hidden side back to Earth, they produced simultaneous impressions of familiarity and strangeness. The shape was round and the topography cratered, as expected. But the far side was nonetheless so different in appearance from the one we have always known that images of the two hemispheres, viewed together, would not have seemed to be parts of the same satellite. In astronomy, as in history, a lot depends upon one’s point of view.

Until recently historians of the Cold War had to view their subject in much the same way that astronomers for centuries saw only one side of the moon. The United States and its major allies opened most of their archives on the early history of that conflict years ago, making it possible for scholars to scrutinize their conduct in great detail. Records from the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe remained closed even to historians from those countries, though, with the result that the other side of Cold War history was about as obscure as the far side of the moon.
The end of the Cold War has dramatically changed that situation, along with so much else. The new regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe and the old one that still hangs on in China are now opening their archives to their own historians and to Western ones as well. Retired government, military, and Party leaders are busily publishing their memoirs and making themselves available for interviews. One of the few top Marxists who has yet to retire, Fidel Castro, has even found time to attend a conference on the Cuban missile crisis with old adversaries like Robert McNamara and Arthur Schlesinger Jr., inflicting upon them at characteristic length his own account of what happened. (Revenge can be sweet, even if innocuous and long delayed.)
But the most senior Cold Warrior of them all is still stubbornly silent: Kim IIsung, whose durability is such that he has been running North Korea since that country was founded, has yet to volunteer for an oral-history interview at the Harry S. Truman Library. It is all the more intriguing, therefore, that one of the first books to draw upon the new sources for Cold War history focuses squarely on the war Kim started in June of 1950.
In a remarkable tripartite collaboration Sergei Goncharov, of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, together with John W. Lewis and Xue Litai, of Stanford University, have produced a new and highly revealing account of how the Korean War began, based on a careful comparison of Chinese, Soviet, and even North Korean sources. Their achievement, from a historian’s perspective, is roughly the equivalent of making a first flight around the hidden side of the moon.
WHO really started the Korean War? The question seems easy enough to answer, because it is generally acknowledged that at 4:00 A.M. on June 25, 1950, North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel en masse, beginning an invasion that would take them, within weeks, to the tip of the Korean peninsula. In fact, though, historians have had greater difficulty explaining the origins of the Korean War than of any other major Cold War event, for several reasons.
First, the conflict in Korea was internal before it became international. No generally accepted government was ready to take over when the Japanese relinquished control of their former colony at the end of the Second World War; as a consequence, there would very likely have been some form of civil war in Korea even if there had been no Cold War.
Second, the North Koreans themselves, together with the Soviet Union and the Chinese Communists, claimed from the first that South Korea had attacked them. There was never hard evidence for this, but the undisguised and frequently expressed determination of the South Korean President, Syngman Rhee, to “liberate” his countrymen on the other side of the 38th parallel gave the claim at least a superficial plausibility.
Third, if the North Koreans did start the war, why did their superpower ally, the Soviet Union, without whose military assistance they could hardly have acted, fail to have its representative present in the United Nations Security Council to veto the UN’s participation in the defense of South Korea? Why, for that matter, would the normally cautious Stalin have authorized so risky a provocation in the first place?
Fourth, the Korean War seemed almost too convenient for the United States. It came just as Truman Administration officials had completed NSC-68, a topsecret document whose authors envisioned tripling the defense budget in response to the victory of communism in China and the Soviet development of an atomic bomb. How such a recommendation could be sold to the public. Congress, or even President Truman himself was not at all clear—until the Korean War broke out. The journalist I. F. Stone was quick to suggest—several historians since have followed his lead—that the Americans and the South Koreans somehow provoked the Korean conflict to justify the costlier Cold War that officials in Washington were now determined to wage.
Finally, the availability of archives on only one side of the Korean War made it impossible to do much more than speculate about what the other side might have done to initiate the conflict. Adapting Willie Sutton’s principle about banks and money, historians chose to work where the documents were, not where they weren’t. The result was a literature that labored mightily either to implicate or to exonerate the United States and its allies while neglecting what happened in Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang.
USING newly released Soviet. Chinese, and North Korean sources, Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue solve most of these puzzles by establishing conclusively that the idea of attacking South Korea came from Kim II-sung, who repeatedly urged this course of action, and that in the spring of 1950 Stalin and Mao Zedong— with some misgivings—gave him the necessary authorization to go ahead.
Stalin’s reasons for doing this, the authors suggest, included his shifting assessment of the prospects for international revolution, which because of the Marshall Plan and NATO now looked more favorable in Asia than in Europe. The Soviet leader had been much heartened—if surprised—by the sudden victory of communism in China. Adjusting quickly, he pressed his new Chinese allies to take the lead in supporting revolutionary movements elsewhere in that part of the world: significantly, he invited Ho Chi Minh to visit Moscow secretly in February. 1950, while Mao himself was there. “Let’s add to China’s population of 475 million, the populations of India, Burma, Indonesia, [and) the Philippines,” Stalin told the Chinese. “If the people of these countries listen to you, the Japanese probably also will. . . . There is no other Party in the world that has such far-reaching prospects.”
The question remains, though, why Korea? Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue show that despite Stalin’s euphoria he did worry—his own agents in China encouraged him to do so—about Mao’s long-term reliability. A unified Korea under Kim II-sung would provide a kind of insurance against Chinese disloyalty, especially if the new Communist regime should force the Russians to give up the Manchurian port facilities and railroad rights they had obtained from Chiang Kai-shek in 1945. Given the extent to which the Americans were fortifying Japan and Okinawa in 1950, this would have been, from Moscow’s perspective, no insignificant matter.
Then there was Stalin’s opportunism —his tendency to advance in situations where he thought he could do so without provoking too strong a response. The Americans had made no secret of their relative lack of interest in Korea. Not only had they withdrawn their occupation troops in 1949, but Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in a well-intentioned but carelessly worded speech in January of 1950, had publicly excluded both South Korea and Taiwan from a list of positions the United States would directly defend against attack. Acheson had not meant to write off either territory: they would be able to look for their protection, he observed, to the United Nations, which so far had not proved to be a “frail reed” to lean upon. Stalin, it appears, did not grasp this rather elegant circumlocution.
Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue confirm that Kim Il-sung met with Stalin in Moscow in April of 1950, assuring him that the North Koreans could overrun South Korea in only three days. Communist sympathizers there would rise up in arms to welcome the liberators, he promised, leaving the United States no time to intervene even in the unlikely event that it should choose to do so. Still not wholly persuaded, Stalin made his approval contingent on Kim’s ability to secure Chinese support: “If you should get kicked in the teeth, I shall not lift a finger. You have to ask Mao for all the help.”
The North Korean leader then dutifully visited Beijing, where he found Mao initially skeptical, warning also of the possibility of American intervention. But in the end the Chinese went along, apparently for two reasons. One was that Mao himself was planning an invasion of Taiwan, and had requested Soviet military assistance in that enterprise. Stalin had ruled this out for fear of provoking the Americans, but during Mao’s visit to Moscow— and perhaps in response to Acheson’s statement about not defending Taiwan— he had changed his mind and encouraged the Chinese to go ahead. For Mao to have expressed reservations about Kim’s plans for South Korea might have revived Stalin’s nervousness about supporting the projected Chinese attack on Taiwan.
The other reason Mao approved the North Korean invasion, the authors suggest, was that Kim exaggerated Stalin s optimism about its prospects, thereby manipulating both leaders into endorsing what he wanted to do. “It was Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue conclude, “reckless war-making of the worst kind. Each of three Communist leaders was operating on premises that were largely concealed and facts that were fabricated or at best half true.
Even before Mao had given his consent, Stalin had authorized a swift buildup of Soviet military supplies in North Korea, with his own generals handling detailed war planning. Operational orders, approved by the Soviet leader himself, called for a “counterattack,”thus maintaining the fiction that the South had attacked the North. “It was a fake,”a North Korean general subsequently explained, “disinformation to cover ourselves.”How much Mao knew of these plans remains in doubt: it appears that after Kim assured him Chinese help would not be required, he paid little attention to what was happening in Korea, even to the point of ordering a redeployment of several army corps to the Taiwan Strait only forty-eight hours before the North Korean attack took place. The invasion, when it came, therefore caught not only the South Koreans and the Americans but also Mao by surprise.
BUT then it was the turn of the Russians and the North Koreans to be astonished by the swift American decision to resist the attack. It was this wholly unexpected development that caused the Soviet Union’s embarrassment at the United Nations: Stalin had placed such confidence in Kim’s assurances that Washington would do nothing that he did not bother to send anyone to the Security Council prior to the invasion to veto a collective military response to it.
There remains the question of why the Chinese and not the Russians came to the North Koreans’ assistance following the successful landing of UN forces at Inchon in September of 1950 and their subsequent crossing of the 38th parallel. Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue show that although Mao had hoped to avoid such a development, his own military preparations for intervention in Korea had begun as early as July. What motivated him was partly the American decision, made at the time of the North Korean attack, to deploy the Seventh Fleet in the Taiwan Strait. But Mao also worried, it turns out, about falling dominoes: if the Americans and their allies conquered all of Korea, he warned Stalin, counter-revolutionary forces in China and the rest of Asia would take heart and reverse the process that had begun in that part of the world.
At this point Stalin waffled. The Soviet Union could not intervene directly, he told Zhou Enlai early in October, because although a world war with the United States would eventually come, Korea was not the place for it to start. He promised military equipment and air cover if the Chinese entered the war, only to withdraw the offer after they had decided to do so. Mao went ahead anyway with his decision, as he revealingly put it, to “order the Chinese People’s Volunteers to . . .join the Korean comrades in fighting the aggressors and winning a glorious victory.” Moved to the verge of tears by this demonstration of revolutionary fervor, Stalin reversed himself again, authorizing Soviet military assistance and limited air cover. “The Chinese comrades are so good,” the old dictator was heard to mutter. “The Chinese comrades are so good.”Mao, it appears, drew his own conclusions about the reliability of Soviet promises.
WHAT, then, do we learn from this glimpse of the other side? For one thing, we now know who really started the Korean War and it was not the United States or South Korea. Continuing efforts by a few historians to update I. F. Stone’s argument using an Oliver Stone methodology will not wear well when set beside the careful scholarship of Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue. There was indeed a conspiracy—a “hidden history” of the Korean War—but it took place in Pyongyang, Moscow, and Beijing.
At the same time, it is also clear that the North Korean attack was not, as it seemed to many in the West, the first step in a coordinated Communist offensive controlled from the Kremlin. The perception that the forces of history now favored revolutions in Asia appears to have increased Stalin’s willingness to run risks in that part of the world, but only as long as they did not involve the Soviet Union directly. Mao took his Marxism more seriously than many historians have realized, which led him to give Moscow the benefit of the doubt while consistently denying it to Washington. But Stalin’s willingness to see the Chinese embroiled in the Korean conflict—at the expense of their ambitions with respect to Taiwan— did raise doubts in Mao’s mind; certainly he would be much less deferential to Stalin’s successors.
One of the most striking features of this book is the precision with which it delineates personalities hitherto visible only from a distance. We see Stalin carried away by euphoria over the revolution in China, even as he regarded Mao with wary unease: Goncharov, Lewis, and Xue describe each leader as “searching out hidden meaning and potential traps in even the most innocent remarks of the other,”while their “bewildered and alarmed" interpreters and advisers exchanged nervous glances. We get examples of Mao’s fondness for untranslatable metaphors followed by cryptic silences: “We have come here ... to complete a certain task,”he told his perplexed Soviet hosts at the first Kremlin banquet he attended, “and it must be both beautiful and tasty.”We catch the Chinese leader in the prosaic task—which must enlist any author’s sympathy—of instructing subordinates back in Beijing to proofread the official account of the Sino-Soviet treaty before publishing it: “Pay attention. This is extremely important, extremely important!" And we cannot help marveling at the cynical skill with which the wily Kim II-sung persuaded both dictators to “trust me”—trustfulness not having previously been a quality associated with either of them—in a way that produced disastrous results. It is a record that anyone concerned about Kim’s current preoccupations, which appear to lie more in the realm of nuclear capability than of oral hislory, would do well to keep in mind.
With all the foreign-policy disasters that took place on the Western side during the Cold War, none was comparable, in its long-term results, to the one Stalin, Mao, and Kim inflicted upon themselves and their countries through their inept and ill-considered actions. The decision to attack South Korea not only produced a brutal and protracted war with hundreds of thousands of casualties—by far the majority of them Korean and Chinese. It also brought about the implementation, with a vengeance, of NSC-68, which vastly increased U.S. military capabilities. It provoked the decision to station American troops permanently in Europe, the rearmament of West Germany, and that country’s eventual entry into NATO. It sparked an economic boom in Japan that would in time leave the Soviet Union itself far behind. It began the unraveling of the Si no-Soviet alliance, preparing the way for the great schism that would ultimately shatter the unity of international communism. And it resulted in a lifetime of seedy isolation for the Great Leader in Pyongyang who started it all.
Uncertain Partners sets an exemplary standard for the “new” Cold War history.
Carefully documented, judiciously argued, and often eloquently written, it helps us to know ourselves better by providing that all-important basis for comparison with the other side which the “old” Cold War history so conspicuously lacked. It ought to leave us with an odd sense of reassurance about the fundamental strengths— despite all their faults—of democratic institutions. For in authoritarian systems like the ones this book describes, who is there to tell great leaders the truth when they are on the verge, as Stalin, Mao, and Kim were in June of 1950, of doing something extremely stupid?