Review Essay

The Korean War Revisited


1998 Donald W. Boose, Jr.

As the 50th anniversary of the Korean War nears, more is known about North Korean, Chinese, and Russian policy and decisionmaking than ever before. Sufficient gaps and inconsistencies exist to assure that speculation and conflicting interpretations will continue, but we have a clearer picture of the sequence of events and even of the motivations of the key decisionmakers than at any time since the war began. The five books reviewed in this essay, all published in the mid-1990s, have helped produce this clearer picture and richer understanding of a conflict that has cast long shadows. While their authors accept James Matray's sensible contention, made in his review essay in this issue (pp. 150-62) that the Korean War was both a civil war between Koreans and an international conflict, their focus is on the international aspects.

In The Korean War: An International History, William Stueck makes use of all the scholarship to date, including his own research, to examine the war at the strategic and international political level, touching on military operations with only the broadest of brushes. Because of this focus and the complexity of the issues with which Stueck deals, his book is most suitable for a reader already familiar with the war. But for such a reader, Stueck's account is informative and thought-provoking. Reflecting the current emerging consensus, he sees the civil and international aspects of the war as interlocked. Ideological polarization between Koreans of the left and right made conflict in Korea likely in any event, but the close ties between Korean nationalists of both camps and foreign countries internationalized the struggle. This international dimension was magnified when geography and world events placed the Korean peninsula on the post-World War II boundary between the antagonistic Soviet- and US-led blocs. Stueck emphasizes this multilateral nature of the war, the interplay between US domestic politics and events in Korea, and the relationship between the course of the war and regional and global issues. These included the formation of NATO and German rearmament, Yugoslavia's expulsion from the Soviet bloc, negotiations for a peace treaty with Japan and the establishment of the postwar system of US bilateral security arrangements, Chinese efforts to replace the Nationalist regime in the United Nations, and events in Taiwan, Indochina, Southern Europe, and Southwest Asia.

Stueck is particularly good at depicting activity within the United Nations; another of his major themes is the ability of US allies and neutrals to influence American actions through UN deliberations. Finally, he examines in detail the fateful misjudgments by all the major participants in the war. He emphasizes the mistaken communist belief that the South Korean population would rise against the Syngman Rhee government and that the United States would not intervene, as well as American failure to anticipate the Chinese intervention, repeated failures on both sides to recognize situations in which the war might have been brought to a mutually acceptable conclusion, and misunderstandings during the Armistice negotiations. Stueck concludes that while the war was a horrific tragedy for the Korean people (particularly in light of his belief that the war could have been ended early), it also led the United States and the Soviet Union to back away from a potentially larger confrontation. For this reason, he calls the Korean War a "substitute for World War III."

Two Chinese scholars, Chen Jian in China's Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation, and Zhang Shu Guang in Mao's Military Romanticism: China and the Korean War, 1950-1953, focus on China's role in the war. Both authors make use of memoirs, selectively released Chinese primary documents, and the work of Chinese researchers with access to archival and classified Chinese sources in their work. Some of their interpretations may be disputed, but they both provide valuable and informative insights into Chinese strategic-level decisionmaking.

The precise timing and degree of Chinese involvement in North Korean preparation and planning for the war are still not entirely clear. North Korean leader Kim Il-sung and Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, while primarily concerned with their own objectives and national interests, shared communist ideology and were bound by the historical connection and geographical proximity between China and Korea. Their common perception that they were threatened by anti-communist forces led by the United States also influenced their actions. Several divisions of ethnic Koreans fought against the Japanese and the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jeshi) as part of the Chinese Communist Forces. In 1946, at a crucial stage in the Chinese civil war, Kim provided Mao's troops and their families refuge and a strategic base until the Chinese communists could resume the offensive. As Mao's forces neared victory in mid-1949, the Chinese began to release the ethnic Korean divisions for return to Korea, greatly increasing North Korean combat potential. In December 1949, Mao began a two-month-long visit to Russia, during which a Sino-Soviet mutual security treaty and other agreements were signed. In his memoirs, Nikita Khrushchev claims that Mao and Stalin discussed Kim Il-sung's desire to attack the south, with Mao arguing that the United States was unlikely to intervene. The evidence from other participants in the discussions is ambiguous, but Chen is convinced that the two leaders did discuss Kim's plans, at least in general terms, and that these discussions constituted a "Chinese-Soviet green light for Kim Il-sung." Zhang does not address the Mao-Stalin talks, but points out that in early 1950 the Chinese stepped up the repatriation of ethnic Korean soldiers, strengthened their defensive forces in the Northeast (Manchuria) in preparation for the coming North Korean offensive, and concluded with the North Koreans a series of civilian communications agreements that would enhance combined military cooperation.

Both Chen and Zhang agree that, by the time of the North Korean attack on 25 June 1950, the Chinese leadership had long-since concluded that the United States was China's primary enemy and that a military conflict was likely. Chen argues that the Chinese leadership, exemplified and directed by Mao Zedong, was motivated primarily by the need to consolidate the revolution and to maintain its momentum. Other motivations included a desire to overcome a century of humiliation by restoring China's role as a major power and a perception of the United States as a long-term and enduring threat to China. All would play a role in China's intervention in the Korean War. Zhang describes Mao's vision of the world divided into "two camps," led respectively by the Soviet Union and the United States, with a great "intermediate zone" comprised of neutral countries and nations emerging from colonialism where China could play a leading role from a position of moral superiority while restoring its traditional national pride and leading position in Asia. Chen sees the US-China confrontation as a product of the tension between the Chinese communist revolution and American efforts to contain communism--a tension aggravated by miscommunication and misperceptions resulting from cultural and ideological differences. By 1950, the Chinese leadership had concluded that the danger of direct US intervention in China had receded, but that the United States would continue to be an implacable foe of the revolution, threatening China from the "three danger spots" of Korea, Taiwan, and Indochina. Thus, the Chinese were predisposed to confront the United States even before the Korean War began.

Both Chen and Zhang provide useful synopses of previous scholarship on the Chinese intervention in Korea. They note that the prevailing Western interpretation shifted in the 1960s from a belief that China's entry was part of a well- orchestrated Soviet aggression to a view that China's actions were simply a response to a perceived threat posed by US-led forces advancing toward the Chinese border, an interpretation held by most Chinese scholars as well. Chen challenges this view, arguing that because "Beijing's decision to enter the war was based on the belief that the outcome of the Korean crisis was closely related to the new China's vital domestic and international interests . . . there was little possibility that China's entrance into the war could have been averted." Chen also points out that just as the Chinese word for "crisis" (weiji) contains the two characters meaning "danger" and "opportunity," the American intervention in Korea was, from the beginning, both a dangerous threat, confirming Mao's fundamental view of the aggressive nature of US policy in Asia, and an opportunity to confront the United States. The confrontation could reduce the threat to China, enhance China's revolutionary momentum, and strengthen Chinese communist authority domestically and in the region.

In July 1950, soon after the first US reinforcements were deployed to Korea, the Chinese established a substantial military force and logistical stockpiles in the Northeast and began political mobilization in preparation for possible intervention. On 4 August as the North Korean army began its offensive against the Pusan Perimeter, Mao raised the possibility of sending an army of "volunteers" to Korea. Throughout the month of August and into September, the Chinese Politburo debated intervention. According to Chen, Mao was the leading proponent for intervention, but had difficulty mobilizing support so long as North Korea was on the offensive. When the North Korean attack stalled and General MacArthur began a United Nations Command (UNC) counteroffensive with the 15 September Inch'on landing, Mao won the argument. On 2 October, two days after the first Republic of Korea forces crossed the 38th parallel, Mao sent a long telegram to Stalin, informing the Russian leader that China had decided to send an army of "volunteers" into Korea. Five days later, US forces also moved north across the 38th parallel. Although the Chinese leadership momentarily hesitated on 12 October when Stalin appeared to renege on promises to provide support, they made the final decision on 18 October, and the next day the Chinese People's Volunteers (CPV) under the command of General Peng Dehuai began to cross the Yalu River into Korea.

Chen briefly addresses China's wartime experiences, but his account essentially ends with the Chinese decision for war. Zhang's emphasis is on Mao's military philosophy and the Chinese conduct of the war. He traces the development of Mao Zedong's approach to war, which was an amalgamation of traditional Chinese military thought, Leninist theory, and the lessons Mao derived from his decades of conducting protracted war. He sees as a contributing factor in Mao's decision to intervene in Korea a romanticized notion of war and a belief that the Chinese could overcome a technologically advanced enemy through superior will and morale. The experience of the Korean War would temper that notion, but much of Mao's military thought is still reflected in current statements of Chinese doctrine.

Working primarily from Chinese sources, Zhang misidentifies some UNC forces (he frequently confuses Marine and Army units) and his description of tactical- level actions is not always consistent with US accounts. Nonetheless, his description of Chinese strategic and operational decisionmaking is valuable. American readers will be intrigued by his insights into the Chinese internal debate and thought processes about the decision to cross the 38th parallel during the November 1950-January 1951 offensive; CPV commander Peng, recognizing that his exhausted forces were outrunning their supplies, argued for an operational pause while Mao insisted that the attack continue. Other insights can be found in descriptions of China's shift to protracted war after the failure of the offensive, the Chinese approach to the mobile defense, and their efforts to keep their forces supplied in the face of UNC air attacks.

Zhang makes clear that for the Chinese, the Korean conflict was, above all, a war of logistics. In Communist Logistics in the Korean War, Charles R. Shrader examines this essential aspect of North Korean and Chinese military operations. In spite of their very weak industrial bases, the North Koreans and Chinese were able throughout the war to obtain supplies from the Soviets, through local sources, and by the use of captured materiel. Their great challenge was transporting supplies from the secure depots in Manchuria across Korea to the front lines, over punishing terrain and in the face of UNC air attack. Thus, the crucial contest, Shrader insists, was between communist efforts to distribute supplies and the UNC interdiction effort.

The North Koreans and Chinese began their offensives with well-trained, well-prepared forces, but with logistical systems unequal to the demands of sustained combat operations and vulnerable to air interdiction. Both the initial North Korean offensive and the subsequent Chinese attacks eventually stalled when the communists outran their supplies. From mid-1951 through the end of 1952, the communists energetically improved their logistical system, built up air defenses, developed the means to repair or bypass railways and roads quickly, and adopted passive measures, such as camouflage and decoys, to avoid air attack. These efforts were aided by the slackening of UNC ground pressure after the initiation of Armistice talks.

As a result of these actions, by early 1953 the communists were able not only to support a strong defense, but had improved their logistical capability and stockpiled sufficient materiel to be able to conduct sustained offensive operations. Shrader concludes that by the end of the war the communists were "on the verge of being able to support a massive and extended offensive campaign, which would have constituted a serious threat to the United Nations forces." In the absence of Chinese and North Korean sources on logistics, Shrader's account is based largely on intelligence reports and the debriefings of communist prisoners of war. Future revelations may add to our knowledge of the subject, particularly at the strategic and policy levels, but it seems unlikely that Shrader's portrayal of operational-level communist logistics will be superseded anytime soon.

The 1953 communist offensive to which Shrader refers was forestalled by the conclusion of an Armistice. Negotiations for that Armistice began in 1951; Herbert Goldhamer, a RAND psychologist doing research in Korea, was subsequently invited by one of the participants to observe the workings of the military team conducting the negotiations for the UNC side. Goldhamer's observations and suggestions were so valuable to the UNC negotiators that they asked him to participate actively in their preparations. And so, for four months, Goldhamer had an unparalleled view of the workings of the UNC delegation. A manuscript he prepared immediately after returning to Tokyo has now been published as The 1951 Korean Armistice Conference: A Personal Memoir. It is an extraordinary document that provides frank and critical views of the negotiators and the negotiating procedure.

Goldhamer observes that the UNC negotiators spent more time trying to draft fast responses to communist proposals than to analyzing the proposals carefully, clarifying their own objectives and assumptions, and developing a coherent approach to achieve the objectives. He is particularly critical of the American tendency to be impatient to make "progress" and to seek that progress by making concessions. "One of the most disastrous consequences of this demand for progress," Goldhamer argues, "was the drive toward tactical attempts to `create' progress by sheer action no matter how disastrous it would be from the standpoint of the U.N. negotiating position." In the opinion of this reviewer, who for more than a decade was involved directly or indirectly with the Military Armistice Commission in Korea and who has spent years negotiating with both opponents and allies, this book should be required reading for every senior officer. Goldhamer's insights remain relevant and are applicable to every type of negotiation.

The Armistice ended the fighting and provided a way for the external powers to back away from direct confrontation. It also provided a decades-long pause during which the two Koreas have been able to follow their respective paths of development, for better or for worse. But it did not resolve the underlying tensions within Korea. The tragic drama of the Korean War goes on. The players remain both "civil" and "international," and the United States, particularly the US military, is still closely connected with events on the peninsula. This being the case, and with the US relationship with China looming as America's major foreign and security policy challenge for the foreseeable future, all of these books will be of value to the military professional and concerned citizen.

Those who wish to read more on the strategy and policy of the Korean War might start with the Korea Society's conference report, The Korean War: An Assessment of the Historical Record, which also provides a useful bibliography and chronology of the war. Allan R. Millett, who is working on his own history of the war, has produced an extensive bibliographic essay, "A Reader's Guide to the Korean War." Many of the key Chinese and Soviet documents are included as appendices to Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War by Sergei N. Goncharov, John W. Lewis, and Xue Litai. The Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars publishes a periodic Bulletin that is a particularly rich and useful source of primary documents, analysis, and information on the state of current research.

Two books dealing with larger issues contain important discussions of the Chinese intervention. Chae-Jin Lee devotes a third of his book China and Korea: Dynamic Relations to the war, summarizing the previous scholarship on the Chinese involvement and providing conclusions from his own research. One substantial chapter of Thomas J. Christensen's Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and the Sino-American Conflict, 1947-1958 deals with the Chinese intervention, providing Christensen's analysis of Chinese motivations. Kathryn Weathersby will soon publish a book on the war based on her extensive research in the former-Soviet archives. And so the literature on the strategic and policy aspects of the war continues to grow, refracting the light from those ever-more distant events through various lenses and expanding our understanding of strategic leadership and decisionmaking.


Chen, Jian. China's Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American Confrontation. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1994.

Christensen, Thomas J. Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and the Sino-American Conflict, 1947-1958. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1996.

Cold War International History Project Bulletin. Available from the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 1000 Jefferson Drive, SW, Washington, D.C. 20560. Also available on the internet at

Conference Report: An Assessment of the Historical Record. Washington: The Korea Society, 1995. Available from The Korea Society, 1350 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 204, Washington, D.C. 20036.

Goncharov, Sergei, John W. Lewis, and Xue Litai. Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1993.

Goldhamer, Herbert. The 1951 Korean Armistice Conference: A Personal Memoir. Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND, 1994.

Lee, Chae-Jin. China and Korea: Dynamic Relations. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press. 1996.

Millett, Allan R. "A Reader's Guide to the Korean War," The Journal of Military History, 61 (July 1997), 583-97. Revised version of an essay originally published in Joint Force Quarterly, No. 7 (Spring 1995), 119-26.

Shrader, Charles R. Communist Logistics in the Korean War. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Stueck, William. The Korean War: An International History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1995.

Zhang, Shu Guang. Mao's Military Romanticism: China and the Korean War, 1950-1953. Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas Press, 1995.

The Reviewer: Colonel Donald W. Boose, Jr. (USA, Ret.) spent six years with the United Nations Command Component of the Military Armistice Commission in Korea and was the Assistant Chief of Staff/J-5 (Director of Strategic Plans and Policy) of US Forces, Japan, from 1987 to 1990. Prior to his retirement from the Army, he was Director of Asian Studies at the US Army War College, where he continues to teach. He is the coauthor of Great Battles of Antiquity, to which he contributed chapters on warfare in pre-modern East Asia.

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