By Tim Beal, co-author of the introduction to I.F. Stone’s The Hidden History of the Korean War
There are distinct parallels between I F Stones’ exposé of the ongoing Korean War and both the Ukraine War and preparations for a second war with China. Izzy Stone did not travel to war zones like the intrepid Wilfred Burchett, nor had he the whistleblowing ‘sources’ that Sy Hersh uses. His approach is different and one that that we can all use to some degree. He read the official accounts and the mainstream press closely and carefully, revealing discrepancies and peeling back the layers of deceit.
This year marks the 73rd anniversary of the ‘official’ outbreak of the Korean War, and the 71st anniversary of the publication of a remarkable book – I F Stones’ iconoclastic and classic Hidden History of the Korean War, now commemorated with a new edition. Both events are of continuing importance in their different ways.
The war in Korea has been called in America the ‘Forgotten War’ and it is not difficult to see why it was soon shunted out of public sight, consigned to oblivion. It was the first war that the United States did not win and it ended in an armistice, a concession of stalemate, but also an ominous indicator of unfinished business. Coming so soon after the victories of World War II, which inaugurated the ‘American Century’, being fought to a draw by the peasant armies of North Korea and China was best forgotten. Since it was halted by an armistice rather than an ignominious defeat as in Vietnam or Afghanistan historical amnesia was soon achieved. However the Korean War was transformational in other ways. It put flesh on the bones of the Cold War, turned formerly isolationist America into a ‘National Security State’, with a powerful military industrial complex, and a permanent war economy. These are still with us, as is the Korean War itself. The conflict was the first Sino-American war and there is significant danger that the US may before long precipitate a second, and far more consequential, war with China. That might start on the Korean peninsula, or if it is focussed on Taiwan, Korea will inevitably be drawn in. South Korea hosts major US bases, including Camp Humphreys, both the largest US base in the word (and there are some 800 of them) and the one closest to China.
Wars never start on the date given in history books. There is always a pre-history, a series of events and decisions that lead to the outbreak of fighting. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg has admitted that the Ukraine war started in 2014, the year of the coup. So, too, the Korean War can be dated to 1945 when, having defeated Japan, the United States divided the peninsula to construct a protective buffer, at that stage against the Soviet Union, now primarily China. It also provided a forward military presence on the Asian mainland, an enduring legacy which today also gives the US control over the South Korean military, one of the largest, best equipped and trained in the world. There are many studies of the events leading up to the outbreak of fighting in 1950, with Bruce Cumings being the leading authority. Australia’s role in this sorry story has been analysed by Gavan McCormack while the great Australian investigative journalist Wilfred Burchett covered the war from the North Korean/Chinese side of the front line in This Monstrous War.
Izzy Stone was not to know of the continuing importance of the Korean War to our times, nor did he have access to the sources available to later historians of the war, but he was a perceptive, astute and questioning observer. Living in an America where public antisemitism was still fashionable Isidor Feinstein Stone took on the protective anonymity of IF Stone in print, but remained ‘Izzy’ in ordinary life. He was a real investigative journalist – not the ersatz hacks who claim the title today – and his modern equivalent would be Seymour (‘Sy’) Hersh. Just as Hersh, barred from the mainstream media for revealing unwelcome truths, has taken to self-publishing so too did Izzy and he was mainly famous for his I. F. Stone’s Weekly (1953–1971); some of Izzy’s writings are archived on the web.
Stone started writing Hidden History in 1951. Based then in Paris he noticed discrepancies between the accounts emanating from McArthur’s headquarters and coverage in the Western press. General Douglas McArthur was America’s governor of occupied Japan and South Korea was part of his bailiwick. After unsuccessful attempts to get his book published in England – ‘too hot to handle’ – he returned to the US where he encountered the same response. He had a chance encounter with the editors of the newly-established socialist magazine Monthly Review (remarkably still going strong nearly 75 years later) who had also been questioning the official narrative and they enthusiastically published it in 1952. It met, they noted, ‘with an almost complete press blackout and boycott’. Despite establishment disapproval the book continued to excite critical readers over decades. A second edition was published in 1988 with an excellent preface by Bruce Cumings, which unfortunately has not been included in this new edition but is available here.
What is it about this book that has enabled it to survive in a hostile environment for so long? There is not space here to describe adequately Stone’s description of the beginnings and first half of the war except to say that he thought that what had actually happened had been hidden under a cloud of official deception and obfuscation, much of it due to McArthur’s obsession with expanding the war to China. An introduction to the new edition, written by me and Gregory Elich, is now freely available on the Monthly Review website, and there is also a book talk, bringing in the Korea Policy Institute’s Christine Hong and Martin Hart-Landsberg.
Apart from the importance of the subject, Stone’s book is also remarkably relevant today. There are distinct parallels between his Korean War and both the Ukraine War and preparations for a second war with China. Izzy Stone did not travel to war zones like the intrepid Burchett, nor had he the whistleblowing ‘sources’ that Hersh uses. His approach is different and one that that we can all use to some degree. He read the official accounts and the mainstream press closely and carefully, revealing discrepancies and peeling back the layers of deceit. His study of the Korean War is a master class in how to decipher the hidden histories of the wars of our time, including sadly the continuing Korean War, which may well flare up again.
Find Beal’s piece at the Australian publication Pearls and Irritations