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“The truth was inconsequential” (The Hidden History of the Korean War in ‘Counterpunch’)

The Hidden History of the Korean War: New Edition
by I. F. Stone
New introduction by Tim Beal and Gregory Elich
408 pages / $28 paper / 978-1-68590-008-3

Reviewed by Joshua Cohen for Counterpunch+

A common pit for even the most discerning and serious person to fall into would be the temptations and trappings of nostalgia. Particularly in a climate as politically charged as ours, this is an easy trapdoor to trigger. The yearning to return home, the proper definition of “nostalgia”, can be a clarion call for even the most hard-nosed rationalist. 

Monthly Review Press deftly steps around this trap door with its re-release of The Hidden History of the Korean War, written by the legendary journalist I.F. Stone. The re-issue was born, not of a need to bathe in the steambath of nostalgia, but of a need to celebrate the works of one of the seminal figures of investigative journalism, while remembering that even in the times we are desperate to return home to, there have always been those in power that will skip merrily down the dark alley of corruption. In other words, the book has been re-released to celebrate the lost art of illumination.

On the matter of illumination, one must make a momentary bow in the direction of Emile Zola, rightfully thought of as one of the founders of the great profession of reportage. As part of his research for what would become Germinal, he spent some time down in the coal mine towards the Belgian border. When he was down in the pit, he found that there were enormous horses in the dark tunnels dragging the coal to and fro. Zola was quite taken aback by this and remarked to the coal miners, “These are amazingly big horses, how do you get them down here?”.  They laughed at him and said “Monsieur Zola, you have much to learn. These horses are born down here. They never see the light.” Sadly, there are far too many that will content themselves with the darkness that surrounds them. Of course, to resort to cliche, we all know where Democracy dies.

It is that grand tradition of illumination that Stone’s tome, re-released 70 years after its original publication, heeds and, perhaps even surpasses. The dearly departed Stone’s Hidden History is quite simply nothing if not deeply, on the verge of blindingly, illuminating. 

Indeed, Stone himself wrote in the preface that he believes he has ‘… succeeded in throwing new light on [the Korean War’s] origins’.

Izzy Stone was quoted back in 1973 as opining, stalwartly and aptly,  that, “every government is run by liars”. This is sharpened by Tim Beal and Gregory Elich who, in the intro to the book, write “There is a certain constancy in human affairs. Deceit, deception, and manipulation are characteristics of power, perhaps especially of modern ‘democratic’ political power—what country does not claim to be adhering to democracy?”. The book also acts, axiomatically, as an answer against the idea of American exceptionalism by reminding readers that the United States is not any more immune to committing or suborning atrocities than any other country.

When one thinks of how the Korean War began from an American standpoint, the word “surprise” might spring to the front of one’s mind. Stone addresses this promptly at the beginning of Chapter One, titled simply ‘Was It A Surprise?’. He calls out that the White Paper that was issued by the American State Department categorized the Korean War as a ‘surprise attack’. The term and concept of a ‘surprise attack ‘ is a trope that reverberates throughout the official narrative of the origins of the war. At its core, Stone’s book is a long answer to discerning skeptics who might think, dwelling on Stone’s aforementioned statement on the relationship between governments and liars, that it was planned and manipulated. 

Stone remarks upon this endemic impulse of manipulation with President Harry Truman’s Administration and its relationship with the United Nations. Stone uncovers the United States’ successful attempt to dig a pit of political immunization for itself, General Douglas MacArthur, and their acolytes, while simultaneously subjecting the United Nations to the pains and penalties of the whims of America.

The UN was indeed ‘stampeded’, as Stone characterized it, by Truman and his administration. In many ways, this gave MacArthur the sort of unilateral power that is difficult to obtain and even more dangerous to possess. The book is predictably written with admirable clarity that a major goal for the powers that be in 1950 was “… to make the ‘United Nations’ forces subject to MacArthur without making MacArthur subject to the United Nations. This came on July 7 in a resolution introduced jointly by Britain and France. This is commonly supposed to have established a United Nations Command. Actually, it did nothing of the sort. It set up a ‘unified command’ which was authorized to use the United Nations flag but was not subject in any way to United Nations orders”. This is a nail that Stone was so desperate to hammer home that he made a point of naming an entire section of the book, “The UN Get A Commander It Can’t Command”. 

Stone explains that MacArthur’s own intelligence chief, Major General Charles Willoughby, disclosed that the General was dishonest with the U.N. as early as his “very first report”. In the book, it is noted that in MacArthur’s report to the United Nations on July 25, 1950, he confidently stated that “the character and disposition of the Republic of Korea Army indicated that it did not expect this sudden attack.” However, General Willoughby contradicted this claim 18 months later when he spoke about the “alleged ‘surprise’ of the North Korean invasion” and revealed that “The entire South Korean army had been alerted for weeks and was in position along the 38th Parallel.” In terms of thinking through MacArthur’s reports, one need only look to the language. MacArthur made clever use of slick wording to present a picture of the situation to the United Nations that unfailingly benefited him and his agenda. The truth was inconsequential.

Adding to the litany of MacArthur’s dishonesty that pervaded his communications was the question of the Red Army. The General’s opening paragraph in one of his reports made stark reference to ‘“evidence of trained military personnel which the Chinese Communist forces have furnished.”

Stone goes on to report that “General MacArthur gave a summary of intelligence reports on these Chinese-trained veterans. He spoke of an ‘acceleration’ of this movement back into North Korea ‘during the early part of 1950, and by the middle of February, 1950’” But he made no specific allegation later than February and he did not go beyond the general accusation that ‘the Chinese Communist Army returned many of these North Korean troops to North Korea during the past year.’ The significant point to notice is that, when MacArthur got down to details, he did not charge that Red China sent even its Korean veterans to join the North Korean forces after the war began.”

The “evidence” that is presented might make a used car salesman blush. Such was the malevolence and thirst for war that seeped through all of MacArthur’s interactions with the UN.

The events themselves take place at an interesting intersection in American history, at the height of the McCarthy era, with anti-communist sentiment at its all-time high, and at the inception of the Cold War. General MacArthur sprang into a piranha-like frenzy at the prospect of waging a global crusade against Communism ‘regardless of the cost in lives’. 

President Truman, for his part, seemed to have somewhat inherited, rather than created his role in this. Later on in the book, Stone relents that the United States’ 33rd President had “always seemed a good human being—however exasperatingly inadequate to the terrible responsibilities thrust upon him by the death of Roosevelt”. This is indeed true, however, Truman was anxious to put a stamp on his ‘get tough’ policy and his philosophy, such as it was, on ‘containment’. Indeed, while MacArthur had the fervent and strident hope to launch into a ‘full-scale war with China and the Soviet Union’, Truman was attempting to shift ‘the basis of the U.S. economy into military Keynesianism to ensure there would be no turning back from a fervently anti-communist foreign policy’. Chapter 15 outlines in withering terms that the outbreak of anti-communist sentiment, known colloquially of course as the “Red Scare”, became a tool for Truman’s benefit in the form of easily acquiring various expenditures from Congress. Stone writes that “those who would not be moved by pity or moral obligation to alleviate suffering abroad could be frightened into appropriations by fear of Communism. Powerful domestic interests ready to combat enlarged expenditure for social purposes could be led to acquiesce readily in ‘Keynesianism’ if it took the profitable form of an armament boom. For Truman, to ‘contain’…seemed the only way to contain the Republicans.”

Stone does go on to redress a moral delta between these two central figures. He writes that while Truman wanted neither war nor did he quite want peace, MacArthur boldly and clearly yearned for war in the name of anti-Communism. The book proclaims that “indecision made Truman at best an irresolute superior, at worst a passive collaborator in MacArthurism. Absolute firmness was required if there was to be any chance at all of ‘containing’ a dynamic military commander, colossal in his self-assurance, contemptuous of half-measures, and determined to force a showdown. To leave MacArthur in command was bad. To be unsure of whether one really wanted the war to end was worse.” The triune relationship that Stone examines regarding Truman, MacArthur, and the United Nations, in addition to the ramifications of these relationships will attract readers as iron filings obey the magnet. 

The Korean War, in fact, never officially ended and it was an armistice that was put in place in July 1953 that finally contained, to borrow a phrase, hostilities. The grim butcher’s bill on this escapade was well over 2 million casualties.

This, for obvious reasons, is merely a surface-level rendering of the illumination that Stone graces his readers with, first in 1952 when the wounds of war, physically and metaphorically, were still fresh and once again 70 years later. Even from beyond the grave, the great I.F. Stone shines light on the hidden history of a war that seems to never quite get mentioned in the same breath as, for instance, Vietnam, and is certainly mentioned with much less reflexive outrage. This work of true investigative journalism will hopefully tempt the outrage glands to kick in on behalf of the Korean War. One must, as I.F. Stone certainly was, be able to think of one’s own government as potentially hostile and as unwilling to tell or economical with the truth. One must keep the powder of their skepticism in a permanently dry state. 

So, do not settle for the temporary anesthesia of nostalgia….

See this review at Counterpunch+

Hidden History of the Korean War: New Edition

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