Max Hastings: The Korean War

HastingsPan Macmillan, 1987
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There are so many books on the Korean War, which commenced 59 years ago today, that it’s difficult to know where to start. One history which has stood the test of time is by Max Hastings. Clocking in at 35% fewer pages than David Halberstam’s recent well-received account, Max Hastings’s The Korean War nevertheless has at least twice as much detail.

Where Halberstam over-invests in interviewing US troops who experienced the first shocks of the initial Chinese intervention at Unsan, Hastings interviews Americans, Brits, Koreans and Chinese, covering a wide variety of aspects from different perspectives.

Where Halberstam closes the war at the battle for Chipyong-ri, Hastings continues to the bitter end – which does better service to the 45% of US troops who died in the War after the armistice negotiations commenced. In addition, with Hastings we get fascinating bonus chapters on the experiences of prisoners of war on both sides; on the war in the air, and on the somewhat unsuccessful special operations units.

Hastings’s history was published in 1987, before some of the documentary evidence from the former Soviet Union became available. His account is therefore left to speculate as to whether Stalin ordered Kim Il-Sung’s invasion or simply acquiesced in it. Hastings judges that acquiescence is more likely, and evidence now supports that judgement. But the fact that Hastings did not have access to this evidence does not in any way invalidate his account. Whether Kim was actually doing Stalin’s bidding or not, the important thing was that the West thought he was. The whole rhetoric of the US war effort was that communist aggression needed to be repelled, in order to discourage the Soviets and their allies from attempting more serious encroachment elsewhere. The British Chiefs of Staff concurred, believing that the invasion was a “deliberate move in the cold war on the part of the Russians”. And there was also a mistaken impression that the Chinese too were the tools of Soviet policy. However, as Hastings points out, the West overestimated communist ideology as a motivator, and underestimated nationalism, both in Kim Il-sung and Mao Tse-tung.

What comes out strongly in Hastings’s account is the moral greyness which went along with the war. While the North was clearly the aggressor, the prospect of propping up the odious Syngman Rhee regime was not something which filled the allies with a crusading zeal:

Western soldiers were struggling to believe that they were fighting in Korean to defend certain principles of justice and freedom, which they witnessed daily being flouted, indeed trampled underfoot, all around them.

While the brutal treatment of prisoners by particularly the North Koreans is well established, the chaotic regime governing the communist prisoners in Koje Island was nothing to be proud of. Witnessing what went on around them, and reading their letters from home, some of the allied soldiers wondered what they were doing in Korea, particularly when they realised that many of the local Koreans didn’t want them there either. And they returned home to general indifference. It was quite a change in attitudes, between the initial US commitment, when there was a remarkable consensus that intervention was the right thing to do, and the jaded attitudes caused by the extended armistice negotiations and the failure to achieve anything more than a restoration of the status quo ante. For the troops, the world had changed: in one of the fascinating quotes which cast vivid light on the time, Hastings gives us this: “We went away to Glenn Miller. We came back to Elvis Presley.”

Like Halberstam after him, Hastings starts in medias res. Hastings’s starting point – the shoddy performance of the unprepared “Task Force Smith” in the face of their first contact with North Korean troops – is perhaps more logical than the Americans’ first encounter with Chinese troops at Unsan, which Halberstam gives us. In passing, Hastings tells us that the North Koreans were surprised to be encountering US troops – a surprise that was shared by Beijing and Moscow. The intelligence failings of the Americans in not anticipating the Chinese intervention was mirrored by the communist surprise at the force of the American response.

The strength of Halberstam’s account is of course his analysis of the style of MacArthur. But Hastings, albeit in slightly less detail, covers the ground, spicing his account with contemporary quotes: “Diplomacy and a vast concern for the opinions and sensitivities of others are the political qualities essential to this new engagement, and these are precisely the qualities that General MacArthur has been accused of lacking in the past” thunders the New York Times on 9 July 1950.

And in addition, Hastings is closer to the action, including much authentic detail. For example, the precipitous flight from Pyongyang was known as the big “bug-out”, as veterans confirm. Hastings leads us through it with the troops. His interviews with South Koreans tell us something of their experiences as their towns are overrun by the North. Another little detail: when the British cabinet first met on 27 June 1950 to discuss the North’s invasion, the planned topic for debate was the British reaction to the proposed integration of the French and German coal industries: the origins of the European Union.

There is humour as well: in the midst of the bitter fighting against the Chinese at the Chosin reservoir, the US troops are airdropped some “recreation packs” which for some reason contain condoms. “What the **** do they think we are doing with those Chinese?” ask the troops. The commander, asked by the press why he is withdrawing, gives an answer that Monty Python could not have scripted better: that he was simply “advancing in another direction”.

With a good collection of contemporary photos, a useful timeline and bilbliography, this book been awarded the accolade of being “the best narrative history of the Korean conflict” by the Guardian, with some validity.

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