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Allan R.

Millet, The War for Koera, 1950-1951: They Came from the
North, University Press of Kansas, 2010. 644 pages.

Speaking to reporters in 1974, two decades after an armistice ended

active hostilities along the 38th parallel that divides the Korean

peninsula into two, the then Deputy Director of the CIA Lieutenant

General Vernon Walters explained the circumstances leading to

America’s intervention in the Korean conflict as follows. He claimed that

had a Soviet spy managed to infiltrate the Pentagon and access top-

secret files before the war broke out in 1950, he would have left with

the correct impression that the U.S had no interest in fighting a war in

Asia. “But the one place he couldn’t break into was the mind of Harry

Truman, and two days later America went to war over Korea,” Walters

concluded.1 In the War for Korea: They Came from the North, the second

volume of a three-part series, Allan Millet does a deep dive into such

hitherto imponderables of the conflict, describing not only the fighting

during the first year of the war (1950-51), but also providing insights into

why the war was waged in the first place.

1Ojserkis, Raymond P. Beginnings of the Cold War Arms Race: The Truman
Administration and U.S Arms build-up. London: Praeger, 2003
A purely military history view of the Korean War could miss the point

that it actually started much before the first bullet was fired across the

border. Korean nationalists had been striving for independence from

Japan from before the start of the Second World War. A decision to

divide the peninsula into two nations by allied forces following Japan’s

defeat in 1945 was an unsatisfactory one for these nationalists who

attempted reunification as soon as the Americans and Soviets agreed

upon the 38th parallel as the border. Furthermore the new border

divided resources asymmetrically between the Democratic People’s

Republic of Korea (North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (South Korea).

While the North got most of the Japanese era industrial sites,

hydroelectric power and coal resources, the South had twice as many

people and the best arable river valleys.2 Millet draws out this history to

explain the origins of discontent present before the invasion by North

Korean forces in June 1950 that conventionally marks the start of the

Korean War.

2Millet, Allan R. “Introduction to the Korean War.” The Journal of Military History
68, October (2001). 921-36
Local history however played only one part in the war, and Millet’s

assertion that American President Harry Truman waded into what was

essentially an inter-Korean conflict that had been waging on since 1948

– if not earlier – requires more thorough examination. South Korean

academic Kim Hakjoon for one has argued that the sheer volume of

secret communication between Pyongyang and Moscow from January to

June 1950 and secret meetings between Stalin and Kim Il Sung, and Mao

and Kim between April and May “confirm that the three Communist

leaders were responsible for starting the Korean War on the morning of

June 25, 1950” 3 . Millet agrees that North Korea received material

support from the Soviets, but is emphatic that Stalin remained unsure

about the campaign’s success and was wary of drawing a strong

American response. He points out that the Soviet navy and air force did

not participate in the conflict thus assuring the America led United

Nations Coalition (UNC) hegemony along the coast and the skies over


3Kim, Hakjoon. “North Korea.” In The Ashgate Research Companion to the Korean
War, edited by James Matray and Donald Boose Jr, 35 - 48. New York: Routledge,
If Stalin had wavered, it is highly unlikely that China under Mao would

have backed North Korea’s plans of an invasion. Beijing’s support was

predicated on calculations of deepening relations with Moscow, and

help for Kim Il-sung was promised in hope of gaining access to Soviet

weapons and technology – including the atomic bomb. The picture that

emerges is one where North Korea’s plans of an invasion remained

fragmentary till the end, with both Moscow and Beijing pursuing

different strategic goals. Millet also highlights lack of coordination

between the two Communist governments. More recent research into

Chinese sources about the war, notably by Shen Zhihua, 4 backs his

assertion that PRC officials repeatedly asked for Soviet permission to

intervene from July to September 1950. When they finally received the

go-ahead in October, many PRC officials felt it was already too late to

prevent a rout of the Korean People’s Army.

The U.S response to the invasion – the historical marker from where

Millet begins his book – has benefited from decades of evolving analysis.

In immediate post-war writings the American response was seen as

4Zhihua, Shen. Mao, Stalin and the Korean War: Trilateral Communist Relations in
the 1950s. Milton Park, Abingdon: Routledge, 2012.
being “limited” both in scope and the means employed. David Reese in

his Korea: The Limited War (1964) argued that America didn’t use all its

resources (the atomic bomb) and restricted the scope of its military

engagement to reestablishing the pre-invasion border (as opposed to a

forceful unification). A counter-revolutionary narrative emerged in the

1970s and shifted the blame for igniting the conflict from Soviet Russia

to internal factors in Korea and changes in post-war American foreign

policy. Bruce Cummings in his Origins of the Korean War (1981) argued

that a conventional war started in Korea in June 1950 because the “U.S

blocked the triumph of a leftist revolution in 1945 and imposed a

reactionary regime on southern Korea”. Following the fall of the Soviet

Union in 1991 and with the release of Soviet-era classified documents it

was proved without doubt that Stalin had been directly involved in

planning the invasion in 1950. Sergei Goncharov, John W. Lewis, and Xue

Litai5 were among the first to establish the extent of Stalin’s involvement

and also his doubts over Kim Il-sung’s claims of a short war.

5Goncharov, Sergei N., John W. Lewis and Xue Litai. Uncertain Partners: Stalin ,
Mao and the Korean War. Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1993
Research into Chinese sources by Chen Jian, Zhang Shu Guang, and

Michael M Sheng have now revealed that the Chinese intervention was

not the result of American forces crossing the 38th parallel alone but also

Mao Zedong’s desire to “win a glorious victory”.6 Including the latest

historical research in his writings, Millet notes that during a Chinese

Communist Politburo meeting on October 2, 1950 Mao’s decision to

intervene in Korea faced opposition from party colleagues.

Once the fighting began in June 1950, it was both brutal and bloody. The

invading North Korean forces were better trained and equipped with

Soviet provided weapons and tanks. The South Korean forces were just

not ready for war. Millet analyzes the battles that follow in an

evenhanded manner, relying on a wide range of sources to bring

forward a balanced account. South Korean forces are given their due. So

is the courage and professionalism of their Chinese foes.

Millet also mounts a strong defense of the U.S soldier, whose

professionalism and training were questioned even while the war was

6Chen, Jian. China’s Road to the Korean War: The Making of the Sino-American
Confrontation. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
being fought. Early analysts blamed poorly trained American soldiers for

the reversals in the first few weeks of the war. It wasn’t the soldiers,

Millet argues, but the generals who were to blame. He faults General

Douglas MacArthur, chief of the U.S. led UN forces in Korea, for failing to

acknowledge early intelligence warnings.

Hemmed in by North Korean forces, the UNC presence was reduced to a

defensive perimeter around the port-city of Pusan by August 1950.

General MacArthur ordered the landing of U.S marines at Inchon on the

western coast of South Korea in a risky move with the aim of cutting off

North Korean supply lines. Despite difficulties, the landing was a success

and MacArthur claimed just credit. In Millet’s analysis Inchon had little

impact on the outcome of the war, and North Korean forces retreated in

face of superior U.S air and naval operations.

Millet places the origins of the Korean War at the juncture of both

developing but powerful international Cold War forces and natural

tendencies that arose from an artificial division of the Korean peninsula

by American and Soviet forces in 1945. He calls upon an impressive body

of original research and draws from latest sources to give a balanced

account of the fighting on the ground. By themselves, these should be

enough to make this book a compulsory reading for anyone interested in

the Korean War. But the main strength of Millet’s work perhaps lies in

his ability to render into simple and accessible writing the complexities

inherent in any serious work of historical research without losing any of

its nuances.