Reckless War-Making; Review of Sergei N. Goncharov et al.'s Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War

Reckless War-Making; Review of Sergei N. Goncharov et al.'s Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War

Mini Teaser: Reckless War-Making; Review of Sergei N.

by Author(s): David Rees

Reckless War-Making; Review of Sergei N. Goncharov et al.'s Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War (Stanford University Press, 1993); Kathryn Weathersby's "Soviet Aims in Korea and the Origins of the Korean War: New Evidence from Russian Archives", Cold War International History Project Working Paper No. 8 (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, 1993); Herbert Goldhamer's The 1951 Korean Armistice Conference (RAND Corp., 1994); and William Stueck's The Korean War: An International History (Princeton University Press, 1995).

During June 1994, television newsreels showed former President Jimmy Carter preparing to enter North Korea on a nuclear peace mission. For a brief moment, as Mr. Carter stood talking to North Korean officials at Panmunjom, one could see between the two groups a concrete marker, cemented to the ground and perhaps one inch high, extending across the north-south roadway. This was, of course, the Korean Military Demarcation Line (MDL), established in July 1953, as it passes through the Joint Security Area near the 38th Parallel. In an unpredictable and changing world, which has seen the demise of the Soviet empire and much else besides, the MDL still rigidly divides the two Koreas and reminds the world that the Cold War is not over in Northeast Asia.

The defining event in this rivalry was the conflict of 1950-3, fought on the communist side by North Korea with active Chinese backing and considerable Soviet support, and on the Western side by an American-led coalition sponsored by the United Nations. The Korean War helped define the nature of international relations in a nuclear world, as well as U.S. policy in the Cold War. The four publications under review here speak not just of history, but also to the continuing tension on the Korean peninsula and to the existence of international circumstances in which the United States, for better or for worse, must still often take the lead in resolving regional conflicts.

The primary concern of Sergei Goncharov, John H. Lewis, and Xue Litai in Uncertain Partners lies in Sino-Soviet security relations and their influence on the beginnings of the Korean War. The three co-authors, Russian, American, and Chinese, show that the critical decision to initiate the war was made by Stalin in April 1950 when he decided to support Kim Il Sung's attempt to forcibly reunify Korea. The telling of this complicated story has benefited much from new written and oral sources on the subject made available in Moscow and Peking as a result of the end of the Cold War. The authors have also interviewed former high-ranking North Korean officers who were closely concerned with the launching of the war on that fateful Sunday morning of June 25, 1950.

The extensive new information available in Uncertain Partners adds appreciably to our understanding of the origins of the Korean conflict. The three authors clearly make the key historiographic point, noting that over the past four decades the genesis of the Korean War has been examined from "quite contrasting vantage points. At first, attention was focused on high-level politics, on the contacts between Stalin, Kim Il Sung and Mao. Later, the focus shifted to analyzing the domestic Korean and Cold War factors that contributed to the conflict. Our own evidence indicates that we need to concentrate again on the high politics." The authors then take their own advice, wisely avoiding any simple, monocausal explanation of the war.

The new evidence presented here makes Uncertain Partners an important contribution to Korean War studies and points the way to further work based on new Russian, Chinese, and Korean sources. But its main merit is the compelling drive of its historical reconstruction. That reconstruction focuses most of all on Soviet-North Korean relations.

Moscow and Kim Il Sung

The story begins in the period of the Stalin-Mao talks in Moscow, which started in December 1949 and ended with the signing of the Sino-Soviet treaty on February 14, 1950. By this time communist leaders in Moscow and Beijing knew that Kim Il Sung intended to attack South Korea, "although none of the principals, including Kim Il Sung himself, then had in mind the precise timing or the conditions of the assault." Such was the "extreme secrecy" surrounding subsequent developments that even the heads of Soviet intelligence knew nothing of the decision to cross the 38th Parallel.

However, in a more specific way, Uncertain Partners instructs us that "the search for the origins of the decision to start the war leads inexorably backwards to the relationship between the Soviet Union and Kim Il Sung's Korea." As a young anti-Japanese guerrilla leader, Kim had arrived in the Soviet Far East sometime during 1939-40. He later became an officer in a special Soviet brigade based in the Khabarovsk district and was tasked with developing cadres for a future Korean People's Army (KPA). Eventually, in October 1945, Kim was shipped back to North Korea and became Moscow's choice as the pro-Soviet leader of its zone, which became an independent state in 1948. But "although Stalin may have regarded Kim as a puppet the reality turned out to be far more complex. In fact, Kim was able to use Stalin's trust for his own aims even as Stalin was using him."

Although Kim and his close associates believed fervently in forcible Korean reunification, Stalin was reluctant to embark on a course that might provoke a war with the United States. But by early 1950 the time for decision could no longer be postponed by either Moscow or Pyongyang. Goncharov, Lewis, and Litai point out that by this time Syngman Rhee's security forces had mopped up most of the guerrillas sent into South Korea by Pyongyang during 1949. The possibility of reunification through insurgency seemed closed, and Rhee's regime was gaining in vitality. Kim was left with the sole option of conventional invasion if he wished to unify Korea under his control before the South became strong enough to defend itself.

Moscow's reasons for eventually backing Kim's ambitions were complex. Stalin believed in the Leninist doctrine of the "inevitable" clash between the two blocs, which would result in the victory of communism. "The fate of the world" declared Pravda on September 9, 1952, "will ultimately be decided by the outcome of the inevitable conflict between the two worlds." In the immediate postwar period Stalin thought that the final, preordained clash was some twenty years away. But by 1949-50 he had convinced himself that the showdown would come sooner, probably in the mid-1950s--hence the long-term Soviet military buildup term began then, before the Korean War.

As a corollary to this dogma, Stalin was determined that Mao's China, potentially a major entity in its own right, should remain tied to and dependent upon the USSR. Any true Sino-American normalization "would ruin all his strategic calculations." A North Korean takeover of the South would therefore help "to draw the line" between the West and communist China, thus perpetuating Beijing's dependence on Moscow. In addition, the acquisition of South Korea would strengthen the Soviet strategic posture in the event of a Third World War. But until early 1950 Stalin remained to be convinced that Pyongyang could win a quick victory without an American involvement that might result in a confrontation with Moscow.

The Decision to Attack

Thus, a decision for war in Korea was still in doubt when Kim Il Sung secretly visited Moscow between March 30 and April 25, 1950, according to the detailed narrative in Uncertain Partners. Kim told Stalin that "a decisive surprise attack" against South Korea would succeed in three days because there would be an immediate uprising by two hundred thousand Party members in the South. Kim was convinced that the United States would not intervene. It also appears likely that Kim used the evidence of Secretary of State Dean Acheson's famous speech of January 12, 1950 to bolster his case with Stalin. On this notorious occasion, Acheson had appeared to exclude South Korea from the American Pacific defense perimeter. Stalin consented in a general way to Kim's plan but insisted on consultations with Mao as a precondition "for his unequivocal assent to any future detailed plan of action."

Kim Il Sung then made a separate visit to Beijing in mid-May 1950 to inform Mao of his intentions. Preoccupied with the problem of Taiwan, and reluctant to express fears of American intervention, Mao gave Kim his blessing. But by the time of Kim's talks with Mao, war in Korea was already inevitable. The evidence presented here shows that, evidently impressed by Kim's arguments, Stalin for his own reasons had decided during April 1950 to back the projected invasion of South Korea. It was thus the convergence of Soviet and North Korean objectives that produced the decision for war; China's role at this stage of the decision process was far less significant.

Stalin's decisive backing for Kim was shown in two ways. First, as soon as Kim returned from Moscow, Soviet weapons "in huge numbers" began arriving at the North Korean port of Chongjin, barely a day's sailing from Vladivostok. Second, and at about the same time a new team of Soviet military advisors, including at least three major-generals with combat experience, arrived in Pyongyang to oversee the preparations for war. Pyongyang's military manpower problems had already been solved for, early in 1950, Mao had arranged for the transfer to North Korea of some fifteen thousand ethnic, battle-hardened Koreans who had fought in the Chinese People's Liberation Army. These troops followed two earlier divisions of Koreans sent from China in 1949.

Once the Soviet advisors had arrived in Pyongyang, a bilateral working team was formed with the senior North Korean military, and it was "almost certainly" during a meeting of this group that Kim declared his final intention to make war. The draft operational plan was written by the Soviet advisors and termed a "counterattack plan" using the tension along the 38th Parallel as a pretext for war. The nomenclature of a counterattack plan, according to one former senior North Korean general, was "a fake, disinformation to cover ourselves." The Soviet advisors evidently accepted Kim's belief in a southern uprising, for formal military operations were only expected to last three or four days with the capture of Seoul. Total victory was then expected in less than a month. Kim personally set the timing for the invasion at 0400 hours on Sunday, June 25, 1950 but his Soviet advisors were closely involved in this aspect of the planning as well.

Goncharov, Lewis, and Litai believe that a mixture of both short- and long-term considerations led Stalin to become so closely involved in the invasion of South Korea. In opting for war, they write: "[Stalin] would be pursuing his goal on several levels--to expand the buffer zone along his border, to create a springboard against Japan that could be used during future global conflict, to test American resolve, to intensify the hostility between Beijing and Washington, and, finally and foremost, to draw U.S. power away from Europe."

Yet the combination of political miscalculation and strategic adventurism that characterized the invasion made a quick victory unattainable. Seoul fell on schedule within three days but the southern uprising, supposedly the centerpiece of the operation, did not occur. The military situation was transformed within hours of the invasion by President Truman's quick decision to give U.S. air and naval support to South Korea, followed soon by the dispatch of American ground troops from Japan. Mao, who had been marginalized in the final decision-making, quickly realized the implications of American intervention. As early as July 7, two days after the first clash between American and North Korean forces at Osan, Premier Zhou Enlai called a special meeting of the Chinese Central Military Commission to assess Chinese options in the conflict. So began the process through which China, not the Soviet Union, paid the major price for Kim and Stalin's decision to launch the war.

On the question of ultimate responsibility for the war, Uncertain Partners sums up this way: "[T]he facts now available do clearly call into question the arguments that Kim was driven to war by the South's recurring provocations or that his decision was taken on his own initiative. Kim began lobbying for a Soviet-backed invasion of the South as early as March 1949. He proposed it, fought for it, and with a Soviet army battle plan to guide him, executed it. The invasion of June 25, 1950 was pre-planned, blessed and directly assisted by Stalin and his generals, and reluctantly backed by Mao at Stalin's insistence. . . . In fact the decision came in bits and pieces and was never coordinated or even thoroughly scrutinized by the three states. It was reckless war-making of the worst kind."

The story told in Uncertain Partners is confirmed and complemented by Kathryn Weathersby. Her paper on Soviet policy in Korea between 1945 and 1950, drawing on the partial opening of the archives of the CPSU Central Committee and the Soviet Foreign Ministry, distinguishes three phases in Soviet policy during this period. In the immediate postwar period Moscow's primary concern was to secure control, in the context of a joint administration of the entire country, of the three strategically-important areas of Pusan, Inchon, and Cheju Island (off the southwest coast). When it became clear that the United States would not turn over these vital points in its occupation zone, Soviet policy shifted to maintaining firm control of North Korea while paying lip service to the concept of a unified Korea. Moscow thus sought to protect Soviet security "by maintaining a compliant government in the northern half of the country and shoring up the military strength of that client state."

In April 1950 Soviet policy took an abrupt turn, as we have seen, when Stalin moved to back Kim Il Sung's policy of military reunification. Significant documentary evidence is provided here in the form of a report from the CPSU Central Committee archives (also summarized in Uncertain Partners)--a highly classified internal history of the Korean War written by the staff of the Soviet Foreign Ministry and dated August 9, 1966. The Soviet paper states:

"Calculating the USA would not enter a war over South Korea, Kim Il Sung persistently pressed for agreement from Stalin and Mao Zedong to reunify the country by military means. . . . The final agreement to support the plans of the Koreans was given by Stalin at the time of Kim Il Sung's visit to Moscow in March-April 1950. . . . By the end of May 1950 the general staff of the KPA together with Soviet military advisors announced the readiness of the Korean Army to begin concentration at the 38th Parallel. At the insistence of Kim Il Sung, the beginning of military activity was scheduled for June 25, 1950. . . ."

Although conclusive evidence is not available, Weathersby believes that Stalin's main motive in backing Kim may have been to prevent any rapprochement between Mao's China and the United States. Whether true or not, hers is a valuable contribution to the literature on the origins of the war.

Both of the publications considered above are primarily concerned with events leading to the outbreak of war in Korea. In The Korean War: An International History, William Stueck has written an impressive, large-scale synthesis of the entire conflict. He has drawn widely on archival material from the United States and its allies in Korea, and uses to good effect the new sources from Russia and China as well. He also deploys a wide range of secondary sources. While acknowledging the strong element of ideological confrontation in the conflict, Stueck notes that this factor "invariably was filtered through national perspectives, domestic pressures and individual personalities." Hence the unpredictability of the war and the strong element of miscalculation on all sides during its first year.

Stueck excels at describing the intricate diplomatic maneuverings that took place throughout the war, and which were aimed at avoiding a major clash between the great powers. The United States gained much political authority from the mantle of the United Nations during the fighting. On the other hand Washington had to bend with the pressures from the UN and to listen to such influential allies as Britain and Canada. The only significant omission in his coverage is that there is no account of the deplorable treatment of the American and British prisoners of war in North Korea. The attempted indoctrination (or brainwashing) of these men was surely an important factor in defining the war in the Western consciousness for many years afterwards.

Stueck is informative on the crux of the war in the summer of 1951 when, following the decisive defeat of their spring offensives, the communists decided to negotiate on the basis of a divided Korea. But by this time, in a development that Stalin had not foreseen when he decided to back Kim's ambitions, a large-scale drive for Western rearmament-- military, political, and economic--was well under way and "the buildup in Western Europe, the likely expansion of NATO to the eastern Mediterranean, and the progress towards a lenient peace treaty with Japan . . . threatened to overwhelm the centrifugal forces operating within the capitalist world." The "correlation of forces" was thus moving toward the West as a very important consequence of the Korean War.

Stueck goes on to analyze the progress of the Korean truce talks, that began at Kaesong in July 1951, and were then transferred to Panmunjom three months later. These talks, which posed special problems for the military negotiators of the United Nations Command (UNC), are described in a unique memoir by the late Herbert Goldhamer.

Goldhamer, who died in 1977, was by training a psychologist and a sociologist. He had a polymath's interest in classical Chinese literature and statecraft together with a gift for politico-military analysis. He was sent to Korea early in 1951 by the RAND Corporation to study the command and control systems of the communist armies. He came to see that the difficulties the communists were experiencing in the summer of 1951, after the UNC's defensive victories, were not only the result of physical losses but of a breakdown in control.

After reporting these findings to the UNC in Tokyo, Goldhamer was asked to observe the truce negotiations from the vantage point of the UNC's base camp for the talks at Munsan-ni, near Panmunjom. He was thus able to act as an adviser and a participant in the staff work during the negotiations on the military demarcation line. At the conclusion of the negotiations, Goldhamer returned to RAND and dictated a lengthy report on his experiences. This was classified for many years, but has now been published by RAND.

The Goldhamer memoir provides a fascinating personal account that gives much incidental historical information on the background to the truce talks. Goldhamer also analyzed conceptually the weaknesses of the UNC negotiating approach, stemming from deep-rooted cultural values. The teammates regarded themselves as hard-liners in negotiating with the communists but in practice believed it was important to show "reasonableness", confused concession with compromise, and found it difficult to formulate negotiating positions that did not constitute minimum demands. There was also an urge to make "progress" and a dislike of inactivity (which sometimes was the best negotiating ploy). Western public opinion's desire for quick results was always in the background.

In a perceptive introduction, Ernest May points out that the genius of Goldhamer's memoir is that it explains why the UNC team was bound to act as it did, and why the negotiating behavior analyzed by Goldhamer was bound to repeat itself. May also suggests that these behavior problems are applicable not only to Americans but to the British and other democratic nations when they negotiate with authoritarians. Current negotiations over the nuclear issue with North Korea and over the former Yugoslavia make the publication of the Goldhamer memoir particularly timely.

Stueck also provides a full account of the prolonged trial of strength at Panmunjom during 1952-3 over the UNC's principle of nonforcible prisoner repatriation. As Stueck makes clear, Truman himself was central in the process of adopting and enforcing this principle. Finally the death of Stalin in March 1953, the escalating cost of the air war to North Korea, domestic unrest within the Soviet bloc, and the implied threat of an expanded war by the Eisenhower administration all combined to make the communists concede on the POW issue. The Korean armistice agreement was then signed on July 27, 1953.

Counting Costs

Any assessment of the Korean War is a complicated business. Although the authors of Uncertain Partners and William Stueck differ in their approach, their conclusions are broadly similar. Stueck points out that Europe was the cockpit of the early Cold War, "the strategic prize that, in the hands of either of the superpowers, would tip the balance in the competition." During the prolonged crisis of the Korean War, the United States transformed a paper commitment to the defense of Western Europe into reality, "demonstrating an intention to keep major forces on the continent permanently and taking the lead in coordinating their operations with NATO partners." Without the Western response to the North Korean attack "a tragedy of far greater magnitude might have occurred."

Stueck also observes that the Korean conflict was fraught with paradox in that "it pushed China and the Soviet Union closer together in an immediate sense only to generate forces that afterward would split them apart more rapidly than otherwise would have been the case." Thus of the great powers, "the Soviet Union was clearly the prime loser by virtue of the Korean War."

The authors of Uncertain Partners evaluate events from a slightly different perspective but reach the same conclusions. Moscow might seem a winner in that a bloody line had been drawn between China and the West; direct Soviet casualties were relatively low; and North Korea had survived as a socialist state within the Soviet security system. But in the long term: "[T]he real interests of the Soviet State were badly served. The war provoked an unprecedented buildup of American nuclear and conventional forces and militarized the Cold War. Soviet security declined and the USSR's economic and intellectual isolation in a hostile world was to shackle its modernization efforts for decades to come."

Over the long haul the Soviet command economy was unable to meet the forces unleashed by the Korean War, with results we all know.

Essay Types: Book Review