By Tim Beal and Gregory Elich | May 3, 2023 | Originally published in Monthly Review
For a book on contemporary events to have a new edition seventy years after the first is a rare achievement. Izzy Stone’s The Hidden History of the Korean War has a continuing relevance for three major reasons: it is a tour de force of investigative journalism; the Korean War was a pivotal event in post-1945 history; and the combination of the two—the method of investigation and what it revealed of machinations behind the official curtain of obfuscation—can be brought to bear on a wider scale in order to understand what has happened since then and what is happening around us now, and into the future.1 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? In addition, the international framework fixed in place by the Korean War, dubbed the “Cold War,” is still with us despite superficial detours into rapprochement. In 1952, when Hidden History was first published, the United States was in hot war with North Korea and China, and in cold war with the Soviet Union. In 2022, when this edition is being issued, the United States is in proxy war with the Russian Federation, successor to the Soviet Union, and in cold war, perilously close to turning hot, with North Korea and China. In the United States itself, the flailing president is struggling to stay afloat in a turmoil that his administration had a major role in producing, and the political climate is increasingly intolerant of dissent, redolent of McCarthyism.2 Stone would find the situation in 2022 sadly, depressingly familiar.
Penetrating the Curtain of Deceit and Deception: Stone’s Investigative Journalism
Decades after its initial publication, Hidden History remains as relevant as ever in its method of analysis of U.S. foreign policy and war-making modes, and the dissemination of the hidden history behind the official narrative. Stone believed that he could only be persuasive with a domestic audience if he “utilized material which could not be challenged by those who accept the official American government point of view.” Therefore, Stone limited his sources to official U.S. and UN documents and American and British newspapers. It is interesting to note in this context how much revealing information Stone uncovered through careful analysis coupled with an investigative frame of mind. He adopted an approach of comparing mainstream sources and noting discrepancies, omissions, emphases, and framing to reveal the complex reality behind official obfuscations. Stone’s analytical method remains an ever-relevant model for analyzing and interpreting official sources.
The eruption of full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula presented an opportunity to advance U.S. geopolitical interests and those of key Asian clients. In the popular imagination, the start of the war is generally regarded in simple terms as a surprise North Korean attack for which no one had been prepared. However, by closely examining various sources, Stone points to ambiguities that muddy that picture. Most prominently, he finds considerable evidence suggesting U.S. and South Korean officials had probable foreknowledge of an offensive by North Korean forces, which they chose not to try to prevent. South Korean President Syngman Rhee had recently suffered a dramatic defeat in Assembly elections, and his political future looked shaky. Nor did he feel entirely confident in U.S. support. On the American side, General Douglas MacArthur and many in Washington were eager to launch a global anticommunist crusade, regardless of the cost in lives, and a war in Korea promised the potential for widening conflict. Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan also dreamed of a wider war, in which he hoped his forces would retake the Chinese mainland. There are indications, which Stone tantalizingly brings up but deliberately does not pursue, that the war was precipitated by Syngman Rhee, quite possibly in collusion with or foreknowledge by Chiang Kai-shek. Early reports, later overwhelmed by official propaganda, said that “The South Koreans have attacked North Korea.”3 Then there was the strange business of the soybean market. Before the war, relatives and associates of Chiang Kai-shek bought soybean futures, which yielded great profit after war broke out. Senator Joseph McCarthy had also made a felicitous foray into soybeans.4
The Korean conflict also boosted President Harry Truman’s “get tough” policy to escalate Cold War tensions. It provided the pretext for quadrupling the U.S. military budget, cemented the American base presence throughout the Asia-Pacific, and set the United States on a one-way road to a militarized economy and foreign policy that remain with us to this day.
Stone situates the U.S. role in the Korean War in the context of the global Cold War, in which it can only be fully understood. A central theme is the tension between the Truman administration’s hostile containment policy of “political boycott and economic blockade” of the socialist countries and the anticommunist conservatives in Washington pushing for more aggressive action. The latter group’s hope for a global war against communism was fueled by MacArthur’s desire to steer the United States into a full-scale war with China and the Soviet Union. Stone details MacArthur’s machinations in eye-opening and disturbing detail. His is a memorable takedown of an American icon.
MacArthur and Truman were in accord, however, in thwarting every opportunity to bring the war to an early end. Each had his motive to keep the conflict going: MacArthur with his hope of igniting the war into an international conflagration, and Truman shifting the basis of the U.S. economy into military Keynesianism to ensure there would be no turning back from a fervently anticommunist foreign policy.
It is customary for U.S. journalists to focus on war’s impact on civilians only when it suits the country’s geopolitical objectives.5 Civilians in U.S. wars are typically rendered invisible in media reports. The Korean War was no different in that regard, but Stone was determined to expose the harsh reality that the bland verbiage in official reports was meant to obscure or erase. On this subject, he writes with evident compassion. Such empathy can seem startling in contrast to the near-total absence of such feelings in American journalism since the end of the Vietnam War.
In one example, Stone examines U.S. Air Force communiques issued after a bombing campaign in September 1950, which complained of a paucity of targets because not much remained to destroy. “These communiques should be read by anyone who wants a complete history of the Korean War,” Stone suggests. “They are literally horrifying.”6 He quotes one document that reported large fires in villages that jets had attacked with rockets, napalm, and machine-gun fire. “Why was not explained,” Stone acidly observes, adding, “A complete indifference to noncombatants was reflected in the way villages were given ‘saturation treatment’ with napalm to dislodge a few soldiers.”7 Another operational summary described an attack on several villages as having achieved “excellent results” with bombs, rockets, and napalm. Stone lets the words sink in for the reader with his bitter comment, phrased to encourage a pause for reflection: “The results were…‘excellent.’”8
Stone found some U.S. Air Force reports deeply disturbing on another level, where in place of the customary indifference to human life, he found expressions of delight in death and destruction. “There were some passages about these raids on villages which reflected, not the pity which human feeling called for, but a kind of lighthearted moral imbecility, utterly devoid of imagination—as if the fliers were playing in a bowling alley, with villages for pins.” Among the examples Stone provides is one from a captain who led a flight attack group: “You can kiss that group of villages good-bye.”9
Then, as now, journalists generally acted as stenographers, parroting the official narrative and displaying a remarkable lack of curiosity about the complex reality on the ground. Frequently, in a mirror to our time, the media acted as cheerleaders for war or an escalation of violence. Lulls in combat worried General MacArthur, who wanted to keep the pressure on Washington to widen the war. By juxtaposing MacArthur’s hyperventilating reports against the situation on the ground, Stone exposes the general’s duplicity in damning detail. MacArthur’s communications may often have been fanciful, but he knew his image carried weight back home, and he could count on the media to disseminate the message he wanted to convey. In that expectation, he was rarely disappointed. U.S. newspapers tended to ignore the more sober-minded assessments that officials provided and ran with MacArthur’s wild fear-mongering claims in their headlines. Regardless of the military situation, what newspapers fed the American public was a steady diet of MacArthur’s fabrications.
Once MacArthur was removed from his position, the United States nevertheless remained wary of peace. After the war entered a stalemate, the only reason Washington had to continue combat and drag out negotiations was to score political points. Quoting U.S. officials to illustrate their uneasiness at the prospect of peace, Stone concludes, “The peace talks were regarded by these leaders as a kind of diabolic plot against rearmament.”10 The media, not surprisingly, fell in line behind this narrative, and Stone cites saber-rattling editorials from the Washington Post and New York Times.
Stone’s analysis of peace negotiations is a masterpiece of investigative journalism. He unveils the ugly reality of how the United States intentionally kept the war going long past the point where either side could make any significant gains on the ground. Indeed, when the book was initially published on September 1, 1952, it would take nearly another year before an armistice was reached. The main sticking point was the refusal of the United States, in collusion with Syngman Rhee and Chiang Kai-shek for whom the issue was of crucial importance, to return prisoners of war to their home countries, according to the Geneva Convention. Instead, the United States was intent on trying to score political propaganda points regarding Chinese and North Korean “legitimacy.” Prisoners held by the United States and South Korea were subjected to enormous pressure to reject a return to their homelands, thus according spurious legitimacy to the bankrupt regimes of Syngman Rhee and Chiang Kai-shek.11 The protracted wrangling over this issue ensured that combat would continue beyond any purely military rationale.
As Stone thoroughly documents, each time it appeared that an agreement might soon be in the offing the United States acted to undermine the talks. Deferral of an end to hostilities was accomplished in a variety of ways. One of the many examples Stone offers occurred in August 1951, when North Korean General Nam II relented to American demands to adjust the truce line from the 38th Parallel to the current battle line. That concession produced a warmer atmosphere at the talks, and an agreement seemed to be close at hand. At that point, the U.S. military launched a heavy artillery barrage. Negotiations were held in Kaesong, which was agreed by all parties to be a neutral combat-free zone for the duration of the talks. South Korean guerillas entered the Kaesong neutral zone and attacked a North Korean police patrol. Other incidents ensued, including a U.S. warplane strafing a North Korean truce jeep on its way to the talks and a bombing attack on Kaesong. It would be hard to devise a set of provocations more likely to scupper negotiations, and these produced the desired effect as the North Koreans broke off talks. U.S. media dutifully ascribed responsibility for the abrupt halt to North Korean intransigence and “Red trickery.” Here and elsewhere, Stone skillfully exposes how U.S. civilian and military officials, with media complicity, shifted responsibility for their actions to the other side. It is an unsparing picture of official mendacity.
With Stone’s attention to revelatory detail, he never loses sight of the broader picture. The Korean War set the United States on the path to militarism and endless war. Stone’s final words in this volume bear repeating:
The dominant trend in American political, economic, and military thinking was fear of peace. General Van Fleet summed it all up in speaking to a visiting Filipino delegation in January 1952: “Korea has been a blessing. There had to be a Korea either here or some place in the world.” In this simple-minded confession lies the key to the hidden history of the Korean War.12
The Pivotal Role of the Korean War
The Korean War is arguably the most consequential conflict since the Second World War. Less well known than the Vietnam War—even being dubbed the “Forgotten War”—its ramifications were immense. It put flesh on the skeleton of the incipient cold war, and it left behind both Korea and China as divided nations, sowing seeds for continuing conflict. It shifted “the business of America” from business to war, and embedded the permanent war economy at the core of U.S. society.
Stone was close to the action, writing as the events were unfolding, so although his judgments were astute, they were necessarily limited. With the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to locate the war, and the U.S. domestic politics that molded it into the historical development of U.S. imperialism. There were important, sometimes crucial milestones in the process. Henry Luce’s coining of the phrase “American Century” in February 1941 helped establish the ideological appetite for global dominance that is still debated today.13 Franklin D. Roosevelt’s maneuvering of a recalcitrant United States into the unfolding Second World War was a crucial first step, but it was Truman who transformed what might have been a temporary participation into a permanent commitment to domination. The decision to use nuclear weapons against a defeated Japan was a signal to the Soviet Union, and the world, of America’s strategic military preeminence.14 The creation of NATO in 1949 gave the United States a Western European military alliance against the Soviet Union, and the Korean War became the other arm of the pincer in East Asia, locking South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan in a U.S.-led alliance against China and the Soviet Union.
In addition, this convenient war also bonded fifteen other nations against the Red/Yellow Peril—the racist and political aspects being somewhat intertwined. Although some of those countries, such as Turkey, have distanced themselves from the United States and are unlikely to be dragooned into another war against China or North Korea, others such as Australia and far-off Britain have shown remarkable, if foolish, enthusiasm for a second round. Moreover, as Stone ably recounts, the United States was able by sleight of hand to drape itself in the flag of the United Nations and have its expeditionary force, over which the United Nations has no control, called the United Nations Command, a situation that still obtains today.15
Seven decades on, the major thrust of U.S. strategy is to integrate these two arms of the pincer even further, so that the Western Pacific alliance— primarily Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Australia—can be deployed seamlessly against Russia, and NATO arrayed against China.16
The counterpoint to the deepening role of U.S. imperialism in East Asia was the anticolonial movement. Resistance to European colonialism in Asia has, of course, deep roots but the injection of Japanese colonialism toward the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth made the anticolonial struggle the dominant theme of the region, not least in Korea. In general, the United States rejected the trappings of traditional colonialism—its flag flew over U.S. bases rather than governor’s palaces—but in essence the prevailing tendency was to supplant European and Japanese colonialism and replace it with U.S. dominance. However, since the United States could not admit, especially to itself, that it was an imperial power, anticolonialism had to be reconfigured as enemy expansionism. Sometimes this was expressed in national terms—Soviet or Chinese expansionism—at other times politically, as Communist expansionism. The latter was, as some recognized at the time, more properly seen as an aspect of the anticolonial movement; much of the attack on the State Department’s “Old China Hands” under McCarthyism revolved around this issue.17 As for Soviet/Chinese expansionism, it is appropriate to recall the quip attributed to Lord Ismay, the British soldier who was the first Secretary-General of NATO, that the organization was designed “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”18 The Americans are still there—over 100,000 in mid-2022.19 But what of the Russians and the Germans? How would Stone have dissected that?
The Continuing Relevance of the Hidden History of the Korean War, Its Methods and Insights
Stone read words carefully, comparing texts, noticing contradictions, always testing the rhetoric against reality. Thus, when MacArthur claimed that he was being beaten back by overwhelming Chinese forces—“hordes,” with its racist overtones, was the favorite term—Stone checked that against U.S. military reports. These indicated that Chinese forces were not large and that contrary to the claims of fighting a valiant rearguard action against huge odds, the Americans frequently lost contact with the enemy. He concluded, correctly, that MacArthur was constructing a pretext to take the war into China, which in turn might well have triggered Soviet intervention, bringing about the Third World War, with MacArthur as the hero of the hour. MacArthur claimed that such escalation was the only way to stop Chinese aggression. In reality, the aggression was a chimera. China was acting with caution and restraint to protect its border and was keen for peace negotiations. As Stone acerbically put it:
Few stopped to consider what was really happening in Korea. The fact is that the Chinese Communists had again failed to “aggress” on the scale that some feared and others hoped for.20
If we stand back and attempt to look at “what was really happening,” this made good sense. For Koreans, North and South, the reunification of their country, divided without their permission by the United States in 1945, was a cause worth fighting for. China’s aims were necessarily different and more limited. A unified peninsula under a friendly allied regime would be desirable, but one under a U.S. client would be intolerably dangerous, so a compromise was necessary. Kim Il Sung, and his successors, seemed to have accepted that if the U.S. military was committed to staying in Korea, its huge technological superiority and comparatively inexhaustible resources (including “hordes” of troops from its large population) could not be dislodged. This meant an armistice in the short term and deterrence in the long term. Syngman Rhee wanted the Americans to keep fighting, boycotted the armistice negotiations, and attempted through the POW issue (which was only in its opening stage when Hidden History was written) to scuttle the talks. His successors have taken a different position on relations with the North (and China and Russia), but at the time of publication of this edition the present incumbent, Yoon Suk-yeol, may well become a latter-day Syngman Rhee.
For the Truman administration, it all came back to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union. The Truman Doctrine was predicated on “containing Soviet expansion,” of which the Korean War was a key test. This was partly a matter of psychological projection, where the opponent was accused of what the United States was doing. The postwar decades saw a huge expansion of U.S. political and military power. The Truman Doctrine also served to reduce the complexities of the period, and in particular the anticolonial movement, to a simple binary morality tale, with America being the “city upon the hill,” guiding humankind to a better future. But within this Manichean framework, Truman wanted to keep Korea a “limited war” and avoid a showdown with the Soviet Union.
If this sounds familiar, it is because the struggles of those times have since then been continually replicated. There have been huge changes in the world, of course, in the seventy years since the first edition, but if Stone came back, he would recognize the pattern. The United States is at war of some sort—cold, proxy, on the cusp of hot—with Russia, China, North Korea, and many other countries beside. The planet is littered with the victims of America’s wars in the intervening period, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya to mention just a few. MacArthur is gone but his spirit has been transmogrified into the military-industrial complex. This behemoth includes not merely the “immense military establishment and a large arms industry” of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s valedictory speech but the huge number of people in America and overseas who benefit from war or the promise of it.21 This includes much of Congress, the think tanks, and media outlets, and extends to individuals such as university professors on defense contracts—all part of the militarization of U.S. society and its reconfiguration as a national security state.22
A crucial, but overlooked, component of this broader concept of the military-industrial complex is NATO—the European arm complementing the Western Pacific alliance stretching from South Korea down to Australasia produced by the Korean War, encircling imperial America’s enemies. NATO was established purportedly to defend Western Europe against “Soviet expansionism,” but when the Soviet Union collapsed it promptly reinvented itself, including going “abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” attacking Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and Libya. Crucially, despite promises, it expanded eastward, threatening the Russian Federation and precipitating the Ukraine War.23 When Lord Ismay roundly rejected a proposal from the Soviet Union in 1954 that it join NATO he revealed that “keeping the Russians out” had a deeper meaning than resisting supposed aggression.24 Nearly a half-century later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was talk of Russia joining NATO. President Vladimir Putin said “Why not?” and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “We’re not talking about this right now.”25 A military alliance without an enemy might just wither on the vine, so when there has been a likelihood of peace breaking out—an acerbic comment that Stone needed to use frequently—there is always an intervention to exorcise that danger. The spirit of MacArthur lives on.
America’s wars, and quasi-wars, are driven by a mix of geopolitical calculation, domestic politics, and the hunger for personal and corporate profit. There is a pervading tension between desire and fear: the desire to control the world—showing leadership is a favorite euphemism—and the fear of the consequences of war. The struggle between MacArthur and Truman exemplified that, but it constantly manifests itself today. Should the campaign against Russia in Ukraine be limited to a proxy war? Can a limited war over Taiwan stop the rise of China? Elbridge Colby, a war strategist in the Trump administration and author of The Strategy of Denial, apparently thinks so.26 He argues that U.S. allies can be bound by a constructed fear of China to provide active support, that China can be manipulated into “firing the first shot,” and that the resulting war would be limited to the Western Pacific, where the buffer states—Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Taiwan—would bear the costs in casualties and damage. China would suffer a bloody nose that would halt its challenge to U.S. hegemony.27 This is a dangerous fallacy argue others: because of local military superiority China is likely to win such a conflict, which would propel the United States to escalate. A limited war is a fantasy.28
Thus, the issues that Stone worked to decipher seventy years ago are still with us. Much has changed in the meantime, sometimes substantially—the Soviet Union downsizing to the Russian Federation and the rise of China—and sometimes superficially. Decipher is the operative word because today Stone would readily recognize the veil of deception that is used to mask the actions of states and the powerful. Few things are as they seem, or as they are presented. Governments lie to the enemy, but most of all to their own people. The Internet and social media have transformed the information environment in profound ways but the fundamental challenge of penetrating the veil of deception remains. Stone’s pioneering attempt to unearth the hidden history of the Korean War is both a guide to deciphering and an inspiration.
1. Isidor Feinstein Stone called himself “Izzy,” and that’s how he was known to his friends. However, in 1937, when overt antisemitism had not become unfashionable, he published under the anodyne byline I. F. Stone. This is how he appears on the cover of this book, and how he is known to the world. But here we feel it appropriate to revert to Izzy.
2. Joe Lauria and Robert Scheer, “No Such Thing as Dissent in the Age of Big Tech,” Consortium News, May 6, 2022.
3. I. F. Stone, The Hidden History of the Korean War (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2023), 11.
4. I. F. Stone, “New Light on the Korean Mystery: Was the War No Surprise to Chiang Kai-shek?,” appendix to Stone, Hidden History. See also Bruce Cumings’s discussion in his introduction to Hidden History (New York: Little Brown & Co., 1988).
5. Stuart Rees, “The Human Catastrophe in Yemen: What a Contrast to Our Media Focus on Ukraine,” Pearls and Irritations, July 14, 2022, johnmenadue.com.
6. Hidden History, 272.
7. Hidden History, 273.
8. Hidden History, 274.
9. Hidden History, 274.
10. Hidden History, 296.
11. We follow the convention here, as does Stone, of using the Western name order for Rhee, and Asian name order for Chiang. Stone uses the Portuguese name for the island of Taiwan, Formosa, but because the Chinese name is standard we have used it.
12. Hidden History, 362.
13. Henry R. Luce, “American Century,” Life, February 17, 1941, personal.umich.edu/~mlassite; Daniel Bessner, “Empire Burlesque: What Comes after the American Century?,” Harper’s, July 2022.
14. Gar Alperovitz, “Hiroshima: Historians Reassess,” Foreign Policy, no. 99 (Summer 1995): 15–34; Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (New York: Vintage, 1996).
15. Jang-hie Lee, “In Name Only: The United Nations Command and U.S. Unilateralism in Korea,” Korea Policy Institute, July 1, 2020, org.
16. Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, “Biden Enlists Asian Partners for Unprecedented Russia Sanctions Plans,” Foreign Policy (blog), February 22, 2022; Axel de Vernou, “No Pivot: The U.S. Can’t Take on China Without Europe,” National Interest, July 18, 2022.
17. John Kifner, “John Service, a Purged ‘China Hand,’ Dies at 89,” New York Times, February 4, 1999.
18. See “Hastings Ismay, 1st Baron Ismay,” Wikipedia.
19. Christoph Bluth, “Ukraine: US Deploys More Troops in Eastern Europe—Here’s How It Compares with the Cold War,” The Conversation, July 1, 2022.
20. Hidden History, 233.
21. Dwight D. Eisenhower, “Farewell Address to the Nation,” National Archives, Washington, D.C., January, 17, 1961, gov.
22. Marcus G. Raskin, “Democracy versus the National Security State,” Law and Contemporary Problems 40, no. 3 (Summer 1976): 189–220; William Hartung and Mandy Smithberger, “How the National Security State Has Come to Dominate a ‘Civilian’ Government,” Common Dreams, January 28, 2021, org.
23. John J. Mearsheimer, “Why the Ukraine Crisis Is the West’s Fault: The Liberal Delusions That Provoked Putin,” Foreign Affairs 93, no. 5 (2014): 77–84, 85–89; Jack F. Matlock Jr., “Ukraine Crisis Should Have Been Avoided,” Consortium News, February 17, 2022.
24. Lord Hastings Ismay, “Russian Admission to NATO,” April 1, 1954, nato.int.
25. George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, “Press Conference by President Bush and Russian Federation President Putin,” White House, Washington, D.C., June 16, 2001, georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov.
26. Elbridge Colby, The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2021).
27. Laurence H. Shoup, “Giving War a Chance,” Monthly Review 74, no. 1 (May 2022): 18–34; Clyde Prestowitz, “As the U.S. and China Continue to Posture, the Key Will Be Taiwan,” Washington Post, October 29, 2021.
28. Graham Allison and Jonah Glick-Unterman, “The Great Military Rivalry: China vs the U.S.,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, December 16, 2021.
Tim Beal is a retired New Zealand academic with a special interest in U.S. imperialism, mainly with respect to Asia. He is the author of North Korea: The Struggle Against American Power (Pluto Press, 2005), Crisis in Korea: America, China, and the Risk of War (Pluto Press, 2011) and numerous articles. He has traveled to North and South Korea and is chair of the NZ-DPRK Society. His website, Asian Geopolitics, has more information.
Gregory Elich is a Korea Policy Institute board member. He is a contributor to the collection Sanctions as War: Anti-Imperialist Perspectives on American Geo-Economic Strategy (Haymarket Books, 2022), and his work frequently appears on Counterpunch. His website is gregoryelich.org and he can be followed on Twitter at @GregoryElich.
This is a reprint of the introduction to the new edition of The Hidden History of the Korean War by I. F. Stone (Monthly Review Press, 2022).