Korean War Anniversary: An Educator’s Look at What Our History Textbooks Ignore

By Glenn Sacks

This week marks the 69th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. Few Americans know that President Truman misled us into an unnecessary war in which 35,000 Americans, 600,000 Chinese, and 2.5 million Koreans died. They don’t know in part because our history textbooks don’t tell us the full story.

During WWII, the US and the Soviet Union agreed that upon Japan’s surrender, Korea, which had been a Japanese colony since 1910, would be divided at the 38th parallel into a Northern, pro-Soviet sector and a Southern, pro-American sector.

The Soviets installed the Korean communists into power, led by former anti-Japanese guerrilla leader Kim Il Sung. Though a dictatorship, the communists had credibility and support because of their long struggle to win Korea’s independence from Japan. The US installed Korean exile Syngman Rhee, who had lived in the US from 1912 to 1945. The rest of Rhee’s government and police force were largely Koreans who had been collaborators with the colonial Japanese regime.

Rhee perpetrated horrific massacres of pro-Communist South Koreans, including the Jeju Massacre (1948-1949), in which up to 30,000 Koreans were killed, and the detention, torture, and subsequent murder of 100,000 to 200,000 suspected Korean communists in the Bodo League massacre.

Bruce Cumings, former chair of the history department at the University of Chicago and author of Korean War, refers to the regime’s “atrocious massacres…our ostensibly democratic ally was the worst offender, contrary to the American image of the North Koreans as fiendish terrorists.”

The Rhee regime was authoritarian, corrupt, and widely seen as an artificial creation of the US. Ignoring American warnings, the megalomaniacal Rhee foolishly launched military raids against the North. Amid border skirmishes and both sides threatening to unify the country by force, the North invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. While the North was not unreasonable to take this step, American leaders, media, and our history textbooks portray the modern history of Korea as largely beginning with this invasion. Without historical context, South Korea appears to be the victim of aggression.

Though the South had twice the population of the North, the conscript South Korean army was routed, and many soldiers deserted or defected to the North, which came close to taking over the entire peninsula. After General Douglas MacArthur’s landing at Inchon, the US pushed North towards the Chinese border, leading China to enter the war.

The war from that point was a stalemate. What our history textbooks ignore are the horrific results of the US air war. Air Force General Curtis LeMay, head of the US Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, said:

“[W]e killed off…20 percent of the population…We…burned down every town in North Korea.”

Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk recalled “we were bombing every brick that was standing on top of another, everything that moved.”

In August 1951, war correspondent Tibor Meráy saw “complete devastation between the Yalu River and the capital…[there were] no more cities in North Korea.”

According to the Asia-Pacific Journal:

“By the fall of 1952, there were no effective targets left for US planes to hit. Every significant town, city and industrial area in North Korea had already been bombed. In the spring of 1953, the Air Force targeted irrigation dams on the Yalu River, both to destroy the North Korean rice crop and to pressure the Chinese, who would have to supply more food aid to the North. Five reservoirs were hit, flooding thousands of acres of farmland, inundating whole towns and laying waste to the essential food source for millions of North Koreans.”

U.S. planes dropped more bombs on the Korean peninsula— 635,000 tons — and more napalm — 32,557 tons — than against Japan during World War II.

Cumings says the US “carpet-bombed the north for three years with next to no concern for civilian casualties.”

Then British Prime Minister Winston Churchill condemned the US’ widespread use of napalm as being "very cruel,” saying the US was "tortur[ing] great masses of people" by "splashing it all over the civilian population.” He explained, “Napalm ought not to be used in the way it is being done by the American Forces.”

None of this is mentioned in major high school history textbooks.

Americans are rightly repulsed by Kim Jong-un’s brutal and bizarre dictatorship, and his aggressive bombast and pursuit of nuclear weapons seem inexplicable. Yet viewed in proper historical context, it’s not hard to understand how Kim is able to rally his people around his regime by playing upon their very legitimate fears of another war with the US. How should we expect North Koreans to feel when our president threatens them with “fire,” “fury,” and “power, the likes of which this world has never seen before”?