On three reasons to better engage with one of the 20th century’s more under-remembered conflicts.
1) The Soldiers: I would hope this would go without saying in any AmericanStudies (and any American) conversation, but I’ll say it anyway as clearly as I can: every military conflict is worth remembering as fully as possible for all those who served and sacrificed in it. In the case of the U.S. involvement in the Korean War (and obviously every individual from every nation is worth commemorating, but this blog is AmericanStudies after all), that means the more than 1.75 million Americans who served, the more than 35,000 who were killed, the more than 100,000 wounded, and the more than 7000 POWs. I wrote a few days back in this series about the frustrating gaps in our collective memory between the Vietnam War and the Korean War, and certainly that extends to our need to better remember both the casualties and the veterans of the latter conflict.
2) The Stakes: In that same earlier post on MacArthur and Truman, I criticized the idea—shared by those two men, despite their vast and vital differences—that the Korean conflict was necessarily a proxy war in the broader Cold War battle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union/China/communism. I stand by that critique, but the fact of the matter is that all those governments did share that perspective (as it seems did the United Nations, at least in part), which made the stakes of this conflict just as high as (for example) those in the Cuban Missile Crisis a decade later. That is, if things had gone differently, and more exactly worse, in the war’s final events and resolutions, it very easily could have triggered a more genuinely global and destructive conflict, and that makes this moment as worthy of collective memory as the Missile Crisis and any other Cold War pressure points.
3) Today: I don’t imagine I need to dwell at length here on the outsized role that North Korea has played in both world affairs and U.S. foreign policy over the last decade. That’s certainly due, as most everything (and certainly every bad thing) from this period has been, to the frustrating and destructive influence of one Donald J. Trump. But it’s also a result of a number of legacies of the Korean War: the DMZ and the fraught and fragile relationship between North and South Korea; North Korea’s continued insistence that it won the war and thus that the South is already part of its unification of the peninsula; enduring tensions with both China and the United States over those histories and legacies alike. One of my main goals in both this blog and all my public scholarship is to link the past to the present, to help us understand the latter as we better remember the former, and no history is more relevant to the present than that of the Korean War.
July Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Any other Korean War contexts you’d highlight?