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Book Review: Odd Man Out: Truman, Stalin, Mao and the Origins of the Korean War (by Richard C. Thornton) : MHQ

Originally published on Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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Odd Man Out: Truman, Stalin, Mao and the Origins of the Korean War, by Richard C. Thornton, Brassey's, $29.95.

Richard C. Thornton, an international affairs author, has written a book that contains a carefully crafted conclusion about how and why the Korean War came about and a set of intriguing speculations on American spycraft during the late 1940s and early 1950s.

There is little doubt where the author stands on who instigated the brutal and bloody North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950. Thornton presents a strong case that Soviet leader Josef Stalin triggered the war and determined how and when it would be fought. The author believes Stalin's motive was to prevent a friendly relationship between the United States and China, and to make the latter dependent on the Soviet Union. In Thornton's view the results,however, proved disastrous for the Kremlin. The war provoked the rearming of the United States to such an extent that American arms overshadowed Soviet military strength. And, a series of treaties and agreements between Washington and many of the Soviet Union's neighbors produced a ring of potential enemies around the Soviet bloc.

Thornton makes the case that the war proved just as detrimental to China as it did to the Soviet Union. Beijing became isolated, a circumstance that crippled the nation economically and delayed development for decades. Additionally, the war ensured the continued division of China. With the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the waters off Taiwan, there would be no opportunity for Mao to conquer Formosa and dispense with his Nationalist enemies.

The author's interesting speculations deal with what President Harry S. Truman knew about communications between Stalin, Mao, and North Korean leader Kim Il Sung. Prior to the war, a cable from Mao to his lieutenant Liu Shaoqi authorized the opening of diplomatic relations with the United States. This communication was quickly followed by Secretary of State Dean Acheson's formulation of a tempting offer to Beijing. Thornton surmises that the sequence of events was not coincidental and that the United States was reading Mao's mail.

The author also brings up a similar incident with a cable from Stalin to Kim Il Sung authorizing the beginning of the war. Within forty-eight hours, Thornton claims, Truman made the decision to proceed with development of the hydrogen bomb and directed the formulation of a new U.S. strategy. This, of course, if true, would be a terrible accusation against the American president since U.S. forces at the time were in no condition to fight the war they were eventually required to prosecute. A third speculation deals with an exchange of cables between Stalin and Mao and Mao and Kim Il Sung in October 1950. A subsequent order from the president to General Douglas MacArthur is cited by Thornton as indicating Truman was again reading the communications between the Communistleaders.

Rod Paschall

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