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The War for Korea, 1950–1951: They Came From the North

by Allan R. Millett, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 2010, $45

This is the second volume of a trilogy on the origins and course of the Korean conflict. Millett, winner of the 2008 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award, has already established himself as the dean of living American military historians. His first volume covered the origins of the conflict. This volume recounts the North’s invasion of the South and the American, Chinese and Soviet response to a conflict that could well have precipitated World War III but which certainly played a crucial role in forming the American response to the Cold War.

And yet the Korean War has almost disappeared from America’s consciousness. For nearly 50 years, T.R. Fehrenbach’s This Kind of War (1963) has remained the foremost study of the Korean War. Millett’s stellar work has now emerged as the other great work on the conflict. One reason is that Millett had access to original sources simply not available in the early 1960s.

Millett has been writing on this forgotten war since the early 1990s, when he took what was to become an annual summer trek from Ohio State to the Republic of Korea. There, with help from colleagues and friends, Millett laid out the Korean side of the war. Among other contributions, he underlines the heroism of South Korean soldiers, who—though poorly armed, ill-trained and often badly led—enabled sufficient UN forces to reach the peninsula.

Millett also employed his formidable research skills to paint the larger canvas of this ferocious conflict. A masterful military historian, he provides the reader with a clear account of the North Korean invasion, the American response to hold the peninsula, the amphibious landing at Inchon and subsequent drive to the Yalu and, finally, the Chinese intervention, which ultimately led to the June 1951 stalemate.

Millett has written a strategic history of the war’s first year, providing the reader with a clear picture of decision making in Washington, New York, London, Moscow and Beijing. But it is his capacity to relate the harsh reality of the battlefield—from the bitter fights of the humid Korean summer to the arctic cold of battles along the Yalu—that makes this great history.


Originally published in the November 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here