Reading Cummings…

“The Origins of the Korean War (Volume I): Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes 1945-1947” is a very dense book, covering only two years between the end of World War II and the start of the path to the Korean war. Oh.. it covers this in a scant 444 pages that don’t include the additional 100 or so pages of notes and then a few more pages of bibliography and index.

But reading it was interesting because I had heard Cumings (Mr. Author) described as a “left wing” historian. And I must admit that in some venues he seems entirely silly and a borderline commie apologist – his writing on North Korea seem positively idiotic (LINK HAS ROTTED). Yet as I read this history I see him as even-handedly assessing the goals of all interested parties. While he doesn’t at all apologize for decisions the United States made, and clearly deliniates where they led, he also explains the strategic reason for which each one was taken. Cumings extends this approach to all players. On page 143, for instance, he explains the bind the United States was in with respect to governance. He quotes US intelligence noting that Koreans wanted the Japanese out, but that the Japanese had so crippled Korea that there was a lack of appropriate (by Western standards) employees for high-level jobs. Cumings doesn’t routinely suggest that resulting approaches (in this case the US hanging on to Japanese administrators) were wrong.. in fact he seems resigned to the fact that they were inevitable.

He has similarly good analyses of things like the US landing in Korea and how it appeared to Koreans when the US allowed the Japanese to line the streets with their troops to greet us.

All of these specific historical pieces are placed in the context of changes in the international political climate (from Roosevelt’s optomistic internationalism to post-war parsing up of states) and Cumings is always careful to try to show how the “on the ground” responses appeared to Koreans.

Is this left wing history? It might be as I look at arguments over Iraq. Anyone who gives credit to the beliefs of “locals” is viewed with suspicion. Only hegemonic goals (though arguments may rage over how hegemony should be administered) are granted importance and locals are only valued to the extent their goals are commensurate with the hegemonic ones.

Now I am depressed.


Because I just wrote an analysis in the language of a Political Science Major.. the only graduate who works below the English Major in the land of supersizing that order.