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GRAPHIC:  Also in every issueLETTERS
…the Magazine’s constant air of self-congratulation…

While utterly without worth as history or policy prescription, Professor Bruce Cumings’s conciliatory views on North Korea as expressed in Soo Ji Min’s December/03 article, “Zone of Contention,” do serve one valuable purpose: They remind us how many highly intelligent and supposedly well-meaning people, from Vice President Henry Wallace on, deliberately blinded themselves and others to the horrific threat posed by the genocidal killer Josef Stalin and his blustering, thieving, nuclear-armed successors in the Soviet leadership.

Just as Wallace and his academic acolytes among the Cold War revisionists did for Stalin, Cumings seeks to obscure the true nature and intentions of the North Korean regime by explaining away its responsibility for the Korean War and the continuing highly dangerous armed standoff on the Korean Peninsula. Incredibly, Cumings flatly denies the Communist regime’s own brazen flaunting of the fact that it has trampled the 1994 Agreed Framework and is now well on the way to acquiring nuclear weapons. Only thus can the professor assure us that all will be well in Korea if only the Americans will end their wicked “occupation” of the free and prosperous South.

Cumings complains that some people see his views as mere “opinion” rather than the expert wisdom he obviously believes them to be. As always, George Orwell put it best: “You have to be an intellectual to believe such nonsense. No ordinary man could be such a fool.”

Martin J. Gidron, AB’91
Salisbury, Maryland

I was taken back by “Zone of Contention.” Is Professor Bruce Cumings really still wondering who started the Korean War in 1950?

As part of his research, he might ask the opinions of the families of the more than 50,000 American service men and women who gave their lives so that an independent South Korean nation might survive. Does Professor Cumings believe that had the North Korean invasion succeeded, Joseph Stalin would have called for elections? Or that the people of South Korea would have been better off?

I think it is fair to say that the “five minutes [in his own words] that most Americans spend thinking about it in their lifetime” seem to be far superior quality time than that spent by Professor Cumings.

Ken Todd, MBA’63
Guilford, Connecticut

Bruce Cumings’s opinions on the Korean War raise a number of issues not only about the war but also about the integrity of academia and the University of Chicago. First, Cumings states condescendingly that the knowledge of the average American on the Korean War is limited to: “the Korean war started on June 25, 1950 and ended on July 27, 1953....”

Well, the average American also knows that the war was orchestrated by Stalin, a fact which Cumings claims not to have known despite his years of research. So I’ll go with the average American. It reminds me of a New York Times article in the late 1980s making the startling revelation that Castro had been a Communist all along. Somehow the average redneck figured this out in the 1950s.

Some issues with respect to the Korean War need discussion: from Khrushchev and other sources we now know that a primary component of Stalin’s decision was his lack of respect for Harry Truman, whom he termed “worthless,” an opinion with which Khrushchev concurred.

If the U.S. had used its full powers to retain control of all of North Korea and united it with South Korea and also delivered a blow to the Chinese communists, would the Marxists have learned a lesson and not prosecuted the Vietnam War? Instead we gave a clear message to the Soviets that they could conduct surrogate wars with no risk.

Doug Wood, MBA’75
Houston, Texas

Re: “Zone of Contention.” The fact is that Bruce Cumings’s analysis of the Korean conflict has been proven more wrong with every new discovery in the archives, as your article mentioned but failed to note with the centrality it deserves. But he is the sort of revisionist historian for whom contrary evidence is readily dismissed as actually providing evidence for his own position. As Mark Lilla, another U of C professor, observes in The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics (New York Review of Books, 2003) this is a typical problem with people so totally captive to an ideological view of reality; and here Cumings and the Kims, father and son, share something in common. Good historians ache for the release of more archival data, but one imagines Cumings anticipates it with wincing trepidation.

Many of us regret the brutal military junta that ran South Korea, with U.S. support and encouragement, over the vast majority of the past half century. The U.S. does indeed have a butcher’s bill to pay. But no one can claim—and I note Cumings does not—that the South’s blood tally bears measuring against that of the North. When the murderous regime in the North collapses, as some of us hope it does (and soon), we can only hope that enough records survive the anarchy that follows to show conclusively that—like apologists for the Nazis, apologists for the Soviet Union, apologists for Maoist China, and apologists for the Khmer Rouge—Cumings’s positions reflect not reality but a particular ideological narrative.

Of course, we can’t expect Cumings to accept this view, but perhaps the Magazine would consider writing another story, evaluating the claims he makes today, when all the facts are known. It would certainly be more educational, and more worthy of the U of C’s critical sensibilities, than the bland, overcooked cabbage this story offers.

Charles Mathewes, AM’92, PhD’97
Charlottesville, Virginia

Bruce Cumings responds: All four letters are knee-jerk responses by people who combine attacks on my integrity as an historian with routine anti-communist views that have been around since the war started in 1950, but have no relation to what scholars know from years of archival research in formerly secret documents. Even the most conservative historians now know that Kim Il Sung’s role was much greater than Stalin’s in the invasion, and that Stalin sought first to restrain him and then refused to give him the military support he needed to take over the South—we know this from documents that came out after the USSR collapsed. But I don’t see the need to point this out to people who really have no interest in learning anything new about the Korean War, but are grinding anti-communist axes in the wrong century.

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