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Home > The Courses > Course Home Pages > Guide to Korean War Resources

Guide to Korean War Resources

by Scott Kaufman
Francis Marion University
Florence, South Carolina

One must wonder if the Korean War can still safely be called the "forgotten war." Although Korea does not receive as much attention as World Wars I and II or the Vietnam War, the opening of new materials, particularly from the Soviet and Chinese archives, has led to a dramatic increase in the number of books on this topic. In turn, educators wishing to spend several lectures, or even entire courses, on the Korean War will have a significant amount of material to which to turn.

Primary and Secondary Background Resources
This first step in being able to teach well about the war is to become knowledgeable in some of the current historical literature. There are at present several good texts on the Korean War, all of them entitled The Korean War. Max Hastings's book, though relatively old, remains a solid piece of work and quite readable. William Stueck has published an international history of the war, but its detail would likely confuse AP students. (Even upper-level college undergraduates sometimes find it daunting.) I personally would recommend the second edition of Burton Kaufman's The Korean War. For those readers who notice the common last name, yes, there is a relation, but I do not recommend his work for that reason. Kaufman's book is not only very accessible to AP- and freshmen-level students, but it incorporates much of the latest information on the Korean conflict.

Educators who want to teach about the war can also turn to numerous other secondary works covering the American, Soviet, Chinese, and Korean perspectives from such scholars as Bevin Alexander, Peter Lowe, Chen Jian, Paul Pierpaoli, Zhang Shu Guang, A. N. Lankov, James Matray, Roy E. Appleman, Charles K. Armstrong, Dae-Sook Suh, and Zhang Xiaoming. Popular magazines from the day are also a good source of information and are often available in bound volumes at nearby university libraries. Teachers can also find useful information in the memoirs of individuals such as Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Dean Acheson, Matthew Ridgway, and Douglas MacArthur.

Multimedia Resources
There are a number of Web sites on the Korean War, many of them devoted to the armed forces during, and veterans of, the conflict. One site that I feel deserves special mention, however, is Korea +50: No Longer Forgotten, a joint project of the Truman and Eisenhower presidential libraries. It includes online exhibits, materials from conferences, archival documents, oral histories related to the war, and a timeline. Another useful site is the U.S. Military Academy's atlas collection, which provides detailed maps of wartime operations.

Videos on the Korean War remain limited. The History Channel's four-part The Korean War: Fire and Ice is a fantastic documentary on the war. Korea: The Forgotten War, hosted by Robert Stack, focuses primarily on the American armed forces' activities and at times overburdens the viewer with detail regarding the movements of specific military units. CNN's The Cold War has some information on the Korean conflict. Documentaries and films on major figures of the time, including Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, Mao Zedong, Syngman Rhee, and Kim Il-sung could prove useful. There are also a number of popular movies on the war that educators might want to look at, including Pork Chop Hill, M*A*S*H, Steel Helmet, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, and The Manchurian Candidate. Of course, these must be used with caution.

Interpretation and Teaching Strategies
One point that anyone teaching the Korean War in detail must emphasize is that it was a case of the Cold War superimposed upon a civil war. The civil war aspect of the conflict in Korea has been best dealt with by Bruce Cumings in his two-volume The Origins of the Korean War. (The first half of his book Korea's Place in the Sun provides a shorter version of his two-volume work.) While Cumings's revisionist interpretation as to who started the Korean War has been discredited by the latest scholarly work, his argument that the Korean conflict was first and foremost a civil conflict remains valid. One note: Cumings's works are all large and detailed, and would be more than AP high school students (or college freshmen) could handle. They are a must-read, however, for instructors.

There are a variety of paper assignments AP teachers might consider. One particularly useful assignment asks students to pick a particular episode from the war -- MacArthur's meeting with Truman at Wake Island, the battle at the Chosin Reservoir, MacArthur's recall, the Communist decision to break off the peace talks at Kaesong -- and compare what the newspapers or magazines of the day had to say about that issue with what students learned in class. This assignment allows students to understand that while primary sources are vitally important to understanding history, they may tell only portions of the story or may even get aspects of it wrong.

Another assignment is a paper similar to one I suggested in my article for AP Central, "Teaching the Vietnam War." Since there are still a significantly large number of individuals who lived during the Korean War, students might interview someone who was alive at that time and compare what that person tells them with what they have learned in class. Similar to the newspaper assignment, students learn about the benefits and difficulties of using primary sources, in this case oral history.

As noted, the two World Wars and Vietnam receive more attention than Korea in U.S. history classes. But Korea had a significant impact upon the Cold War, domestic U.S. politics, and the affairs of the U.S.'s Communist adversaries, and therefore deserves attention. Hopefully, instructors and professors can use the information I have provided not only to point out the importance of the Korean War, but to guarantee that it no longer remains "forgotten."


Scott Kaufman is an assistant professor of history at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina, where he teaches courses in U.S. foreign policy and twentieth-century U.S. military history, including a class on the Vietnam War.





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