In This Review

Pacific Passage: The Study of American-East Asian Relations on the Eve of the Twenty-First Century
Pacific Passage: The Study of American-East Asian Relations on the Eve of the Twenty-First Century
Edited by Warren I. Cohen
Columbia University Press, 1996, 407 pp

Like most conference volumes, this collection of essays by American and Asian historians has its high and low points. The high point is a brief epilogue by the distinguished Harvard historian Ernest May, who points out that over the past two centuries, the trend in American-East Asian relations has been a progression from exploitation and conflict toward cooperation. In his finely textured analysis, May points out that exploitation ran both ways, and most often the United States, though the stronger power, did not get more than it gave. Chinese officials manipulated the greed, illusions, and ignorance of Americans to pit them against other "barbarians." And the American commitment to contain China during the Cold War gave Southeast Asian elites enormous leverage. May concludes by spelling out the preconditions for future cooperative relationships.

The low point of the volume is Bruce Cumings' tendentious account of Korean-American relations. While May convincingly demonstrates that Asians were quite capable of manipulating -- and even outmanipulating -- the foreigners, Cumings portrays Koreans as perennially exploited by nefarious outsiders, particularly Americans. Instead of analyzing the complex interactions between Kim Il Sung, Mao, Stalin, and the Americans that led to the Korean War, Cumings simply asserts that it is Cold War thinking to see the North Korean invasion of South Korea as reckless war-making. The Americans, after all, had "set up a quasi-colonial government of Koreans staffed from the hirelings of Japanese imperialism," and therefore were at least as much to blame. In recent years, the American media "mindlessly repeated Pentagon and White House caricatures of North Korea" and its " 'nuclear bomb' " (his quotation marks). Even National Public Radio circulated "wild charges" about the North concentrating 70 percent of its army on the border. So much for the United States' real problems with North Korea, or any real insights into North Korean totalitarianism, or any genuine understanding of the give-and-take between the United States and Korea, which May's kind of history invites