New Book Reviews: Espionage in Republican China, and Britain’s Role in the Korean War

My two new book reviews engage with the intelligence history of two chaotic decades in China, and the British role in the Korean War, respectively.

Review of Panagiotis Dimitrakis, The Secret War for China: Espionage, Revolution and the Rise of Mao (London: I.B. Tauris, 2017).

Forthcoming in War in History (submitted 10 March 2018)

Panagiotis Dimitrakis has clearly had a lot of fun compiling this book, which ranges restlessly through a quarter-century of intelligence history in China as revealed in US and British archives and a tranche of secondary scholarly literature. Although the book is flawed by an unwillingness to advance a thesis or even stick to a main idea (other than ‘anything having to do with spying’), the sheer volume of unique anecdotes and research passion on display make it a worthwhile resource for historians.

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[…] The book is absolutely packed with little revelations, nuggets from the archives, plans that never came to fruition, colourful personalities who glimmer up and then disappear, bureaucratic clashes and international intrigue, along with a handful of insights into how leaders in given countries concerned with China may have sought to further national interest via espionage.

Dimitrakis is in his element in describing Anglo-American tensions over spy operations based in China’s wartime capital of Chongqing/Chungking. In Chapter 8, focusing on the difficulty of British intelligence agencies operating in China, Dimitrakis notes: ‘British intelligence could not cope with the intelligence requirements for the coverage of the Sino-Japanese war…[and] throughout the interwar the SIS (MI6) had meagre secret sources in Asia’ (101-102). Britain’s spies in the Far East were more focused on perceived internal Chinese threats (both communist and nationalist) in colonies like Hong Kong and Singapore than they were on assessing Japanese moves in the region. Even once the war between China and Japan kicked off in earnest in summer 1937, British agents were more reliant on traders coming into Hong Kong from war zones than they were on outward-reaching missions.

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Review of Ian McClaine, A Korean Conflict: The Tensions between Britain and America (London: I.B. Tauris, 2015). 

Published in War in History Vol. 25, No. 1 (January 2018), 143-144.

[…] To arrive, then, at a new historical treatment of Anglo-US relations focused around another deadly war with foggy parameters – Korea —  is to probe at questions which surpass some of the standard bogeymen or foci of traditional historiography. After all, absent access to enemy archives, how many revelations are really left to be discovered about General Douglas MacArthur stepping out of the chain of command, the approaching hammer blows of Chinese intervention, or the controversies over communist ‘brainwashing’ of US/UN prisoners of war? It is in the delving into less certain terrain where more interesting research outcomes can be gained. Such terrain might include how unthinking partitions are harvested, questions of dissent and surveillance on the home front, of the stresses of fighting a war that seems most active in the psychological or propaganda front, all stemming from a morphing battle space inundated with a multitude of confusing allegiances, all under the shadow of possible and actual Russian interference.

[…]  Probably most interesting is Chapter Four, ‘A war by any other name,’ a small gem of a chapter which delves into questions of the legality of the war in British government eyes, and with how to handle British dissenters. The former question leans on a paper circulated by the British Attorney-General in September 1950 which said that ‘international law does not recognise a kind of twilight condition in which collective enforcement action is taken under the aegis of the United Nations.’ (p. 150) With respect to treason, the author writes up the well-known cases of Alan Winnington and Monica Felton, both of whom travelled within North Korea as guests of the DPRK during the conflict and who published harsh critiques of US/UN war conduct. But McClaine also delves into dissent expressed by established ex-Foreign Office figures like Sir John Pratt, Vice-Chairman of the Board of Governors of the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1951, who believed that the South Korean leader Syngman Rhee had ignited the war on the peninsula in collusion with the United States. Pratt laid out these views in an extensive speaking schedule across the United Kingdom, a 1951 pamphlet entitled ‘Korea: The Lie that Led to War’ and in an unpublished letter to the Daily Telegraph.

Image credit: US National Archives, College Park. 


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