Wright discusses perception of war
By Claire Groden, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Former College President James Wright returned to his historian roots on Monday, presenting a lecture on the “vast disconnect” between veterans’ and the American public’s perceptions of the Korean War. Wright recounted the story of a Korean War veteran who was denied entrance to his upstate New York Veterans of Foreign Wars club because “he was not a veteran of what they called a war,” as an example of the Korean War’s under-acknowledgment in United States history and public conscience.
Throughout the Korean War, American news accounts of Korea were “spotty,” which led to a national sentiment of “puzzled pessimism,” Wright said. Although over 37,000 Americans died during the fighting in Korea, Americans struggled to grasp the scale of the conflict. Their lack of comprehension resulted from both the recent memory of World War II and the the Korean War’s complexity and distance from the United States, he said.
“In many ways, the Korean War has been shut out of the American narrative,” Wright said.
Faced with the American public’s indifference, many Korean War veterans resigned themselves to the general national mood, Wright said.
The majority of U.S. citizens today do not appreciate the significance of the war, Wright said. As a result of national indifference, the country failed to learn essential lessons that would have been applicable to contemporary wars, he said.
“There is a line that follows from Korea to Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq that needs to be filled in and underlined,” Wright said.
Since the Korean War, the United States has involved itself in land wars in Asia “without any territorial objectives,” he said. The lack of clarity that characterized U.S. strategy in Korea has continued throughout the following three wars, all of which have been influenced by political constraints, Wright said.
“Since Korea, all of our extended military engagements have been marked by imprecise and changing objectives,” Wright said.
Wright drew parallels between the decline of public support for the Korean War and the vacillating American opinion regarding the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Despite the potential lessons that can be learned from the Korean War, “it is hard to learn much from that which we forget,” Wright said. He emphasized that the country’s lack of critical thinking regarding the Korean War has limited its ability to learn from history.
Wright is currently writing a history book about U.S. wars that will include the recent conflict in Afghanistan. The book is slated to be published in spring 2012, according to Ann Hargraves, president of the Institute for Lifelong Education at Dartmouth, which sponsored Monday’s lecture, titled “The Place of the Korean War in American History,” and held in Silsby Hall.
ILEAD is designed to encourage lifelong learning across the Upper Valley community, Hargraves said. Although its events are open to “people of any age,” they tend to attract an older audience because many of the events occur during the day when students are busy and young adults are at work, she said.
ILEAD asked Wright to speak because he is a “very renowned historian,” Hargraves said, adding that she hopes Wright will deliver additional lectures in the future.