Home / Articles / Review: We Fight for Peace: Twenty-three American Soldiers, Prisoners of War, and “Turncoats” in the Korean War
Brian D. McKnight is an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. His previous books have examined lesser-known aspects of the American Civil War, but in his most recent foray, he has decided to tackle a twentieth-century topic. I find it refreshing when historians move into different chronological periods over their career, although it may be a bias emerging from his own habit of the same behavior. That said, the danger of such a shift is that the newcomer may not be familiar with the literature and context of the new subject, and may make errors that an established expert would avoid. In the current case, McKnight quickly demonstrates that he has mastered the materials available for this narrow topic, and thus, he is well prepared to reacquaint the American public with one of the least-remembered aspects of the so-called Forgotten War. McKnight offers an analysis of twenty-three American prisoners of war (POWs) who chose to remain with their captors at the end of the conflict, rejecting repatriation to the United States. Each had his own reasons for such a momentous decision, and in fact, nearly all of the men who chose to stay eventually opted to leave China, their new home, and return to the United States. Their reception depended largely on their timing—those who returned quickly found an American public in the throes of a Red Scare that was none too forgiving of soldiers who renounced their allegiance to the nation. However, as time passed, so did the drive to punish these men, and most of them were eventually able to resume their lives in the United States as something of an oddity but not necessarily an object of vitriol and scorn.
McKnight begins his study with an overview and background account of the twenty-three POWs. There is no discernible order to the presentation, but there is no compelling reason for why one might be required, other than allowing the reader a bit of an advantage in keeping the stories straight. After establishing their identities, McKnight then examines their military service records, although he is only able to present detailed information about half of his subjects. While pinning down details of the missing individuals might have been impossible, it is likely that the circumstances of each capture might have been determined from the available unit records. Unfortunately, McKnight appears to have bypassed the records of the Eighth US Army in Korea, held by the National Archives, even though he cites other materials from the same facility. Those records contain a wealth of information regarding the POW camps established by the North Koreans and Chinese, and might have filled in many of the gaps in this chapter.
McKnight hits his stride when discussing the captivity conditions in North Korea and how they might have contributed to the decisions of these men to defect. He skillfully interweaves a general examination of the camps with specific details provided by many of his subjects. In addition to showing the terrible conditions, he also illustrates the gradual rise in collaboration by the mass of POWs in enemy hands. These collaboration activities provoked a substantial amount of conflict within the camps, with the Chinese heavily favoring the “Progressives” and heaping additional abuse on the “Reactionaries.” It seems that most, if not all, of the twenty-three deserters deliberately turned on their comrades and engaged in severe acts of self-service to the detriment of their fellow prisoners. For their part, the Chinese captors carefully selected and recruited POWs who they thought might agree to refuse repatriation, supplying a potential propaganda victory for the Communists.