From a Cold War literary and cultural studies perspective, the Korean War (1950–1953) is a distinctive moment in US cultural history. This essay proposes that there are two broad phases of Korean War literature: the first phase is work written in the 1950s and early 1960s generally by white, male Americans who fought in the war, reported on the war, or had some other ties to the US military. Work of this phase renders the Korean War in terms of the bipolar global imaginary dictated by the Cold War: even as this imaginary is ultimately unsuitable for capturing the complexities of the war, writers of the first phase understand Korea’s meaning only in terms of US political imperatives. The second phase, marked by Richard E. Kim’s The Martyred (1964) but not gaining traction until the 1980s and 1990s, is work generally written by first- or second-generation Korean Americans who either experienced the war directly or explored the cultural memory of a war that, some scholars have argued, is a precondition of the very idea of Korean Americanness. Work of this phase begins with the premise that the US framing of the Korean War is damaging, and as such is marked by meta-engagements with the Cold War rhetorical frame that shift the meaning of the war away from US claims about it. The category of “Korean War literature” changes how we understand “Cold War literature” and therefore post-1945 American literature and culture.

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