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Comment of the day: The obstacles to digitizing records of the Korean War

This note was posted over the weekend by Hal Barker of the Korean War Project in the discussion of Friday’s post about Army War College papers. I was particularly interested in it because until last year, I knew almost nothing about the Korean War. I now wonder if it eventually will be seen as more ...

history.navy.mil
history.navy.mil

This note was posted over the weekend by Hal Barker of the Korean War Project in the discussion of Friday’s post about Army War College papers.

I was particularly interested in it because until last year, I knew almost nothing about the Korean War. I now wonder if it eventually will be seen as more historically significant than the Vietnam War. It was the first hot conflict of the Cold War. It was the emergence of Communist China as a major power. It introduced us to limited war in the nuclear era.

CMH has a substantial series of After Action Reports and monographs, but no mandate to digitize these records. Same with Carlisle Barracks. Korean War records are scattered at many government locations. Researching the Korean War has formidable obstacles.

At the Korean War Project, we recently obtained a set of Marine Corps digital records in a proprietary format created in 1999 but almost unusable for research. We now have over 30,000 pages of those Marine records converted to PDF and will have them online next week. As part of this work, we discovered after the Marine Corps digitized the records, they sent the files to NARA. Through a bureaucratic error, the Marine records were reclassified and cannot be accessed by the public to this day, many years later.

Recently, DOD started a multi-million dollar research project to digitize Korean War Command Reports and Unit Histories. Over 100,000 pages of these records are digitized but have been declared off limits under FOIA under an arcane and unsupportable interpretation of the "Agency Records" case law. Many government agencies consider public records as private property, and use a FOIA denial to create a brick wall requiring a federal court battle to obtain simple public records available at NARA for a quarter a page.

On the good side, we recently obtained access to 30 boxes of Korean War Second Infantry Division records independently obtained in paper form by a veterans group. When these records are digitized, it will be the first time the most blooded Division from Korea will have records online for intense research free of charge.

Who would have thought DOD would deny access to digital Korean War records? This is one of the many reasons why Korea has often been called the Forgotten War.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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