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The discourse of Korea’s failed history has been mostly a production of Japanese colonial scholarship, but the early texts that American authors produced were what guided the Western understanding of Korean history during the long 20th Century. Despite the importance of these texts that left significant imprints on later academic works and policy decisions, scholars have not as yet examined properly the American discourse of failure in Korean history. This article analyzes the representative American books on Korean history of authors William E. Griffis and Homer B. Hulbert to describe the emergence of the American discourse of Korea’s failed history in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. It argues that early American authors of accounts of Korean history wrote them in a specific narrative structure that depicted Korea’s past as a story of gradual decline that ended with failure. These works identify three major themes – isolation, victimization, and dependency – as explanations for why Korea failed. Then, the article examines the doctoral dissertations of Harold J. Noble and George M. McCune to show how this early narrative framework during the 1930s and the 1940s continued thereafter to shape U.S. understanding of Korea even into the 1950s, informing both policymakers and scholars.

In: Journal of American-East Asian Relations