March 2008

Vincent W Rospond


The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam

David Halberstam had the gift of being an old time storyteller trapped in the body of a journalist. Until his untimely death in 2007, he was a Pulitzer Prize winning writer extraordinaire on politics, sports and history. His last work, The Coldest War, continues that fine tradition with a fascinating narrative of the war in Korea.

While many may only know the Korean War from M*A*S*H, it was a period where World War III was on the precipice, hanging on only by the thread of Harry Truman’s nerve and Mao’s lack of resolve. It was a battle of titans – MacArthur, the hero of World War II versus the hero of the Chinese revolution. Neither believed in the resolve of the other and via their proxies engulfed the area into a war that was always inches away from escalating.

There seem many parallels to modern era situations in the narrative and Halberstam warns the reader early not to transfer the history of this period to Vietnam or Iraq, but one can’t help but look at the similarities. China is the central figure in the story -- MacArthur stressed over it, North Korea acted because of it, Russia pushed it and Mao himself vacillated from this between euphoria and depression. For the Americans, much of the bloodshed could have been avoided, but central command in Tokyo was removed in mind and spirit from troops in the field. Troops were not trained for action in the field, the best officers were kept at HQ, supplies did not reach the field and military intelligence was ignored or made up. It was this perceived laxity that convinced North Korea and China that the time was right to gain control of the whole province.

MacArthur was convinced that the Chinese were too exhausted from their civil war to act. He was still living the dream of World War II hero surrounded by sycophant assistants. It was through sheer will and a bit of luck that US forces were able to turn impending defeat into a victory with the Inchon landing, but then because of basic faults in the structure he had the army adapt, Korea became a meat grinder, where the general started setting policy that should have been the responsibility of Washington.

Politically, Truman was faced with several problems internally and externally. The fall of China to the communists triggered a right-wing backlash in the country despite millions of dollars of support given to the terminally corrupt government of Chiang Kai-shek. He could not seem “soft” on communism despite the fact that the US has very little interest in Korea. Behind the scenes there was a battle between civilians in Washington and MacArthur in Korea on the best policy not only for Korea, but all of Asia. MacArthur felt that if he could unleash “our” Chinese on the mainland the communists would fall because they were “soft” and ripe for the pickings. It was this course by the general, the inability to accept the political and military reality of the situation we faced, that forced Truman to recall the general and pull us back from the precipice nuclear annihilation. It was only after this that the war starts to take a controlled turn in favor of UN troops.

Halberstam deftly explains the different undertones of the era, the issues in conflict and then narrates his way through the years to the conclusion of the war and its aftermath. He does not point fingers nor deify any one person, but paints a picture that the reader can interpret as they wish. There are multiple personalities in conflict -- Stalin and Mao, Truman and McArthur, the US and Russia -- and yet Halberstam navigates this morass of intertwined conflicts to lay out a clear and coherent path from invasion to peace.

Many of the sources quoted in this book have been cited before, but the author also makes use of new information to give the most complete picture of the story to date. The maps help to give a perspective on the different areas the book references, but it could have used a few more, especially if you are unfamiliar with the geography of Korea. Sometimes the book does go into minutia that tends to distract from the central story, but like any good story teller the author manages to tie everything back in the end. Some of this is not new (American Caesar gives some of the same background), but Halberstam is at his best cutting through all the different strains of conflict to hit the heart of the issues.

On the whole, The Coldest Winter is a well written history that makes sense of a part of history many have, or would rather, forget. While some parts read like a pot-boiler, it is all the more enjoyable because it is real. More importantly, it reminds us of sacrifices made, the fragile quality of government and the ability of people to influence at just the right moment for the betterment or harm of society as a whole.

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by David Halberstam
ISBN: 1401300529
736 Pages