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

Let me just say from the start that this is a magisterial, brilliant book.  I read somewhere that Halberstam considered it his best book, and I can’t argue with that.  On the other hand, I have read several of his books, and every one of them is excellent.  With this one, though, he shows the true master’s touch, the abilities of one who has learned his craft through decades of practice.  He presents complex, detailed, multi-faceted material with clarity, depth, intelligence, and insight, but at the same time he makes it read like a novel, a fascinating tale that is difficult to put down.

This book reminded me of another recent read, “Gulag: A History” by Anne Applebaum.  While I was reading it, I was wondering why I was dredging through such gruesome historical horrors in my mind.  The conclusion I came to, at least partially, is the same as when I wondered why I was reading Applebaum’s book.  It’s for the sake of those who lived through it, that they be not forgotten.  Many soldiers on both sides in Korea – American, Korean, and Chinese – lost their lives for an ambivalent cause, and also due to mistakes, indifference, and poor decisions by those in command.  Korea, as Halberstam points out, was the forgotten war.  It never received the publicity or media uproar of other conflicts, such as the war in Vietnam.  There are very few movies or novels based upon the Korean War.  It’s something that at the time people wanted to go away.  After the clear imperatives of World War II, motivations for the United States to get involved in the Korean War were more muddied and uncertain and based as much on politics at home as realities abroad.

The book highlights the first year, especially the terrible first winter, of the Korean War.  Kim Il Jung, the North Korean leader, decided he wanted all of Korea and, equipped with state-of-the-art Russian tanks, sent a blitzkrieg of troops and weaponry south.  The South Koreans and Americans were unprepared for the sudden attack and fell back.  It looked like they would be pushed right off the peninsula.  They ended up in a tiny corner of southeast Korea around the port city of Pusan, and there they made a courageous stand, with many casualties, while they waited for reinforcements.

Halberstam, as usual, is not satisfied just to report the action.  He digs deep behind the scenes to find out why events happened as they did.  One of the key figures, of course, was General Douglas MacArthur, who was the overseer/emperor of conquered Japan and was in command of American forces in Korea.  By that time he was seventy years old and more obsessed with his own legacy than with victory in the field, the safety of his troops, or orders from Washington.  Apart from a brilliant amphibious landing that he orchestrated at Inchon early in the war effort, he was completely out of touch with what was really happening in the field.  His sycophantic underlings fed him only what information he wanted to hear, so that he lived in a state of perpetual delusion.  President Truman became more and more frustrated at his egoism and blatant insubordination, especially at the cost of many lives and overwhelming setbacks when the Chinese entered the war, that he finally had to relieve MacArthur from command.  His replacement, General Ridgeway, got down on the field with the men and figured out a way to turn the war around, despite the numerical superiority and skill of the Chinese soldiers.

Halberstam tells the individual tales of many of the soldiers and officers in the front lines during the bloody, discouraging fighting.  He also goes behind the scenes and explains the motivations and strategies of Kim Il Jung’s North Korea and Mao’s China.  He discusses the politics in the United States that affected the war effort, including the Communist witch-hunting of Joseph McCarthy, the rabid support for Chiang Kai-shek of the China First lobby, and the behind the scenes efforts of Dean Acheson, George Marshall, Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower, and others in the Departments of State and Defense.

It sounds complicated, and it is, just as life is complicated, and the occupation and protection of a foreign country halfway around the world is complicated.  But Halberstam connects all the pieces together with great finesse.  Never did I feel that the text was too academic or detailed or beyond my grasp.  That’s the mark of a great historian and journalist.

Despite its violent, terrible subject matter, I came away from this book renewed and enriched, as one does after absorbing any great work of art.  Much of the artistic process concerns turning the sordid aspects of the human condition into something palatable, even beautiful in its own way.  This is a great book, and well worth reading.  It was Halberstam’s last book.  He died while researching the one he was planning to write next.  It is a fitting climax to a terrific career.

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