Indiana University Northwest

Professor James B. Lane

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Book Reviews - David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War

Author: David Halberstam (1964­2007)

Publisher: Hyperion (New York). 719 pp. $35.00

Type of Work: History


Locale: Korea and the United States

Told both from the perspective of common soldiers, junior officers, commanders, and the leaders responsible for thrusting the country into its first "limited war," this final effort by America's premier journalist sheds light on acts of valor and hardships faced by those caught up in the least known of America's twentieth-century armed conflicts.

Principal personages:

  • Harry S. Truman, Thirty-third President of the United States
  • Douglas MacArthur, Commander, U.N. forces in Korea, 1950-51
  • Matthew Ridgway, Succeeded MacArthur after Truman fired him
  • Dean Acheson, Truman's wartime Secretary of State
  • Paul McGee, Platoon leader who fought at Chipyongni
  • Paul Freeman, Colonel whose regiment defended Chipyongni

"No one wanted to hear about the war when they had first come home, and so they never talked about it, not to their families or to their oldest friends. Or when they did, no one understood ­ or, worse, wanted to understand."

One could easily have written those lines about Vietnam or Iraq.

Indeed David Halberstam points out parallels between the three wars and warns against basing foreign policy decisions on rigid ideological truisms.

In 1950 General Douglas MacArthur's military staff distorted intelligence reports to the nation's great detriment; later in the case of claims that the Tonkin Gulf incident off the coast of North Vietnam was unprovoked or that Iraq under Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, the culprits were high-level civilians. Soldiers stationed in Korea thought the country smelled like human excrement, had little faith in the native "friendlies," and commonly called them gooks (a word first used during the Filipino insurrection, America's first imperialistic venture in Asia). Colonel Paul Freeman confided to his wife that "to OEliberate' South Korea we're destroying it and its people" and that "all Koreans hate us. Everyone here is an enemy. We can't trust anyone." In a 2007 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, cartoonist David Rees has one character say, "I still get pissed thinkin' about kids dying for squat in a land with unpronounceable names." To which comes the reply, " Oh, they're not dying for nothing: Vietnam's gonna make one hell of an analogy someday." The same could be said about Korea, which military historian S.L.A. Marshall has termed "the century's nastiest war." A "black hole" (Halberstam's words) in the public memory, it has been the subject of few novels or movies (exceptions being the black comedy M*A*S*H* and The Manchurian Candidate, a fantasy about brain washing). Even so, for 20 years it has been a fertile scholarly field, and making the author's task easier were Clay Blair's The Forgotten War (1987), Max Hastings' The Korean War (1987), S.L.A. Marshall's The River and the Gauntlet (1987), Stanley Weintraub's MacArthur's War (2000), and William Stueck's Rethinking the Korean War (2002), as well as numerous memoirs.

Halberstam, the consummate journalist, conducted more than 150 oral histories, and the revelations gleaned from them is what gives The Coldest Winter, despite minor organizational flaws, its power, as well as its originality. As Booklist reviewer Gilbert Taylor concluded, it "stands as a coda to his enduringly famous The Best and the Brightest (1972)," a work also noteworthy for its investigative research. Clearly after 52 years the author still relished unearthing interesting anecdotes and telling insights.

Surprisingly for one who labored so long in a profession whose second-nature was cynicism, he retained, in his words, "a respect for the nobility of ordinary people." Through an interview, for instance, Halberstam learned that Lieutenant Lee Beahler, a World War II vet, reenlisted because he missed the camaraderie of army life. His leadership during the battle of Yongsan helped save the Eighth Army from possible annihilation. He came down with encephalitis from a mosquito bite and was still recuperating several months later when his outfit, the Second Engineers, was almost wiped out at Kunari. That mosquito probably saved his life, he realized with feelings of guilt. In an "Author¹s Note" Halberstam recalled almost canceling a date with former sergeant Paul McGee due to inclement weather, a grueling schedule, and the subject's initial misgivings. He drove through a snowstorm to McGee's home and experienced, in his words, "a thrilling moment for me, nothing less than a reminder of why I do what I do."

"For four hours it all poured out, what had happened in those three days at Chipyongni when he (McGee) was a young platoon leader. It was as if he had been waiting for me to come by for fifty-five years, and he remembered everything [as] if it had been yesterday. He was modest, thoughtful, and had total recall. The story of how his platoon had held out for so long came out in exceptional detail, along with the names and phone numbers of a few men who had made it out with him and could confirm all the details."

The Coldest Winter book cover is a wrap-around, black-and-white photograph facsimile of shadowy figures trudging down a remote road. Set against a frigid landscape, the scene is hardly heroic but encompasses the author's goal: to bring to life the experiences of American soldiers who suddenly found themselves in desperate straits. Some never received winter uniforms though temperatures approached 40 below, and frostbite injuries were common. A half-century later a veteran asked an old comrade if he had thawed out yet. Tank treads froze, airplane observation windows cracked, and bodies remained frozen an instant after the victims had died, some in firing positions, making difficult the task of stacking the casualties in the deuce-and-a- half trucks sent out to collect them. "Fitting them in, [Sergeant Ed] Hendricks remembered, was like doing a giant jigsaw puzzle." The opening section of The Coldest Winter, entitled "A Warning at Unsan," describes an unexpected American military defeat occurring four and a half months into the conflict. More importantly, it was a lost opportunity to avert what had been a successful defense of South Korea from disintegrating into an open-ended quagmire. The trouble stemmed from civilian leaders having surrendered strategic decision-making power to 70 year-old General Douglas MacArthur, who parleyed myth-making posturing during World War II into becoming Supreme Commander of postwar Japan. Heady stuff for a total narcissist! After establishing a defense perimeter at Pusan and then repelling the enemy back beyond the 38th parallel following an amphibious landing at the port of Inchon, American-led UN forces captured the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang (Bob Hope even flew in to put on a show).

Mocking his adversary Kim Il Sung as "Kim Buck Tooth," MacArthur, who never spent a single night in Korea, then ordered American troops to advance to within 50 miles of the Yalu River bordering China and predicted that the mission would be accomplished by Christmas. Two weeks previously, he had personally assured President Harry S Truman that the Chinese would not enter the conflict (upon meeting the President at Wake Island the General chose not to salute). His willful ignorance belied a latent racism and a dangerous hubris, Halberstam concludes. On October 25 Chinese units punished UN forces near Unsan. Heedless of what this augured, MacArthur expressed surprise when on November 1 Red Army regulars attacked the American Eighth Cavalry, inflicting more than 600 casualties. Still oblivious to the risk, MacArthur claimed that no more than 30,000 Chinese had crossed into North Korea when the actual number was ten times that.

The next 300 pages backtrack to describe the American policies that put the nation on a road to war less than five years after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended World War II. Postwar tensions with the Soviet Union had flared in Eastern Europe and Iran, but suddenly in 1949 attention focused on Asia when a communist insurgency led by Mao Zedong forced American ally Chiang Kai-shek to flee to the island of Formosa, which he renamed Taiwan. Rightwing Republicans saw the so-called "loss of China" as a golden opportunity to charge Democrats in Truman¹s administration with being soft on communism. South Korean President Syngman Rhee having proved so obstreperous, Secretary of State Dean Acheson omitted mentioning his country in a speech delineating America¹s Asian defense perimeter. Like his communist counterpart, Rhee dreamed of unifying Korea. Border clashes were commonplace. In 1950 the North Korean dictator convinced Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that the time was propitious to "liberate" South Korea. With Mao Zedong in power, Stalin was anxious to showcase his revolutionary credentials and gave the green light. When South Korea seemed about to fall to communist forces, Truman applied the containment strategy, designed to stop Russian expansion into Western Europe, to the emergency situation, which was less an invasion than an intensification of an ongoing civil war.

Truman avoided seeking a Congressional Declaration of War, instead employing the euphemism "United Nations peace-keeping action." This ploy was made possible by the Soviet boycott of the UN over that body's refusal to seat "Red China" on its Security Council. MacArthur¹s bold success at Inchon, combined with the partisan political climate, made it difficult for Truman and the joint chiefs to resist the general¹s wish to "liberate" North Korea. By giving erroneous assurances that Chinese intervention would be suicidal, MacArthur was perhaps hoping for a scenario, Halberstam speculates, where he¹d eventually restore Chain Kai-shek to power and emerge an "America Caesar" (the title of a 1978 William Manchester biography). Equally culpable were MacArthur¹s intelligence chief Charles Willoughby and General Edward M. Arnold, an incompetent toady.

Finally on page 395, more than halfway through the narrative, the scene shifts back to Unsan, where Marshal Peng Dehuai's forces struck with devastating effectiveness and then disappeared. MacArthur dismissed this "final warning" as a token gesture, a bluff. On November 26, the Chinese launched a deadly counter-offensive against overextended American units. Documenting the heroism displayed in places such as Kunari and the Chosin Reservoir is what makes The Coldest Winter so impressive. Despite poor overall command leadership during what was basically a two-month retreat, junior officers more often than not performed admirably. Many died or were taken prisoner. Others were threatened with court-martial for questioning dubious orders and in one case even assigned a virtual suicide mission by a jealous superior. UN forces were pushed back beyond the 38th Parallel, but the war eventually stalemated near that previous dividing line. Still, bloody battles took place at such locations as Wonju and Chipyongni, the enemy sometimes using bugles and whistles to signal an attack. Just when Truman became resigned to a cease-fire ante bellum, MacArthur tried to provoke a wider war. Truman rightly relieved him of command for insubordination, prompting calls for the President's impeachment. In the end most Americans agreed with Omar Bradley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that taking on China would have been the wrong war at the wrong place with the wrong enemy. For two more years, in places with nicknames such as Heartbreak Ridge, Massacre Valley, and Pork Chop Hill, troops were ordered, as the saying went, to "die for a tie." MacArthur's successor, the able Matthew Ridgway, demanded verifiable intelligence and by studying enemy tactics discerned weaknesses to exploit, such as their rigid top-down command structure, or the situation might have worsened. MacArthur hoped to win nomination as the Republican candidate for president in 1952, but the party preferred a less contentious war hero, namely Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Was the war worth it? America's leaders, Halberstam believes, failed those on the battlefield. Surprised first by the North Korean drive toward the Pusan peninsula and then by Chinese troops crossing the Yalu River, they never enunciated compelling reasons for asking America¹s men in uniform to make the ultimate sacrifice. Over 50,000 died; another hundred thousands suffered debilitating injuries, fighting an unnecessarily drawn-out war. No vital security or economic interests were at stake. Nor were we defending democracy. If the original intent was to demonstrate American seriousness about containing communism worldwide, Truman upped the ante by authorizing the drive north and then was too unimaginative to bring the carnage to an end. Had Truman established diplomatic relations with Mao Zedong's regime, much of the bloodshed might have been averted, but the rancid state of domestic politics made such a course unlikely. Those China-hand "realists" who had advocated such a policy earlier had been purged during the so-called Red Scare. An ideologically based commitment to containment became frozen in place, embraced by Truman¹s White House successors for 40 years, sometimes with calamitous results.

James B. Lane

Sources for Further Study

  • Booklist. CIII, July 1, 2007, issue 21, p.5.
  • Kirkus Reviews. LXXV, July 1, 2007, issue 13, pp. 646-7.
  • Library Journal. CXXXII, August 1, 2007, issue 13, p.101.
  • New York Times. September 26, 2007, Arts Section, pp. 1,7B.
  • Publishers Weekly. CCLIII, August 14, 2006, pp. 192-3.
  • USA Today. September 20, 2007, Life Section, p.5D.
  • Washington Post. September 23, 2007,Arts & Living Section, p. BW04.

Author Biography: A Harvard graduate, social historian, and dean of American journalists, Halberstam authored 15 best-sellers, including The Powers That Be, about the press (1979), The Reckoning, covering the auto industry (1986), The Summer of '49, about a baseball pennant race (1989), and The Children, dealing with the civil rights movement (1998). He died in an auto accident on route to interview former New York Giants quarterback Y. A. Tittle.