The Coldest Winter
America and the Korean War
By David Halberstam
Hyperion / 736 pages / $35
The Korean War was a tragedy of errors. It began because Secretary of State Dean Acheson removed Korea from the defensive perimeter of the United States. Convinced that America would not intervene, the Soviet Union approved the plan of Kim Il Sung to attack South Korea. President Harry S. Truman then sent U.S. troops to the divided nation, under a United Nations mandate agreed to at a meeting boycotted by the Russians. After a brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon, Gen. Douglas MacArthur ignored warnings about a wider war, drove toward the Yalu River and Chinese soldiers attacked en masse. The Korean War would sputter on for three years, ending in a stalemate, after 2 million men (33,000 of them Americans) had died.
In The Coldest Winter, David Halberstam provides a masterful narrative history of this "puzzling, gray, very distant conflict." A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of 20 books, including The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be and Summer of '49, Halberstam died in April 2007, five days after he completed the manuscript. A prequel to The Best and the Brightest, a classic of Vietnam War literature, The Coldest Winter sets the Korean War in its Cold War context, with American policy-makers trying to fashion "a new kind of internationalism" and fend off isolationists, McCarthyites and the China Lobby.
In tracing the origins, conduct and conclusion of the conflict, Halberstam relies on the published work of foreign policy specialists. He rarely challenges conventional wisdom. His prose, at times, is slack and repetitious. Nonetheless, The Coldest Winter is easily the best popular history of the Korean War. Halberstam is a whale of a storyteller. His portraits of the major players - Josef V. Stalin, Mao tse-tung, Kim Il-sung, South Korean President Syngman Rhee, Truman, MacArthur and Matthew B. Ridgway - are little gems. A great reporter, Halberstam rarely missed a telling detail or an apt quotation. MacArthur, he writes, "did not merely seek the limelight, he had an addiction to it ... always making sure that his famous jaw jutted at just the right angle for photographs." To hide his partial baldness, the 70-year-old general never removed his trademark battered hat in public. Asked whether he knew MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower replied, "Not only have I met him, ma'am, I studied dramatics under him for five years in Washington and four in the Philippines."
Halberstam's descriptions of MacArthur's "toadies and sycophants" at the Dai Ichi Building in Tokyo (the general spent nary a night in Korea), are devastating. When MacArthur ignored his orders and sent troops "into dangerous, hostile, unspeakably difficult terrain," his "yes men" applauded. Charles Willoughby, his chief of intelligence, had two heroes: right-wing Spanish dictator Francisco Franco and MacArthur. "All ideology and almost never any facts," Willoughby manufactured his aristocratic Prussian lineage, censored combat reporters, fed "information" to influential congressmen and suppressed evidence that Chinese troops were streaming into Korea. "Certitude after certitude poured out of him." He might have been dismissed as a buffoon "if the impact of his acts had not been so deadly serious."
For every villain, Halberstam finds a heroic field commander, intent on minimizing casualties. Gen. Ned Almond, MacArthur's overly aggressive acolyte, barely noticed that the Chinese had failed to destroy the Funchilin Pass bridge as they headed north. But Gen. O.P. Smith sensed that the Chinese were baiting a trap. Smith's deliberately dilatory movements may have jeopardized his career, but they saved many of his Marines.
Evoking the sights and smells of battle, Halberstam seems to inhabit the foxholes. He breathes new life into the cliche "unsung heroes." Since American soldiers, unlike the Chinese, did not remove their pants when they crossed the Chongchon River, he notes, the wet and cold clung to their bodies. Even so, combat "stripped men down to their essentials." When Willard Smith was wounded, near the Chongchon, a young lieutenant wanted to abandon him. Bruce Ritter, a radio operator, and three other men "agreed to carry Smith out, orders or no." Fending off Chinese patrols, one of them, George White, was hit. But they made it - and years later Ritter got letters from White thanking him "for the ride." He never heard from Smith. The lieutenant died in a prison camp.
Halberstam's themes - the brutality and serendipity of war - always bear recounting. A mosquito bite, he reveals, gave Lt. Lee Beahler encephalitis. Beahler was in a hospital in Japan, where his weight dropped to 90 pounds, when his unit was decimated in a town called Kunuri. The bite probably saved his life. Around that time, after the Army had suffered grievous losses, Col. George Peploe began to cry. Lt. Col. Jim Skeldon rushed over, held him and used his helmet to cover his commander's face. "Though Peploe had lived when so many of his men died," Halberstam concludes, "it had clearly been a kind of death for him as well."
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin professor of American studies at Cornell University.