The Coldest Winter

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

The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam centers on the first year of the Korean War.  In it, Halberstam seeks to shed light on the first “modern” war America fought and he largely succeeds.  The Korean War, fought from 1950-1953, foreshadowed Vietnam in many ways but also forced the US to adopt a hands on foreign policy, one which many Americans viewed with suspicion after World War II.

Halberstam effortlessly shifts perspective from the battlefield to the political.  He takes pains to illustrate the character of the major players, essentially writing a mini-biography of everyone from Mao Tse Tung and Harry Truman to Corporals and PFCs.  This attention to detail helps the reader understand the personalities involved and goes a long way in explaining the decision making.  At times, the attention to biographical information can be tedious.  Halberstam devotes nearly 30 pages to Mao’s life alone, space that could have been used to provide more on the Chosin Reservoir, for example, which gets only about 20 pages and is split between two chapters.  That said, the descriptions of the battles are as exciting reading as can be had.  The Chinese attack at Unsan in November 1950 and the description of the Chinese ambush of the US 2nd Division at Kunuri rival those found in We Were Soldiers Once…And Young, Hal Moore’s classic about the battle of the Ia Drang in Vietnam, and arguably one of the best books about warfare ever written.

Halberstam does a great job of capturing the tension and foreboding as US forces moved towards the Yalu River and into a massive Chinese ambush  in October and November 1950.  Starting in mid-October 1950, the Chinese Army began deploying troops in North Korea.  By the time they launched their full attack in late November, there were over 350,000 Chinese troops operating in North Korea.  What is truly amazing about this fact is that in a massive failure of intelligence and imagination (rivaled perhaps only by the intelligence failure prior to Sept. 11, 2001) US troops were completely surprised by the presence of the Chinese troops.  The Chinese moved 3 whole army groups (1 army group =  2 or more armies) into North Korea undetected then, in an even more amazing feat of military prowess and discipline, operated for nearly a month without giving away their presence.  The Chinese slowly surrounded the US forces, prepared positions, then when the time was right, they struck with massive force virtually destroying the 2nd Infantry Division and routing every US unit they came into contact with, inflicting heavy casualties (some units were virtually annihilated), and inflicting a massive psychological blow to US forces.

The treatment of the political climate of the US and China is equally compelling.  Halberstam does more than just highlight the motivations for each side in entering the war.  He deftly analyzes the political, strategic, and ideologic reasons for war.  His illustration of the Sino-Soviet relationship shows that China was pushed by the Soviets to intervene.  But more interesting, that Mao, out of a desire to show the strength of the “new” China (barely one year old at the time) was eager to fight the US in Korea.  Mao is perhaps the only person whose reputation was enhanced by the Korean War.  Most high ranking US officials, Truman, MacAuthur, Dean Acheson, were broken by Korea.  Kim Il Sung, the meglomaniacal “Dear Leader” of North Korea, lost all standing in the Communist World.  Even Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Dictator, lost face due to his refusal to provide the sir support he promised to the Chinese.   The complex interactions between the decision makers and their subordinates is explored in great detail.  The debates with in the US State Department and between State and Defense are especially interesting.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the book are the parallels that can be found with Vietnam.  Both wars were fought to support “democracies” threatened by communist neighbors.  Both wars were viewed as remote by the American populace.  And both wars were waged with ambiguous goals.  The shifting objective of US forces is subtly highlighted by Halberstam.  Were US forces in Korea to unite the two nations, maintain the territorial integrity of South Korea, or to draw a line in the sand against communist aggression, take China back from the Communists?  These questions are not answered, but the debates within the Truman Administration about the war, its scope and focus, are discussed in great detail.  The Korean War also lost support with the US public after 1950.  Eerily foreshadowing the 1968 election, public pressure to end the war led to the Republicans regaining the Senate and White House.

The Coldest Winter makes the Korean War, known as the forgotten war, come alive.  In a fantastic single volume, David Halberstam takes the reader on a journey that deposits them in the middle of such storied battles as the Chosin Reservoir and the landings at Inchon, forgotten battles such as Kunuri and Chipyongni, and policy debates in both the US, China, and Soviet Union.  Even though it focuses on the first year of the war Halberstam makes an effort to fill in the rest of the war.  I would highly recommend this book.  I have not read any other works by David Halberstam, so I cannot compare it to say The Best and the Brightest.  But having finished it, I can see why it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize.  Comprehensive, exhaustively researched, and extremely accessible, it is sure to be enjoyed by serious students of history and laypeople alike.

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