Up until now, the Korean War has been the black hole of modern American history. THE COLDEST WINTER changes that. David Halberstam gives us a masterful narrative of the political decisions and miscalculations on both sides. He charts the disastrous path that led to the massive entry of Chinese forces near the Yalu River, and that caught Douglas MacArthur and his soldiers by surprise. He provides astonishingly vivid and nuanced portraits of all the major figures, including Truman and Eisenhower; Kim Il Sung and Mao Zedong; and General MacArthur. At the same time, Halberstam provides us with his trademark highly evocative narrative journalism, chronicling the crucial battles with reportage of the highest order.--Publisher.
David Halberstam is an outstanding historian and a meticulous one. It is the depth of his analysis that makes this work extremely educational, but at the same time, dry at times and plodding at others. This is definitely a worthwhile read for anyone seeking an education on matters involving the Korean War in general and the military and political landscape of East Asia during the period following the Second World War in particular.
Of particular interest, and outstanding focus are the relationship between President Truman and General Douglas MacArthur; the Chinese civil war and the dichotomy between the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist army of Mao Zedong; the domestic political struggle surrounding the fall of China and the leadup to the Korean conflict; and the relationship between Korean dictator Kim Il Sung and his Communist overlords in both Russia and China.
This is an outstanding piece of work from the standpoint of analysis and historical relevance, however it falls slightly short from the viewpoint of purely enjoyable reading, due in large part to the depth of the analysis and the detail used by the author. Nevertheless, I highly recommend it.
Halberstam spins a sprawling story, sharing the United States' lack of readiness for the war, the stiffening of American resistance at the Pusan perimeter, the Inchon surprise, the heady push across the 38th parallel and the devastating results of Chinese intervention.
Halberstam made thorough use of many secondary resources. However the real brilliance of the narrative lays in the testimony of Korean War veterans who paint a vivid picture of this less-remembered conflict on the mid-twentieth century.
Depicts MacArthur as a truly tragic character.
My only complaint is the author disregards almost entirely the contributions made by the Republic of Korea forces.
What interests me most about this work is the extensive coverage the author (who is terrific) gives of the way we began.
There is no doubt, however, that this was one success, and while the author suggests that had we stopped at the N.Korean border we might have brokered a peace by the end of 1950 with the loss of fewer American lives, examining the future history of the North Koreans, I do not think that this would have happened.
It was Halberstam's last book and certainly one that he had had many decades to think about and plan.
Opting for a dramatic opening rather than a chronological one, Halberstam describes the first Chinese attack on overextended American forces in November 1950, which seems to him a microcosm of the war and its strategic mistakes. Units which expected no opposition had become lackadaisical about their spacing from other units and their supply lines, leaving them vulnerable. This attitude emanated from the top commander, MacArthur himself, who believed the Chinese would never enter the conflict.
MacArthur is the central figure of the first half of the book. In particular, Halberstam points out the political support McArthur enjoyed among key congressional leaders, which allowed him to operate seemingly without the supervision of the commander-in-chief, at least until Pres. Harry Truman relieved MacArthur of duty. The latter half of the book explains how Americans throughout the chain of command struggled to clean up the mess MacArthur created.
There is much to commend in Halberstam's detailed history. Given his journalistic roots, Halberstam always maintains a good balance in the narrative between the famous leaders and the common soldiers, their experiences and their decisions. And although he sees much of the war as a cautionary tale of American hubris, there are countless stories of unquestionable heroism and wise action amidst all the mistakes. It should also be noted that while Halberstam's focus is on the American involvement, he pays significant attention to contextualizing the North Koreans, the Chinese, and their military and political styles and personalities.
The significant limitations of "The Coldest Winter" are directly related to its strengths. The detail that Halberstam offers for all of the people he describes means that the cast of characters is large and sometimes unwieldy. Frankly, it was difficult to keep all of the names and places straight throughout the book. (I had similar difficulties reading Stephen Ambrose's brilliant account of the D-Day invasion.) Also, Halberstam's desire to deeply explore the political context creates a lengthy interruption in the narrative of the war.
The overall value of the book easily outweighs any limitations or shortcomings. Halberstam is a strong writer, and he clearly has an ear for compelling stories, which he capably knits into the overall narrative. Lengthy as the narrative is – around 650 pages – the skill required to fit this large story in one volume should not be underestimated. Students of post-World War II American history and American politics should find the book compelling and cautionary.
While Halberstam portrays the well-researched historical events with accuracy and thorough detail, his portrayals of key U.S. figures such as Generals MacArthur and Bradley, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and President Truman read like a fast paced political thriller. The larger than life personalities practically jump off the page.
The other strength of the book is the clear way in which the author explains the origins and first winter of the war. Part I draws the reader in with a spell-binding, edge of your seat telling of the Chinese ambush of the American forces at Unsan. Once hooked, Halberstam takes you through the political forces, both domestic and internationally, which led to the Korean War. Then once again he returns to Korea and relates first the defeats and then the limited victories that were to define the war.
For anyone interested in an introduction to the Korean War, I would highly recommend The Coldest Winter.