The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War

by David Halberstam

Hardcover, 2007

Call number

951.90 H



Hyperion Books (2007), 719 pages


Pulitzer-winning historian Halberstam first decided to write this book more than thirty years ago and it took him nearly ten years. It stands as a lasting testament to its author, and to the fighting men whose heroism it chronicles. Halberstam gives us a full narrative of the political decisions and miscalculations on both sides, charting the disastrous path that led to the massive entry of Chinese forces near the Yalu, and that caught Douglas MacArthur and his soldiers by surprise. He provides vivid portraits of all the major figures--Eisenhower, Truman, Acheson, Kim, and Mao, and Generals MacArthur, Almond, and Ridgway. He also provides us with his trademark narrative journalism, chronicling the crucial battles with reportage of the highest order. At the heart of the book are the stories of the soldiers on the front lines who were left to deal with the consequences of the dangerous misjudgments and competing agendas of powerful men.--From publisher description.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member santhony
In my experience, most books can be divided into three broad categories: those that seek to educate, those that seek to entertain and those that seek to do both. When you can find books that fall into the third category, and succeed, you have most profitably invested your time. In this category I
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place the works of Stephen Ambrose and David McCollough. Also, works of historical fiction by such authors as James Michener and James Clavell would qualify. However, the further in depth the education becomes, the more difficult it is to maintain the entertainment factor. Ambrose and McCollough are masters in this regard.

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.
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LibraryThing member ksmyth
David Halberstam's last book is a substantial volume on the Korean War. However, don't be misled. This is not a history of the entire war. Rather it is an examination of the year 1950-51, decisions made by General MacArthur in his running of the war, and the conflicts between MacArthur and the
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Truman administration.

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.
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LibraryThing member marient
Up until now, the Korean War has been the black hole of modern American history. 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
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Douglas MacArthur and his soldiers by surprise.
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LibraryThing member meegeekai
Very well written. Having spent a fair amount of time in modern Korea it was hard to picture this took place in my lifetime. Very revealing information on the back channel politics and maneuvering going on in Washington. When compared to todays situation in Iraq, puts things into perspective.
LibraryThing member mecpc1
A superb account. Well researched and based primarily upon interviews of soldiers and primary sources.
LibraryThing member nhoule
This book was less than complimentary to both President Truman, as a prisoner to MacArthur's reputation and to General MacArthur as an absentee delusional commander who sent US soldiers to their death in the most meaningless of reasons; self gratification and the need to be right above all else. It
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was a sad testimony to the quality of leaders throughout the book. It made me angry. Halberstam was not very subtle and although he tried hard to make the story matter of fact it could not hide his disdain for the leadership housed in the Dai Ichi in Tokyo and in the White House as well as the Joint Chiefs of staff inability to deal appropriately with MacArthur. The book was very eye opening about a war I knew very little about.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
This is the last book Halberstam wrote, he having finished it five days before he was killed in a car accident on 23 Apr 2007. It tells ths story of the Korean War in considerable detail up to the summer of 1951, and then sketches the remaining events, with an Epilogue which I thought detracted
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from my appreciation of the book--it caused me to lower my rating of the book to four and a half stars. Otherwise I would give the book five stars, even though there are considerable detailed accounts of battles--something which can be wearisome to me. But the view of MacArthur and of General Ned Aalmond is devastating and I think accurate. The account of the firing of Mac Arthur and of his return to the U.S., which I followed extremely carefully white it was going on, is well-told and met with my full approval, since I was and am convinced Truman was right to fire MacArthur--as I think most knowledgable people now agree. I think this is the best Halberstam book I have read--I have read four others.
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LibraryThing member logs
An entertaining and informative account on the Korean War.
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.
LibraryThing member LLDW
Excellent history, gripping and moving narrative.
LibraryThing member JBreedlove
Filled in a lot of holes concerning the actual war and the political conditions in the US that lead to the fighting. The "who lost China" crowd and McCarthy were the direct descendants of the modern American slash and burn right wing politics. The echo chamber prohibited Truman from replacing
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McArthur earlier than he did. But in the end the American people were the ones who allowed the War.
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LibraryThing member dbeveridge
Halberstam is a master combination journalist, historian, and storyteller. This is one of his best: incisive political analysis, clear and compelling storytelling, and great sensitivity to the individual human stories that make writing about war so important in our understanding of people reacting
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to impossible circumstances. A wonderful book.
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LibraryThing member carterchristian1
As most of the LT reviewers have commented, this is not an overview of the Korean Conflict. It is about how we stumbled into a war with virtually no preparation, having eroded our military after World War II, when the "boys came home", then turned an aging an similarly unprepared MacArthur on the
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conflict depriving those fighting of essential information about the Chinese coming in after Inchon. I was a rising senior in high school when we started in 1950 and until fall was not really aware of what was going on in Korea. Then my future husband was drafted and future brother-in-law killed in the last few months of fighting and it became very personal.

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.
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LibraryThing member labfs39
Despite having been a history major, or perhaps because of it, these days I prefer my history tomes readable. David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter is both of these: a tome and readable. Originally a journalist, Halberstam's book is like an extended story, one whose cast of characters include the
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great (MacArthur, Truman, Acheson, Mao) and the everyman who might have been us (Paul McGee, Pappy Miller). These biographies are woven into the story so that we live the action through the characters, rather than observe the battles from a distance of time and space. I was thoroughly engaged throughout and wish that I could have been a fly on the wall during all the interviews that Halberstam conducted in the course of researching the book. General or infantryman, heroic or weak, the people are fascinating.

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.
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LibraryThing member ALincolnNut
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author David Halberstam offers a single volume comprehensive history of the Korean War in "The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War." Relying on dozens of personal interviews, in addition to government publications and other books, he constructs a
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narrative of the military, historical, and political contexts for the war. He also makes blatantly clear his assessment that the soldiers on the ground were mismanaged early in the war by the inadequate leadership of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his staff.

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.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
If you enjoy history well told you must read the last book by David Halberstam. Reading The Coldest Winter reminds me why I still remember reading The Best and the Brightest and The Powers That Be many years ago. As a writer Halberstam is superb and his latest, an excursion into the early years of
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the cold war, is more evidence of his skill. The story unfolds with careful attention to the details of the battles as well as incisive character sketches of the main players on each side. The international political tensions of the early fifties are highlighted and become as real as those in the Mideast today. That North Korea is still a significant international political and diplomatic problem even today makes this book relevant. Halberstam himself regarded this as his best book. But more importantly, from the perspective of a literature lover, it is a very good read.
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LibraryThing member auntieknickers
David Halberstam tackles the first year or so of the Korean War, interspersing research in various archives with interviews with the rank and file veterans. If you didn't already despise Douglas McArthur, you will after reading this book. Highly recommend.
LibraryThing member Karlstar
This is an exhaustive history of the beginning of the Korean War and our relations with China. It examines the causes of the war, how our foreign policy for decades was shaped, and the first year of the war on the battlefield. It is comprehensive and detailed. For some reason, like many histories
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I've read lately, it almost completely ignores the naval and air aspects of the war and focuses exclusively on the ground war. It also covers Douglas MacArthur at great length. An excellent book about the political climate and causes of the war and the early days of the war. It stops almost halfway through the war, so any information on the rest is very sketchy. Still, a great history.
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LibraryThing member marshapetry
maybe just me... I simply couldn't get thru this book. I'll try again someday but I usually listen to books on trips and this book was too dry and, well, just a recounting of detailed facts... I zoned out often. So my stars aren't based on content, they're based on readability.
LibraryThing member Luftwaffe_Flak
Excellent book, I knew next to nothing about the Korean War and I picked this up at my local Habitat for Humanity and decided to rectify that situation. He expertly weaves the political backgrounds, the generals backgrounds, the strategic overviews, and the first hand accounts of the men on the
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ground into one flowing story. To understand the American politics behind the war he also presents the Russian, North Korean, and Chinese going ons as well. It is (as most books of this kind are) a sad read as well, the amount of human life wasted because of political aspirations and fear is horrible. Excellent in depth overview (if that makes sense) of the war in my opinion.
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LibraryThing member mburdette
Great account of the American experience in the Korean War. Contains compelling accounts of the soldiers at the front but I found the political-military battle in the upper echelons of the US gov't to be the most fascinating part of the book. Halberstam is particularly good at handling Dugout Doug
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MacArthur who was equal parts genius and arrogant fool in the early stage of the Korean Wa
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LibraryThing member Stbalbach
This is a review of the audiobook version. This is a good book - I think. I don't know because it is abridged. It's a travesty that they would chop the book up so severely. I gained a better sense of the major players and events, but there is so much missing. For example almost nothing about the
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air war and bombing campaign of the north. Very little about Kim Il-sung, who was largely responsible for starting the war. The political aspect was confused in too much detail while lacking in a broader analysis of why the war happened. Yet they included endless disputes among the American leadership in hyper detail. Skip the audiobook. At best it contains some cinematic first-person battle stories (but no maps, the book has 25) and drama with MacArthur.
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LibraryThing member ikeman100
Best book I've read on this war
LibraryThing member SeriousGrace
The interesting thing about the Korean War is that most were reluctant to call it an actual war. Those that admitted to it being a conflict were convinced it would be over in no time. What started in June of 1950 as a "clash" between North Korea and South Korea turned into a war of attrition when
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China and the Soviet Union came to the aid of North Korea and the UN and United States joined the South. Despite a treaty being signed in July of 1953, to this day, technically the conflict has not been recognized as over.
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.
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LibraryThing member stampfle
I was 12 when the Korean war began and I never learned anything about it until I was 70. What a fascinating history! As usual Halberstam brings the actors to full life.
LibraryThing member Kristelh
Journalist, deceased 2007, Halberstam writes of North Korea war so much more, covering the presidents Roosevelt to Johnson and political vs military agendas and the history covering the US after WWII and the cold war following. I did not know much about the Korean War. My dad was there but like
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many soldiers of that war, he would not talk about it and he had a great deal of shame regarding the war. I wish I had read this book before he died. It would have given me great insights and perhaps I could have provided some comfort. This is the last novel by Halberstam. He died in 2007. This isn't just a history book, it is a journalistic report and Halberstam loved to interview people. This is the story of a war not often talked about, seldom acknowledged. But the events here are sadly still present in our policies and politics today.
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Pulitzer Prize (Finalist — History — 2008)
Audie Award (Finalist — 2008)
Indies Choice Book Award (Honor Book — Adult Nonfiction — 2008)




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