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David Halberstam’s Korean War

David Halberstam: The Coldest WinterDavid Halberstam
The Coldest Winter – America and the Korean War
718pp, Hyperion, 2007


The subtitle of David Halberstam’s magnum opus, The Coldest Winter – America and the Korean War, at first seems a bit unimaginative. But it is to the point. After all, without Truman’s decision to commit US ground forces, the whole Korean peninsula from Baekdusan to Hallasan would now be under the thumb of the Dear Leader. It was America who committed the largest share of men and materiel and of course the overall leadership. It was American officers who pissed in the Yalu on reaching their ultimate objective. And it was the Stars and Stripes, not the Taegukgi or the UN flag, which replaced the DPRK flag above the portraits of Kim Il-sung and Stalin on the Governor-General building in Seoul, when the South’s capital was recaptured for the first time.

President Harry Truman
President Harry Truman

So non-Americans should not begrudge a book with a strong US focus to the war. Indeed, what is particularly valuable is the examination of how post-war domestic politics and economics in America influenced attitudes to war and the ability to conduct it effectively. But it is not just the American motivations that are examined. The Chinese, and to a lesser extent the Russian, viewpoint is also considered. We are introduced to a Mao who has unfinished business with Chiang Kai-shek and who doesn’t like the sound of MacArthur turning Taiwan, Chiang’s place of refuge, into an unsinkable aircraft carrier – a fortress against the red menace. A Mao who is indignant at the way Stalin treated him – not as a great leader who brought the world’s most populous nation into the international communist fold, but as “Matsadoon”, “That Chinaman”, considered on a level with the Bulgarian leader or a minor capitalist dignitary. A Mao above all with things to prove, whose main asset is a seemingly endless supply of manpower. (Not only that, but even Kim Il Sung preferred Russian input to Chinese, and excluded the Chinese from many of the initial decisions.)

General Douglas MacArthur
General Douglas MacArthur

Halberstam highlights the flaws of the leaders and troops of the different parties. The sorry state of the ill-equipped and ill-trained US eighth army in the initial stages of the war, hampered by ill-founded feelings of racial superiority which were soon shattered. Kim Il-sung’s recklessness in ignoring the intelligence reports from China and Russia suggesting a UN landing at Inchon was a distinct possibility. The failure of Mao to understand the realities of life for the Chinese armies in Korea, particularly the problems of supply. But above all, MacArthur’s consistent failings are highlighted. Yes, the brilliant success of the highly risky Inchon landing is given due credit, and Halberstam says that if MacArthur had retired then, he would have ended his career at a high point. But from then onwards, and indeed prior to then, MacArthur’s imperious leadership style had been problematic. After seriously underestimating the likelihood of Chinese involvement, he failed to properly encircle the North Korean army after Inchon, focusing instead on the prize of Seoul. Then, splitting the land-based command and spreading his troops too thinly in the dash for the Yalu, he sent a fruitless amphibious force up to Wonsan, who, after languishing from seasickness and dysentery for days were beaten to their destination by comedian Bob Hope and the ROK forces, who made their way by land. In war, maybe, things are judged with a certain amount of hindsight, and maybe the Wonsan landing could have been another triumph. But there is enough evidence to suggest there were people who questioned the decision at the time.

General Matthew Ridgway
General Matthew Ridgway

MacArthur was probably doomed to failure because of his leadership style – he had his favourites, from whom loyalty had to be unquestioning. Detached, like Mao, from the realities in the field1, he nevertheless would not countenance suggestions that his all-knowing wisdom, his knowledge of the “oriental mind”, was fallible. Even his closest aides did not seem willing or able to question his judgements. Early reports of heavy Chinese involvement in Korea were filtered out by Charles Willoughby, MacArthur’s intelligence chief, before they reached MacArthur – because the reports were inconsistent with MacArthur’s expectations. Alternative sources of intelligence were suppressed so that MacArthur had complete control over information flow back to his political masters in Washington. And, as Halberstam says, MacArthur was not above lying.

Other than the heroism of the individual soldiers and officers, the leaders to come out best in Halberstam’s account are Generals Peng Dehuai and Matthew Ridgway. In the event, the two armies were evenly matched: the Chinese superior manpower and the UN superior firepower led to a “concertina war”, where the armies moved back and forth over the centre of the peninsula without gaining much ground. MacArthur’s desire for an all-out war against the Communist Chinese and his refusal to bow to the more realistic goals of the US administration in the end led to his dismissal.

General Peng Dehuai
General Peng Dehuai

Despite its length, the book does not claim to be a comprehensive history of the war. The desperate battle of the Imjin river in April 1951 does not feature for example, and the breakout from the Chosin reservoir is dealt with in a couple of pages. In fact, for Halberstam the detailed coverage of the war finishes in February 1951 with the battle of Chipyongni. For Halberstam, that’s the point at which the UN forces under the recently appointed General Ridgway figured out how to fight the Chinese, thus marking a turning point in the war which in the previous few months had been going all the wrong way.

The balance in Halberstam’s account may irk someone looking for a conventional history of the Korean war. One feature of the story-telling seems to be influenced by journalistic habits: try to persuade the reader to embark on a long article by putting a human interest element in the first two paragraphs before getting to the meat of the story. Thus the first 40 pages of this volume are taken up with vivid eye-witness accounts of the first encounters at Unsan with the well-prepared Chinese troops. We then return to the start of things, but when the Unsan engagements reappear in chronological sequence we get another 30 pages or so of interview write-ups. Yes, they make exciting reading, but often there seems little to connect the individual thumbnail sketches together and we lose the big picture of what is happening.

But this is a minor quibble, and some may appreciate the change of pace and style which breaks up the sweep of the narrative. The aftermath of the war is also briefly considered. With a sad symmetry, Peng, the hero of the Chinese forces, is later disgraced and beaten to death in prison; and MacArthur, after his dangerously triumphal return (despite being belatedly fired by his Commander in Chief), is cut down to size by subsequent Senate hearings and then dies a metaphorical death while making a lacklustre speech at a Republican rally.

With helpful indexes and, for the non-specialist, a glossary of military terms, this volume deserves the praise that it has garnered. It is not the most comprehensive account of the war, but it is certainly approachable, informative and thought-provoking.


  1. He never spent a night in Korea during the war []

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