The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War
  • The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War
  • The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War

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by David Halberstam

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David Halberstam's magisterial and thrilling The Best and the Brightest was the defining book for the Vietnam War. More than three decades later, Halberstam used his unrivalled research and formidable journalistic skills to shed light on another dark corner in our history: the Korean War. The Coldest Winter is a successor to The Best and the…  See more details below


David Halberstam's magisterial and thrilling The Best and the Brightest was the defining book for the Vietnam War. More than three decades later, Halberstam used his unrivalled research and formidable journalistic skills to shed light on another dark corner in our history: the Korean War. The Coldest Winter is a successor to The Best and the Brightest, even though in historical terms it precedes it. Halberstam considered The Coldest Winter the best book he ever wrote, the culmination of forty-five years of writing about America's postwar foreign policy.

Up until now, the Korean War has been the black hole of modern American history. The Coldest Winter changes that. 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, and that caught Douglas MacArthur and his soldiers by surprise. He provides astonishingly vivid and nuanced portraits of all the major figures -- Eisenhower, Truman, Acheson, Kim, and Mao, and Generals MacArthur, Almond, and Ridgway. At the same time, Halberstam provides us with his trademark highly evocative narrative journalism, chronicling the crucial battles with reportage of the highest order.

At the heart of the book are the individual stories of the soldiers on the front lines who were left to deal with the consequences of the dangerous misjudgements and competing agendas of powerful men. We meet them, follow them, and see some of the most dreadful battles in history through their eyes. As ever, Halberstam was concerned with the extraordinary courage and resolve of peopleasked to bear an extraordinary burden.

The Coldest Winter is contemporary history in its most literary and luminescent form, and provides crucial perspective on the Vietnam War and the events of today. It was a book that Halberstam first decided to write more than thirty years ago and that took him nearly ten years to write. It stands as a lasting testament to one of the greatest journalists and historians of our time, and to the fighting men whose heroism it chronicles.

Includes an Afterword by Russell Baker

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Editorial Reviews

One military historian called it "the century's nastiest little war." The three-year Korean Conflict (1950-53) was certainly that, but for Americans, it is also "the forgotten war," a protracted struggle that, as David Halberstam noted, "sometimes seemed to have been orphaned by history." The author of The Best and the Brightest rescues this early Cold War confrontation from oblivion with a commanding narrative that encompasses every facet of the war, from wounded G.I.s belly-crawling across bloody battlefields to world leaders coolly debating strategies and consequences. Whatever his quarry, Halberstam keeps his focus at the human level; his detail-rich portraits of Truman, MacArthur, Mao, Matthew Ridgway, and George Kennan (to name but a few) bring them to life as people.

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Hachette Books
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Lieutenant Ben Boyd was the new platoon leader in Baker Company of the Eighth Cavalry's First Battalion. The First Battalion -- with its attached unit of tanks and artillery, in reality a battalion task force -- was the most exposed of the regiment's three battalions, positioned about four hundred yards north of the town of Unsan. Boyd's battalion commander, Jack Millikin, Jr., had been his tactical officer at West Point, and Boyd thought him a good, steady man. As far as Boyd knew, their battalion was up there alone -- they had been the first of the three battalions out of Pyongyang, and he had no idea whether the rest of the regiment was following. That first afternoon, right after they arrived, they registered their mortars on some surrounding targets, and there were even brief exchanges of fire with the enemy, but the action was light, and everyone had assumed it was North Korean stragglers. That night, though, Boyd was called over by his company commander, who had just been briefed at Battalion. The word Boyd got was: "There are twenty thousand laundrymen in the area." Boyd knew what that meant -- twenty thousand Chinese near them.

Then they heard musical instruments, like weird Asian bagpipes. Some of the officers thought for a moment that a British brigade was arriving to help them out. But it was not bagpipes; instead it was an eerie, very foreign sound, perhaps bugles and flutes, a sound many of them would remember for the rest of their lives. It was the sound they would come to recognize as the Chinese about to enter battle, signaling to one another by musical instrument what they were doing, and deliberately striking fear into their enemy as well. Boyd believed his men were in decent positions, though they were not a full platoon in his mind. Nearly half of them were KATUSAs, Korean Augmentation to the U.S. Army, poorly trained Korean soldiers attached to American units who, most American officers believed, could not be relied on if there was a serious fight. They were there to beef up American units, to make the UN forces look larger on paper, if not in battle, than they really were. It was an experiment that no one liked, not the company commanders, not the American troops who fought alongside the Koreans but could not communicate with them, and certainly not the KATUSAs themselves, who more often than not gave every sign of wanting very badly to be almost anywhere else.

At roughly 10:30 p.m., the Chinese struck. It was stunning how quickly something could fall apart, Boyd thought. The American units were so thinly positioned that the Chinese seemed to race right through their fragile lines, almost like a track meet, some of the men later said. What had once been a well organized battalion CP (command post) quickly disintegrated. Some of the survivors from different platoons tried to form a makeshift last-second perimeter, but they were quickly overpowered. There were wounded everywhere. Millikin was handling the growing chaos as best he could, Boyd thought, trying to put together a convoy with about ten deuce-and-a-half trucks and loading as many wounded as possible onto them. At that moment, Boyd ran into Captain Emil Kapaun, an Army chaplain who was tending to a number of wounded. Boyd offered to assign the priest to one of the trucks, but Father Kapaun refused. He planned to stay with the wounded men who would not be able to get out on their own. They would have to surrender, he was sure, but he would do all he could to offer the wounded some modest protection.

The battalion had two tanks, and when the convoy finally took off, it was with Millikin aboard the lead tank and the other tank bringing up the rear with Boyd on top of it. About a mile south of Unsan, the road split, one branch veering southeast, the other in a southwesterly direction, through the edge of the Third Battalion position and over the bridge that Bill Richardson and his weapons section were guarding. Millikin blindly headed them southeast. That any of the men made it out at all came from that choice.

The Chinese had set up a formidable force on both sides of the road, waiting to ambush them. It was hard to measure distance or time in those moments when the enemy was striking with such force, but Boyd thought his convoy got about five or six hundred yards down the road before the Chinese opened up. Their firepower was overwhelming, and the convoy, with so many wounded, had almost no means of fighting back. In the confusion -- the vehicles all had their lights off -- the driver of Boyd's tank panicked and began to rotate his turret wildly. The dozen or so men on top were all knocked off, and Boyd promptly found himself sprawled in a ditch. Later, he would decide that he survived only by the grace of God.

He could hear the Chinese approaching. His only chance was to play dead. Soon, they started beating on him with their rifle butts and kicking him. Luckily, no one used a bayonet. Finally, they rummaged through his pockets, took his watch and his ring, and left. He waited for what seemed an eternity, hours at least, and then slowly started to crawl away, totally disoriented, suffering from a concussion, among other wounds. In the distance, he could hear artillery fire, and, assuming it was the Americans, he headed that way. He hobbled across a stream, probably the Nammyon, and discovered that his leg was in terrible pain. He realized that he had been badly burned, probably from the white phosphorous the Chinese were firing.

Boyd moved cautiously in the next few days, at night, hiding as best he could during the day. He was out there at least a week, maybe ten days, trying to work his way back to American lines, in constant pain and voraciously hungry. He was helped by one Korean farmer, who fed him and, using primitive hand signals, directed him toward the American positions. He was sure he would not have made it without the farmer's help. Around November 15, after a trek of almost two weeks, Boyd reached an American unit. He was immediately sent to a series of hospitals -- his burns were serious indeed. His Korean War was over. He was one of the lucky ones. He had no idea how many of his platoon had died, only that the company commander had been killed. He never saw any of them again.

Copyright © 2007 The Amateurs Ltd. All rights reserved.

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Coldest Winter 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 67 reviews.
Ursus More than 1 year ago
I am a veteran of the Korean conflict, and I find it painful to see that almost no one who was not in it remembers it. I wince when speakers at public gatherings routinely skip from World War II to Viet Nam in their otherwise dutiful acknowledgment of those who served in the nation's armed forces. It was my good fortune to be assigned to a job behind the lines, so I escaped the horrors of combat, but the war was still an experience that I have always felt a need to understand better than I did when I returned home after the armistice and resumed my education on the G.I. Bill. David Halberstam's authoritative book not only describes the course of the war in a way that sounds right to me, he suppplies the political, social and economic context that makes the conflict understandable. For example, I had never before focused on the connection between the demise of Josef Stalin and the end of the shooting war. I wish the author were still living so I could thank him for this fine book, which I consider nothing less than a precious gift to people like me.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was a private first class in June of 1950 and planning to attend Seattle University, which was 60 miles from Fort Lewis. where the 2nd Division was based. The 4th Regimental Combat Team, of which I was a member was attached to the 2nd Division. On June 25, the North Korans crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. I would not be discharged in September, as I had planned. But because I had only a few months left in my enlistment when the 2nd Division was sent to Korea, I was one of the lucky ones. My enlistment would be extended by a year, but it would be after the division left the states. I would not be with many of my buddies, most of whom would die in Korea. But because I am a fan of Halberstam¿s writing and because I wanted to learn more about the battles in which the 2nd Division participated, I read Halberstam¿s book. I found that fully half the book is devoted to the politics of the war, not only in the U.S., but in Korea and China, as well. Informative and revealing yes, but I was looking for a fuller account of the fighting. And I found one mistake, which was glaring in my eyes. Halberstam writes that funds to the military were so curtailed as the war began that soldiers at Fort Lewis were ordered to use only two sheets of toilet paper when they did their business in the latrines. I know on no such order and I was there. He is right, however, about the overconfidence of the army officers at the war¿s beginning. I recall a lecture to the troops in which we were told the war would be over in three months. ¿These are peasants we¿ll be fighting. When their tank drivers, when their artillerymen are killed, there won¿t be anyone trained to replace them.¿ How wrong they were and little our military knew of the disasters which awaited the troops. They are extensively detained in the book. Joseph P. Ritz, author of I NEVER LOOKED FOR MY MOTHER AND OTHER REGRETS OF A JOURNALIST.
Sigma More than 1 year ago
I read the other reviews before writing my own, which I hope clarifies a few aspects of this history. First, the title tells it all, this is history of the first year of the Korean War; so it only fleetingly discusses the last 3 years of the Korean stalemate. Second, this history is more about the politics behind the war than it is about the fighting. It primarily focuses on why the Korean War began, why we became involved, why General MacArthur was relieved of his command, and why U.S. policy ultimately resulted in a stalemate (a full scale war with China was deemed untenable). Anyone who is primarily interested military history will be disappointed. And I have to admit that I often tired of all the political intrigue regarding these events. But one message is clear from this book, a message that is applicable to all wars, namely, that all wars are politically determined in their initiation, scope, and goals. Unfortunately, how these wars are concluded rarely follows the script of those who initiated them or those who responded to the agression.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book is supposed to be a complete history of the Korean War but it falls far short of that goal. Having fought in Korea at the beginning and the end of the war, I was disappointed that the book devotes very little to what happened after MacArthur is fired in early 1951. The title ' The Coldest Winter' fairly sums up the book because it is mainly devoted to explaining what occurred up to and through the route of the UN Forces during the winter of 1950. To that point, the book is fairly thorough and accurate but it only repeats what many other authors have already written. After the UN forces were driven back by the Chinese deep into South Korea, the UN forces were able to reorganize and launched a major counterattack in early 1951 which Halberstam writes about. But what the book fails to bring out is that in routing the UN forces, the Chinese had suffered heavy losses and did not have the reserves to replace those losses. The UN counter offensive resulted in more heavy losses to the Chinese as they were pushed back into North Korea, particularly on the eastern flank. The entire Chinese front was in such danger or collapsing that the Chinese sought a truce and Pres. Truman's biggest mistake was to agree to the truce. Had the UN rejected the truce offer, the Chinese would have been forced to retreat deep into N. Korea and that would have been a propitious time for the UN to agree to an armistice. Instead, the war went on for over two more years ending on July 28, 1953. It ended then only because a major Chinese offensive designed to push the Marines back across the Imjin River failed and the Chinese again had run out of steam. Many important battles were fought up until the end which Halberstam fails to even acknowledge, particularly the last battle of Boulder City. But where he really falls short is that he misses all the maneuvering of Pres. Eisenhower to bring the war to an end, how the 25th Division was ordered not to counterattack and retake key outposts in May 1953, and later the First Marine Division was also barred from retaking other key outposts lost to the Chinese in July 1953. The loss of those outposts left the Marines naked on Boulder City and meant that the battle was fought in their front lines instead of 2,000 yards in front of them, and the result was very heavy casualties for the Marines. Except for some blunders by the Chinese, they could have penetrated the lines and driven the UN back across the Imjim River which would have left the Chinese a clear route right into the Korean capital at Seoul. Halberstam apparently was unaware of how significant the last battle was in War.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The worst book regarding military history that I have ever read-and I have read quite a few. This is what happens when a self-proclaimed "historian" has a biased opinion about the subject matter (s)he is writing about, and is unwilling to change his opinion even though the facts say otherwise. Worse, to write a book based on opinion and mislead the reader into thinking it's a well-researched truism is extremely dangerous. This book should be burned. However, there are few books on the Korean War as it stands, which is why Halberstam should have at least tried to get as many documents about the war as possible. He even ignores Korean viewpoints and documents. He spent ten years writing this book? Ridiculous. I honestly believe that he watched M.A.S.H. for ten years, and that was the bulk of his research. A biased television program about the Vietnam War with a Korean set, as Bruce Cummings called it. Halberstam had no right to write a book about the Korean War. His unreliable, false (to the point of fabrication) statements run throughout the book. Almost every page in this 600-page piece-of-junk has falsity written in them. To say that Kim II Sung was just a puppet of the Russians or Chinese is ridiculous. He then states that MacArthur planned the invasion of the North in late 1950. What? Where did he get this from? This is absolutely false. Or that June 1950 invasion started this conflict (it didn't). Take it from Bruce Cummings in his brilliant book "The Korean War". He states that The Coldest Winter is an account "of the war that evince almost no knowledge of Korea or its history." with no research from any Koreans. He continues that Halberstam's book is representative today's books on military history where, "extensive knowledge of the war is not required." Books on military history today are more political viewpoints rather than historical facts. I also agree with Cummings when he says that Acheson, not MacArthur, "dominated the basic decisions about the war". He overestimated MacArthur's influence as he made no decision that was central to the war. Even The Inchon landing was written by military planners prior to the war. And lastly, MacArthur said that the Chinese would not enter the "because they didn't have an Air Force." Remember, MacArthur learned from WWII that Air Power was significant in winning the war, as it does today, because it provides cover for the ground troops, and eliminates the opposing forces ground assets. However, once MacArthur realized his mistake about the Chinese, and that the Chinese were sending hundreds of thousands of troops into Korea, he wanted to go into China to prevent this from occurring. North Korea occupied 90 percent of Korea prior to MacArthur; after MacArthur, they were pushed all the way to the Yalo River. Why are those things not mentioned? Because a liberal-minded "journalist" (not historian) wrote his personal views about the war and claimed them as "facts". All in all, THE WORST BOOK ON MILITARY HISTORY EVER WRITTEN.
ch86 More than 1 year ago
Halberstam puts it all out there for the reader to see. The good, the bad and the ugly. If you like Max Hastings' books, you will also like Halberstam. One of the best war books I've ever read.
RonboCA More than 1 year ago
I'll give Halberstam credit for writing a well researched book but that's about it. He goes on and on for 700 pages blaming MacArthur and his lackey General Almond for all the problems in the Korean War. While I happen to agree with much of the criticism of MacArthur, Halberstam's total lack of objectivity and relentless persecution almost had me wanting to defend the guy. Note to Mr. Halberstam - There's two sides to every story and intelligent readers want to hear both sides and make-up their own minds. The other big problem I had with the book was the author spent so much time bashing MacArthur and his staff that he glossed over, or skipped entirely, some major battles and true heroes in the 2nd half of the war. Halberstam could have made his point on MacArthur in about 1/5 the pages he devoted to it and then have been able to cover the entire war adequately. A better title for this book would have been "MacArthur vs Truman, a Politcal History". The Author might want to read McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom" or Bradley's "Flyboys" for a lesson on how to write an accurate, objective, and entertaining book on military history.
Shaines More than 1 year ago
This book brings to light the key players in a bitter and costly war and points up the frailties of General Douglas Mac Arthur and his staff at the cost of thousands of American and Allied lives. A well written insight into a relatively little known and under studied-American War
Rioghan_Celt More than 1 year ago
This was the final book that David Halberstam published prior to his death, and in it he brings to light the myriad details of the "Forgotten War". Not content to give a brief overview, Halberstam researched everything. From the Political overview to the foxhole view, Halberstam's research helps to prevent the Korean War from being forgotten, and shows just how terrible the fighting got. From the opening attacks launched by the North Koreans, to the defense of Pusan, and the Landings at Inchon and beyond to the Yalu River. Halberstam chronicles the war blow by blow! By far one of the most detailed military history books I've ever read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Excellant!!! I was a Marine in Korea and this is one of the finest books on that war that I have ever read. Well done and very easy to read. Political background is enlightening.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Goes too far afield too many times. More about the personalities that shaped the war than the people who fought it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
¿The Coldest Winter,¿ David Halberstam¿s final journalistic tribute to heroes, is a fitting tribute to the men of the oft forgotten war. Halberstam¿s lengthy career in journalism and author shows in his brilliant writing style that keeps you engrossed in every word. It is not surprising that someone who has written so much about Vietnam, would have a huge resource to draw upon in a work about the Korean War. The Coldest Winter is a story that needed telling, much the way Herodotus told of the men of Thermopylae or, more recently how Stephen Ambrose told of the men of Easy Company in Band of Brothers. Halberstam understood well how most Americans ignore the events and outcome of the Korean Conflict, often, that part of history seems better left untold. The Coldest Winter tells this story, and it¿s back stories and even it¿s substantial post-script. We mustn¿t forget that the success of South Korea today owes a debt to the American and U.N. forces who fought there over half a century ago. What Halberstam also does in this book is point out the miserable failings of Generals like MacArthur, long-time sacred cows of military history, whose hubris in later life jeopardized the legacy of any truly heroic deeds of their youth. General Ned Almond is also lambasted for his stubbornness and poor leadership style, which led to unnecessary losses of American and U.N. forces. The Coldest Winter is a hefty book, at over 650 pages, broken into eleven sections over some 53 chapters, but it reads as fast as it reads brilliant. This is the first Halberstam book I have read, I regret that it comes only after his passing. There were certainly more great works to come had he not met his untimely death. REVIEW EVERY BOOK YOU READ, OTHER READERS, PUBLISHERS AND AUTHORS DESERVE YOUR OPINIONS TOO.
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mm2c More than 1 year ago
This is a great book telling the whole story of the stupidity of trying to run a war from a headquarters hundreds of miles away.MacArthur's underestimation of the enemy was tragic.
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Spartan88 More than 1 year ago
An exceptional book. Truly loved it and found it very easy to read and digest.
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joe11144 More than 1 year ago
Points out the multiplicity of erronious assumptions and the duplicity of the theatre commander and his staff throughout the Korean war, and the twin-command that it engendered. Places the action against the backdrop of both US history and World history. Not just a recitation but a thought out consideration filled with first hand commentary. Who knew McCarther's duplicity cost so many lives? Good read.
MikeMcCann More than 1 year ago
A powerful and gripping read. It reads like a novel, with vivid descriptions, drama and character development. At first, the size of the book was intimidating but I soon felt that I did not want the book to end, and this feeling was sustained throughout. The story illustrates genuine heroism across the ranks from the front lines to the generals. Also, the author pulls no punches in detailing the corruption and cowardice that led to unnecesary losses. The book is both realistic, grim in parts and inspiring. Halberstam weaves the political and historical relities of the times that surrounded the war. This includes many moving parts including US Congress, President Truman, mood of the US, special interests, the Chinese, the Russians, the Korean(s) historical influence and own military and political leadership. It is far from a dry historical reading, but is instead a rich, textured, multiayered telling of a missing part of history.
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