The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War

3.6 69
by David Halberstam

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"In a grand gesture of reclamation and remembrance, Mr. Halberstam has brought the war back home."
--The New York Times

David Halberstam's magisterial and thrilling The Best and the Brightest was the defining book about the Vietnam conflict. More than three decades later, Halberstam used his unrivaled research and formidable journalisticSee more details below


"In a grand gesture of reclamation and remembrance, Mr. Halberstam has brought the war back home."
--The New York Times

David Halberstam's magisterial and thrilling The Best and the Brightest was the defining book about the Vietnam conflict. More than three decades later, Halberstam used his unrivaled research and formidable journalistic skills to shed light on another pivotal moment in our history: the Korean War. Halberstam considered The Coldest Winter his most accomplished work, the culmination of forty-five years of writing about America's postwar foreign policy.

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-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. As ever, Halberstam was concerned with the extraordinary courage and resolve of people asked to bear an extraordinary burden.

The Coldest Winter is contemporary history in its most literary and luminescent form, providing crucial perspective on every war America has been involved in since. It is a book that Halberstam first decided to write more than thirty years ago and that took him nearly ten years to complete. 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.

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Editorial Reviews

"Seldom has a more unpopular man fired a more popular one," proclaimed Time magazine in April 1951, announcing President Harry Truman's decision to recall General Douglas MacArthur from Korea. Arguably the most memorable moment in America's least remembered war, it was also the rare decisive battle in a vaguely understood, three-year-long stalemate. "Korea [did] not prove a great national war of unifying singular purpose, as World War II had been, nor [did] it, like Vietnam a generation later, divide and thus haunt the nation," writes David Halberstam in The Coldest Winter. "Korea was a war that sometimes seemed to have been orphaned by history." In his ex-traordinary final book, completed days before his untimely death, Halberstam brings his renowned command of history to that era, rescuing the war from near oblivion through interviews with soldiers and excavation of archives. What emerges, over more than 700 riveting pages, is a detailed battlefield account coupled with a keen examination of how the war was perceived, as it progressed, by key figures including Truman, Mao and Stalin. All angles are considered, even the legacy of Pinky MacArthur, Douglas' overweening mother, in the General's attempt to wage war with China against the President's wishes. Halberstam's multifaceted analysis is a model not only for future historians but also for aspiring statesmen.
—Jonathon Keats
Commanding and evocative . . . Halberstam's final work stands as the coda to his enduringly famous The Best and the Brightest. (starred review)
Harold G. Moore
"I could hardly put this book down. Meticulously and thoroughly researched, it is splendidly compelling reading. The Coldest Winter is a superb conjoining of all the factors of this tragic war: the military tactics and strategy of both sides; the international diplomacy; the internal politics; the personalities of the various players. A great work."--(Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.), co-author of We Were Soldiers Once . . .and Young)
Max Frankel
Halberstam, a vibrant 73, was killed in a car crash last April. There can be no consolation for that loss, but perhaps solace of a kind in knowing that just five days earlier he had finished his most operatic war story, The Coldest Winter, about the Korean War of 1950-53…Combining his typically prodigious research with more than a hundred interviews, Halberstam has graphically (if sometimes tediously) recreated the trench warfare up and down that frozen peninsula, juxtaposing accounts of the petty backstabbing and vainglorious posturing at the Tokyo headquarters of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the catastrophic miscalculations by Truman, Stalin, Mao and Kim Il Sung of North Korea. The result is an outsize but fascinating epic directed simultaneously to battle buffs and pacifists, history enthusiasts and political moralists. With sometimes numbing detail and elegant maps, it evokes the nobility and crazy heroism of outnumbered American grunts in a dozen of the war's critical engagements, cinematic scenes that alternate with crisp essays about the mindless way the war began, the reckless way it was managed and the fruitless way it ended.
—The New York Times Book Review
William Grimes
Mr. Halberstam completed The Coldest Winter shortly before dying in a car accident this year. It caps a brilliant journalistic career in a particularly satisfying way since it serves as a kind of prequel to The Best and the Brightest, the book that grew out of his war reporting in Vietnam…The point of view that Mr. Halberstam developed in Vietnam—sympathy for the enlisted men and junior officers, suspicion of the generals and politicians—also informs his take on the Korean War. For the most part, The Coldest Winter is a straightforward history of that conflict, dependent almost entirely on secondary sources. It offers no new interpretation of the war, which lasted from 1950 until 1953. What animates the book, besides its sweeping vision of events, is the dozens of interviews Mr. Halberstam conducted with veterans: the privates, sergeants and lieutenants who slogged their way up and down the Korean peninsula at the mercy of delusional generals and ignorant politicians.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

At the heart of David Halberstam's massive and powerful new history of the Korean War is a bloody, losing battle fought in November 1950 in the snow-covered mountains of North Korea by outnumbered American GIs and Marines against the Chinese Communist Army.

Halberstam's villain is not North Korea's Kim Il Sung or China's Chairman Mao or even the Soviet Union's Josef Stalin, who pulled the strings. It's the legendary general Douglas MacArthur, the aging, arrogant, politically ambitious architect of what the author calls "the single greatest American military miscalculation of the war," MacArthur's decision "to go all the way to the Yalu [River] because he was sure the Chinese would not come in."

Much of the story is familiar. What distinguishes this version by Halberstam (who died this year in a California auto crash) is his reportorial skill, honed in Vietnam in Pulitzer-winning dispatches to the New York Times. His pounding narrative, in which GIs and generals describe their coldest winter, whisks the reader along, even though we know the ending.

Most Korean War scholars agree that MacArthur's sprint to the border of great China with a Siberian winter coming on resulted in a lethal nightmare. Though focused on that mountain battle, Halberstam's book covers the entire war, from the sudden dawn attack by Kim Il Sung's Soviet-backed North Koreans against the U.S.-trained South, on June 25, 1950, to its uneasy truce in 1953. It was a smallish war but a big Cold War story: Harry Truman, Stalin and Mao, Joe McCarthy and Eisenhower, George C. Marshall and Omar Bradley, among others, stride through it. A few quibbles: there were no B-17 bombers destroyed on WakeIsland the day after Pearl Harbor, as Halberstam asserts, and Halberstam gives his minor characters too much attention.

At first MacArthur did well, toughing out those early months when the first GIs sent in from cushy billets in occupied Japan were overwhelmed by Kim's rugged little peasant army. MacArthur's greatest gamble led to a marvelous turning point: the invasion at Inchon in September, when he outflanked the stunned Reds.

After Inchon, the general headed north and his luck ran out. His sycophants, intelligence chief Willoughby and field commander Ned Almond, refused to believe battlefield evidence indicating the Chinese Communists had quietly infiltrated North Korea and were lying in wait. The Marines fought their way out as other units disintegrated. In the end, far too late, Truman sacked MacArthur.

Alive with the voices of the men who fought, Halberstam's telling is a virtuoso work of history. (Sept.)

James Brady, columnist atParade and, is author of several books about Korea. His latest book isWhy Marines Fight (St. Martin's, Nov.).

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

This final work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author (The Best and the Brightest), who died in April, looks at the "Forgotten War." Not a battle history, it concentrates largely on the politics of the situation and how the Truman administration found itself fighting a war it did not want with a commander it could not trust. Much of the book concerns the MacArthur headquarters and the general's insistence on carrying out his own agenda rather than Washington's. The author expresses a great deal of anger at Col. Charles Willoughby, MacArthur's intelligence chief, who baldly falsified his estimates to agree with the boss's fanciful preconceptions of the Chinese. The result was a huge U.S. military debacle culminating in the disastrous retreat from the Yalu in 1951. Halberstam offers interesting discussions of the China Lobby and the effect it had on the debate. The run-up to the war and the first year are covered in great detail, but the book gets sketchier after Matthew Ridgway's assumption of supreme command in 1951. Some rough organization and lack of narrative covering the later years suggest that Halberstam's death may have cut short his work. Still, this is a vital, accessibly written resource for students of the period and is sure to be widely read. Recommended for most collections.
—Edwin B. Burgess

Kirkus Reviews
The master journalist's 21st and final book: a magisterial account of the Korean War. Halberstam's latest (The Education of a Coach, 2005, etc.) is a vivid chronicle packed with anecdotes and the stories of great men. North Korea's Kim Il-Sung was a loyal Stalinist. America had installed Syngman Rhee in the South because he was Christian, spoke English and was the only Korean known in Washington. Halberstam describes both as thoroughly unpleasant autocrats but fierce nationalists, each equally anxious to unite Korea under his own leadership. Kim yearned to invade, but Stalin refused to provoke America until 1950, when he gave reluctant permission. Far East Commander Douglas MacArthur insisted North Korea would never attack; after being proven wrong, he remained mysteriously inactive for several days. Everyone feared Stalin was launching World War III and cheered Truman's decision to intervene. At first, MacArthur handled the defense competently; his brilliant behind-the-lines landing at Inchon in September 1950 shattered North Korea's army. Ignoring Washington's suggestions to stop at the 38th parallel, MacArthur pushed north toward the Chinese border, despite good intelligence that Chinese units were pouring south. Once again, he dithered when disaster struck and did little to rally his defeated forces. A national icon but detested by his superiors, MacArthur finally overstepped by loudly advocating total war against China. Truman dismissed him, an act now considered courageous that at the time outraged the nation. MacArthur's successor, WWII hero Matthew Ridgway, performed brilliantly in stopping the Chinese, but more than two years of bloody stalemate followed. As America's firstmodern war without victory, Korea was the conflict everyone wanted to forget. It was a black hole of history, Halberstam writes, a war with China that never should have happened. Another memorable slice of 20th-century history, measuring up to such earlier Halberstam classics as The Best and the Brightest (1972) and The Powers That Be (1979).

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