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.
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
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 Vietnamsympathy for the enlisted men and junior officers, suspicion of the generals and politiciansalso 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
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)
"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.
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 Forbes.com, is author of several books about Korea. His latest book isWhy Marines Fight (St. Martin's, Nov.). Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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
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).
Read an Excerpt
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.
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