"The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War" by David Halberstam; Hyperion; 736 pages; $35.
The Korean War ended in stalemate, the communist North and the Western-allied South reassuming an uneasy coexistence on the 38th Parallel after years of inconclusive combat. In the beginning, though, the war was marked by swift reversals of fortune.
|PORK CHOP HILLS - David Halberstam's final book, 'The Coldest Winter,' is intelligent, thrilling history. CNS Photo Illustration. |
On June 28, 1950, the war's third day, Northern troops captured the South Korean capital, Seoul. By September, despite reinforcements from American-led United Nations forces, the South had surrendered 90 percent of the Korean peninsula.
One month later, though, the U.S. seemed to have won the war. Routed by a bold American offensive, the North Koreans abandoned Seoul and then Pyongyang, the North's capital. Victory seemed so assured that Bob Hope headlined a show in Pyongyang.
The U.S. 1st Cavalry Division enjoyed Hope's performance, then trudged north to a town called Unsan, where their South Korean allies were involved in what was expected to be a minor dustup.
"Surely," David Halberstam wrote, "all they would have to do was clean up a small mess, the kind they believed South Korean soldiers were always getting into."
"The Coldest Winter" opens on Oct. 20, 1950, when the U.S. military was enjoying a Mission Accomplished moment. More than two years later, though, Americans were still mired in a dirty, unpopular war. Two key reasons: intelligence failures - no one warned the First Cav that the Chinese were waiting in Unsan - and a U.S. leader more committed to his ideology than to inconvenient facts. Sound familiar?
Halberstam did not stretch the Korea-as-Iraq line too far, but there's no need. The parallels jump off the page. So does the author's voice, which is magisterial, as secure in his judgments as if he were chief justice in some Supreme Court of History.
There are times when this confidence is misplaced - he confuses the Battle of Tsushima Straits (1905) with the Battle of Port Arthur (1904). There's also an unfortunate reference to a Marine "who should have won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his leadership." As any Marine will insist, the Medal of Honor is received, never "won." It is not a prize.
But these are rare missteps in a swift, intelligent, thrilling book. This is a worthy final bow for Halberstam, who died in a car accident days after completing the manuscript this April. Anything but slapdash, "The Coldest Winter" is cogent and compelling, making its points without slowing the headlong narrative drive.
Hyperion is marketing "Winter" as a bookend to "The Best and the Brightest," Halberstam's seminal account of Washington's descent into Vietnam. That 1972 work read like a revelation, with a crack reporter eavesdropping on top-level decision-makers. This time, though, Halberstam follows others down the corridors of power and across the Korean battlefields. He's indebted to David McCullough's biography of Truman and William Manchester's portrait of Douglas MacArthur, and frequently dips into the military histories of S.L.A. Marshall and Clay Blair.
If his observations occasionally sound recycled, Halberstam pierces the Uniformed Curtain. This book is unexpectedly good on inter- and intra-service rivalry. Fresh interviews with foot soldiers, generals and diplomats buttress the author's argument that the war was mismanaged by MacArthur, who never came to grips with the realities on the Korean ground. (MacArthur was engaged in the post-World War II reconstruction of Japan when the Korean conflict erupted; he assumed military command in that theater, too, but never spent a night in Korea.)
Insisting that Maoist China would not enter the war, MacArthur ordered American troops to push the North Koreans to, and then across, the Chinese border. When the Chinese struck back, unprepared American forces suffered grievous losses - and MacArthur blamed Washington for not allowing him to bomb China, risking Russia's entry into what would have then become a world war among nuclear powers.
MacArthur expected his deputy chief of staff, Maj. Gen Edward "Ned" Almond, to be his eyes, ears and mouthpiece in Korea. Unfortunately, Almond was the perfect choice. Told that two Chinese divisions were mauling the 1st Marine Division at Chosin Reservoir, his racial prejudices and loyalty to the Tokyo line blinded him to the truth.
"That's impossible," he said, sneering at the "goddamn Chinese laundrymen." "There aren't two Chinese divisions in all of North Korea!"
In fact, there were eight Chinese divisions - 100,000 men - facing the 20,000-strong 1st Marines.
While the escape from Chosin Reservoir is one of the epic tales of the Marine Corps, Halberstam's book climaxes with the U.S. Army's February 1951 stand at Chipyongyi. There, MacArthur's successor, Gen. Matthew Ridgway, tested his theory that superior Chinese manpower could be defeated by superior American firepower.
Despite Ridgway's subsequent victory, this remains an unsettled and unsettling question. "What had been at stake in the Korean War," Halberstam noted, "and it was to cast a shadow over subsequent wars in Asia, was the ability to bear a cost in human life, the ability of an Asian nation to match the technological superiority of the West with the ability to pay the cost in manpower."
Those harsh stakes, Halberstam wrote, led to stalemate in Korea and defeat in Vietnam. He could have pushed the point further and mentioned that the United States enjoys vast advantages in weaponry and materiel in Iraq; or that skewed estimates and ignored intelligence led to costly mistakes in that country.
He didn't. In the end, Halberstam did not focus on Korea-as-Iraq; instead, he refocused on Korea-as-Korea, helping us think about a war we've tried to forget.
The book concludes with Sgt. Paul McGee, survivor of a desperate stand at Chipyongyi, who came home to North Carolina and gradually lost touch with his fellow veterans. Except for one man, Cletus Inmon, who had fought at his side on what was later dubbed "McGee Hill."
" ... they had been there, had shared those dangers, and that set them apart from almost everyone for the rest of their lives. They did not need words to bind them together, their deeds were the requisite bond. All in all, (McGee) thought, he was glad he had gone and fought there. It was a job to do, nothing more, nothing less, and when you thought about it, there had not been a lot of choice."
- By Peter Rowe