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The Coldest Winter

Book Review

The Coldest Winter

America and the Korean War

By David Halberstam

Korea has been in the news frequently in the past few weeks as Kim Jong-eun tries to consolidate his hold on power in the north. His father ruthlessly used terror and intimidation to enforce his control, but his son is so young and inexperienced in regards to power politics that one can only worry what might develop. In this kind of information vacuum, it is worthwhile to read a book like The Coldest Winter, David Halberstam’s definitive history of the Korean War.

The basic facts of the war are simple. At the end of World War II the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to split Korea at the 38th parallel for the purpose of accepting the surrender of Japanese soldiers in the country. Both forces agreed that Korea should eventually be united, but the details could never be worked out. Then, on June 25, 1950 heavy fighting broke out along the 38th parallel. The North Korean forces then pushed the Republic of Korea (ROK) forces south as they fought fiercely. Eventually, the ROK and American advisors were driven to a small area centered on Pusan in the south. General Douglas MacArthur was based in Tōkyō at that time as the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). He sent in fresh troops to recover the territory. They landed at Inchon and proceeded to catch the North Korean soldiers in a vise. It was a brilliant strategy, carried out flawlessly. But he failed to follow up by taking the North Koreans prisoner. Instead, he ordered the US and ROK forces all the way to the Yalu River in the north. That was more than the Chinese could bear. They did not want a hostile power on their border, so they crossed over into Korea en masse. The US, ROK and UN forces (which had undertaken operations in Korea as a police action) were driven well south of Seoul. However, they eventually recovered the land and the battle line was stabilized at the 38th parallel. An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953.


Those are the bare facts of the matter, but they fail to convey some of the most dramatic incidents of the war, such as the dismissal of MacArthur by President Harry S. Truman. Why did that happen? Halberstam pulls no punches.

Of the American military miscalculations of the twentieth century, Douglas MacArthur’s decision to send his troops all the way to the Yalu stands alone. (Vietnam was a political miscalculation and the chief architects of it were civilian.) All sorts of red flags were there for him, flags that he chose not to see. So it was that his troops, their command split, their communications often dangerously weak, the weather worsening by the day, pushed north, while the Chinese watched and patiently waited for them on their high hills, already preparing to block the arteries of retreat or escape. The same general who had argued for Inchon because of the vulnerability of the North Korean supply lines now allowed his own supply lines dangerously long in territory over which he had no control. The same general who had wanted to land at Inchon because it might end the war quickly and spare his troops from fighting in the cruel Korean winter was now ready to send them farther north just as the Manchurian winter arrived. “One of the things I found hardest to understand──and to forgive as a commander,” Matt Ridgway said nearly forty years later, “was how completely oblivious the Tokyo command was to the conditions under which our men would have to fight.”

Why was MacArthur oblivious? Perhaps because he spent so little time in the country. In fact, MacArthur never spent a single night in Korea. He always took the earliest flight back to Japan.

MacArthur did not in fact know that much about Asia. He had not been on the Asian mainland since 1905; he paid little attention to events that he did not like. To the degree that he knew any Asian country well, it was the Philippines, a nation as different from other Asian countries as New York is from Texas. There, he had been in fact something of a national hero and was exceptionally well connected with the upper class, and quite well rewarded for his role. In fact he and some of the key members of his staff had received immense payments in early 1942 from the Philippine leader Manuel Quezon, to guarantee their role as influential friends of Manila in the future. Even before he departed from the islands for Australia, in one of the most puzzling financial arrangements of the war, Quezon had transferred $640,000 in U.S. dollars to MacArthur and a few staff members. “Seldom, if ever, have American military officers received such evidence of high esteem,” Carol Morris Petillo, who wrote of the deal, dryly noted. Of that sum, $500,000 went to MacArthur himself (probably the equivalent of $10 million in contemporary dollars, tax free); Richard Sutherland, his much despised chief of staff, got $75,000; Sutherland’s deputy Richard Marshall, $45,000; and Sid Huff, another MacArthur aide, $20,000. The War Department knew of it, which meant George Marshall and surely Roosevelt were aware of the transaction, but no one tried to stop it. Not long after that Quezon made a comparable offer to Eisenhower, by then an important officer in Washington, supposedly for his service in the islands from 1935 to 1939. Eisenhower wisely and graciously turned Quezon down and entered a memo for his official file explaining what had happened.

The Coldest Winter is filled with stories like this. It makes for fascinating reading. The descriptions of the battles are interesting as well (and 25 excellent maps are included in the book to clarify events), but the politics and historical facts that are given are reported well.

Unfortunately, David Halberstam died on April 23, 2007 in a car accident, just weeks before this book was published. It is a shame that we can expect no more works from the pen of this great writer. But his final tome of his is a fitting testament to his career.

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