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The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean Warby David Halberstam
In researching the career of David Halberstam for our Out of the Book project, I came across a description of the author by Doris Kearns Goodwin that gets to the heart of Halberstam's masterful approach: "A gifted storyteller," she called him. "He told history the way I wish it could always be taught — through vivid portraits of individuals connected to the larger canvas of the society that shaped them."
The Coldest Winter gathers momentum in its early pages from such portraits, and over the course of this complicated, overlooked episode in our history, it never lets up. Halberstam draws so many characters so well — of course we meet Truman, MacArthur, Mao Zedong, and Joseph McCarthy, but it's the bit players who endure in our imaginations through the narrative's lively detail. Major General Oliver Prince Smith, for example, "looked, as Martin Smith wrote, like someone who might have been 'cast in an amateur play as a small town druggist, a man whom older ladies would call nice looking if only he would put on a little weight.'" Back on the home front, meanwhile, Senator Kenneth Wherry, of Nebraska, tells hopeful Americans, "With God's help, we will lift Shanghai up and up, ever up until it is just like Kansas City."
When Halberstam finished the book, shortly before he died (he'd been working on it on and off for ten years), he believed it to be the crowning achievement of his career. "A puzzling, gray, very distant conflict," he calls the Korean War in the introduction. In The Coldest Winter, he describes the colliding political forces that created the war and cost, by some estimates, almost two million lives. If World War II established America as a superpower, in the Korean War we first acted like one. How our government, military, media, and citizens adapted to the unfamiliar role, brilliantly captured here by a master of the form, would profoundly impact the fifty-plus years to follow.
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"A year after WWII ended, Fox, then 22, left New York City for Europe, where she found work as a stringer for a small British news service. Those who haven't read her previous memoir, Borrowed Finery, will be curious about the reasons for her desperation to escape New York, but they'll quickly forgive the omission. In sparse, careful prose, Fox relates her experiences in London, Paris, Prague, Warsaw and Spain in 1946. Her writing style is detached, often sparing details (e.g., 'We fell in love,' she states simply of her brief relationship with a Frenchman). Her assessments, even of herself, are refreshingly frank: 'I was too young and too dumb to worry about entering a fascist country; what I was apprehensive about were my meager funds.' In her most moving chapter, 'Children of the Tatras,' Fox visits an orphanage on the Polish-Czechoslovak border that housed children born in concentration camps. Spending time with a small boy, Fox communicates through body language. The interaction is precise and quite moving as she connects, momentarily, with the child, letting readers fill in the emotion. The picture Fox paints of postwar Europe is both profoundly beautiful and sad, and her memoir is affecting, leaving one wishing she had stayed there longer. Agent, Robert Lescher. (Nov. 3)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Another memorable slice of the 20th-century history, measuring up to such earlier Halberstam classics as The Best and the Brightest and The Powers That Be." Kirkus Reviews
"Commanding and evocative....Halberstam's final work stands as the coda to his enduringly famous The Best and the Brightest." Booklist (Starred Review)
"We may have forgotten the Korean War, but this volume is a reminder of what we should have remembered in history and, with the Halberstam oeuvre now complete, what we will miss." Chicago Tribune
"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." Library Journal
"[A] book that only Halberstam could pull off, and he does so with bravura and skill worthy of a farewell performance." San Francisco Chronicle
"Painstakingly researched, including detailed interviews with a number of those who fought in Korea, Halberstam's book reveals the devastating consequences that resulted from the miscalculations and myopia of central military commanders." Oregonian
"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." William Grimes, New York Times
"The Coldest Winter is easily the best popular history of the Korean War. Halberstam is a whale of a storyteller." Baltimore Sun
"[A] fitting, warm tribute to the art of reporting, the most appropriate epitaph imaginable for David Halberstam." Christian Science Monitor
"Halberstam's recounting of the immense shifts in battlefield momentum is breathtaking." Seattle Times
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