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The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean Warby David Halberstam
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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.
"Reviewed by James Brady 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 Wake Island 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 at Parade and Forbes.com, is author of several books about Korea. His latest book is Why Marines Fight (St. Martin's, Nov.)." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"No 'Mission Accomplished' banner has ever been flaunted about the Korean War. The conflict that David Halberstam calls a 'black hole' in history (despite shelves of books about it) achieved its original objective. At great cost, military intervention reversed the communist thrust into South Korea, now a model of prosperity; North Korea remains an impoverished, Stalinist state. But in the 1950s, Americans... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) did not perceive the Korean War as a success, and we have even more reason to view it with misgiving now, in light of our imbroglio in Iraq. As Halberstam recounts with mounting indignation in 'The Coldest Winter,' some of the worst decisions in Korea were based on skewed intelligence. To be sure, it was military officers who massaged the facts they reported to civilian leaders. In Vietnam and Iraq, the pattern reversed, with civilians cherry-picking the intelligence to manipulate the military and the public. But in Halberstam's view, the Korean War set a 'most dangerous' precedent: 'the American government had begun to make fateful decisions based on the most limited of truths and the most deeply flawed intelligence in order to do what it wanted to do for political reasons, whether it would work or not.' Half a century later, we still have thousands of U.S. troops in Korea — not a good omen for Iraq. Halberstam was one of the great war journalists of our time. In April, five days after delivering final revisions to this book, he was killed in a car crash in Menlo Park, Calif. Among his 19 previous books is the iconic 'The Best and the Brightest' (1972), probing how and why some of the most able Americans of their generation entangled the United States in an unwinnable war in Vietnam. When communist North Korea invaded the South in June 1950, Halberstam was 16, too young to take much notice. He learned about the Korean quagmire from men in Vietnam who had endured the earlier misery. Vietnam dominated his life for seven years, after which he tackled other subjects, from sports to the automobile industry. It was only in the late 1990s that he returned to the Cold War's first hot war. Now, because of his untimely death, 'The Coldest Winter' will stand with 'The Best and the Brightest' as the big bookends of his career — parallel accounts, 35 years apart, of wars characterized by a disconnect between reality and authority. Some readers may find 'The Coldest Winter' to be something of a quagmire itself. Halberstam acknowledges in an author's note that it does not have a 'linear' structure. Rather, 'it takes you on its own journey, and you learn along the way. It becomes not just the story of the Chinese entering the war and what happened in those critical weeks. On the way there is a great deal of political history to be learned, all of which forms the background on both sides. And there are other battles. People kept telling me about the brutal fighting in the earlier Pusan Perimeter days, and so I had to learn about that.' In the process, we reach page 395 before the weather turns cold. By then, Douglas MacArthur, for five years unanswerable to anyone as occupation boss of Japan, was running the war by remote control — never spending, as Halberstam acidly notes, 'a night in the field in Korea.' He was already 70, and his willfulness was unyielding, abetted by pseudo-intelligence subserviently packaged by staff toadies in Tokyo. In a miscalculation of his opponent's character and a display of his own hubris, MacArthur claimed that Chairman Mao would be intimidated if the United States inserted an army by sea at Inchon, above Seoul. He believed it would be too late for the Red Chinese to intervene; the hapless North Korean aggressors would be cut off and crushed. Regardless of MacArthur's arrogant incaution, who in Washington, or even in Korea, could dispute his strategy after the Inchon landing's initial success? 'MacArthur has thought it all through,' the X Corps intelligence chief declared, 'and it's not to their advantage to come in, so they won't come in.' Yet the very existence of X Corps was a problem. To evade Washington and allow him to run the war personally, MacArthur had set up X Corps as a parallel force to the Eighth Army, which was still struggling to push north toward Seoul. By splitting his troops (to Halberstam, 'the unthinkable') to give his favorite courtier, Edward Almond, a combat command and eligibility for a third star, MacArthur stalled pursuit of the enemy for a month. Halberstam vividly describes how, after Inchon that September, MacArthur visited the awed I Corps staff, to whom he was 'walking history.' Confidently, he boasted: 'The war is over. The Chinese are not coming. ... The Third Division will be back in Fort Benning for Christmas dinner.' Then he flew back to comfortable Tokyo. No one doubted him, a colonel recalled, because 'it would have been questioning an announcement from God.' Yet the facts on the ground looked different. U.S. forces were divided into two widely separated fronts as an early and lethal winter set in. After concealing themselves in the snowy hills, the Chinese — uncowed and opportunistic — struck hard. While the dysfunctional Eighth Army retreated in chaos, Marines of the X Corps in the east, resourcefully led by Maj. Gen. Oliver Smith, withdrew from the icy Chosin Reservoir heights late in December to evacuate by sea. MacArthur's prematurely celebrated victory turned into what his troops ruefully called 'die for a tie.' Even that stalemate became possible only under the tough, tireless Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgway once MacArthur, imperious and insubordinate to the end, was sacked by Harry Truman in April 1951. Why had the ouster taken so long? Military necessity, Halberstam suggests, finally outweighed the domestic political consequences. As MacArthur continued to stretch his mandate and openly criticize a strategy intended to contain the war to Korea, the Pentagon worried that his megalomania could have horrific consequences now that Stalin had the Bomb. But the mystique of MacArthur, who had been cosseted timidly by Washington for a decade, paralyzed the process. When his lapses had helped lose the Philippines after Pearl Harbor, he was 9,000 miles away and untouchable. In the dark months when the nation needed a hero, Gen. George C. Marshall, the army chief of staff, overcame his scorn and drafted an unearned Medal of Honor citation for the self-styled hero of Bataan, where MacArthur had spent all of two hours. The gesture was fitting for someone Halberstam characterizes as believing 'that the truth was whatever he said it was at that moment.' Domestic politics made MacArthur's overdue dismissal partisanly divisive. His favorite president, the elderly Herbert Hoover, hailed him, after his 'Old Soldiers Never Die' valedictory to Congress, as 'the reincarnation of St. Paul into the persona of a great General of the Army who had come out of the East.' And veneration of MacArthur continued, in some quarters, for decades, although the congressional hearings upon which diehards insisted after his firing only further diminished him. Halberstam's narrative closes more than a year before a hard-won truce halted the fighting in Korea. But what his formidable indictment does end is the mythologizing of Douglas MacArthur. Stanley Weintraub, a wartime army officer in Korea, is author of 'MacArthur's War' (2000) and the recent '15 Stars: Eisenhower, MacArthur, Marshall.'" Reviewed by Stanley Weintraub, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
(hide most of this review)
"Commanding and evocative....Halberstam's final work stands as the coda to his enduringly famous The Best and the Brightest." Booklist (Starred Review)
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"[A] fitting, warm tribute to the art of reporting, the most appropriate epitaph imaginable for David Halberstam." Christian Science Monitor
"Meticulously reported and exhaustively researched, it traces the strategy, politics, diplomacy and history behind the war on both sides, from Tokyo and Taiwan to Beijing, Moscow and Washington, providing remarkably detailed capsule portraits of its major figures." Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Much more than a book on a war, The Coldest Winter is an instant-classic look at the people, power and politics that created a dangerous stage...and then acted on it." Chicago Sun-Times
"The Coldest Winter is easily the best popular history of the Korean War. Halberstam is a whale of a storyteller." Baltimore Sun
"Halberstam's recounting of the immense shifts in battlefield momentum is breathtaking." Seattle Times
"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
Halberstam uses his unrivaled research and formidable journalistic skills to shed light on another dark corner in history: the Korean War. He provides a masterful narrative of the political decisions and miscalculation on both sides, culminating with the massive entry of Chinese forces near the Yalu, which catches Douglas MacArthur's forces by surprise.
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 misjudgments 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 people asked 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.Includes an Afterword by Russell BakerTributes to David HalberstamDavid Halberstam died at the age of 73 in a car accident in California on April 23, 2007, just after completing The Coldest Winter. Legendary for his work ethic, his kindness to young writers, and his unbending moral spine, Halberstam had friends and admirers throughout journalism, many of whom spoke at his memorial service and at readings across the country for the release of The Coldest Winter. We have included testimonials given at his memorial service by two writers who made their reputations at the same newspaper where he won a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam War reporting, The New York Times: Anna Quindlen ...David occupied a lot of space on the planet. Perhaps he felt the price he must pay for that big voice, that big reach, that big reputation, was that his generosity had to be just as large. Most of us, when we take to the road and meet admiring strangers, vow afterward to answer the note pressed into our hands or to pass along the speech we promised to the person whose daughter couldn't be there to hear it. But with the best will in the world we arrive home to deadlines, bills, kids, friends, all the demands of a busy life. We mean to be our best selves, but often we forget. David did it. He always did it. The note, the call, the book, the advice. When I mentioned this once he dug his hands deep intothe pockets of his grey flannels, set his mouth at the corners, looked down and rumbled, "Well, but it's so easy." That's nonsense. It's not easy. But it is important, and why he has been remembered with enormous affection by ordinary readers all over this country, and why each of us who live some sort of public life would do well, with all due respect to Jesus, to ask ourselves about those small encounters: what would David do ... Read her full tributeDexter Filkins .
About the Author
David Halberstam was one of America's most distinguished journalists and historians. After graduating from Harvard in 1955, he covered the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement, then was sent overseas by the New York Times to report on the war in Vietnam. The author of fifteen bestsellers, including The Best and the Brightest, he won the Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam reporting at the age of thirty. He was killed in a car accident on April 23, 2007, while on his way to an interview for what was to be his next book.
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