David Halberstam. The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War. New York: Hyperion. 2007. 719.In The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, journalist and historian David Halberstam has written an exceptional work on America’s involvement in the Korean War. Past Pulitzer Prize-winning author Halberstam effectively weaves select battle history along with the early 1950s political climate between the post-WWII superpowers into a “page turner” reading more novel-like than a literary contribution to military history. It is Halberstam’s use of first-hand accounts by American soldiers in combat which illustrates their country’s lack of readiness for war in 1950. The author addresses this lack of unpreparedness at many levels from inexperienced soldiers to lack of equipment and most importantly – bad leadership. If “Old soldiers never die” then why did General Douglas Macarthur not “Fade away” as the old adage goes, following World War II? Halberstam traces the sad figure cut by MacArthur himself throughout the war until his ultimate fade during the 1952 Republican National Convention:
MacArthur gave the keynote speech, but the handsome and charismatic old soldier, the man who stood so confidently before the Congress a little more than a year earlier, had disappeared. In his place was a civilian-indeed a politician-who seemed not only more partisan, but much older, appearing in what was one of the most alien and uncomfortable roles of his life, that is, speaking on behalf of another man… The delegates in the arena soon became restless and began to abandon their seats. Millions of other Americans, sitting in their homes, watched as he emptied the floor. 
Tragically many lives were lost during the Korean War due to instances of poor military leadership within the American forces. This becomes part of Halberstam’s underlying thesis for The Coldest Winter. Fighting in a harsh land amidst brutal cold helps to round out the “no-win” scenario for American troops in Korea save one – the real enemy… China. America and its U.N. Allies found itself vastly outnumbered in these frozen killing fields often outnumbered and surrounded by Chinese troops. Korea as a country found itself “up for grabs” following the Second World War and the object of struggle between three now-superpowers – China, the United States and the Soviet Union. All three countries now trying to find their way in the world following a changed redistribution of global boundaries and power – this is the overarching thesis of Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter. Halberstam in telling the story of the Korean War in overall context of U.S. military history, bridges the gap between the Second World War and the war in Vietnam. Based on the premise that those countries who fought in World War I also signed up for a rematch in World War II – does a similar hypothesis hold true for Korea and Vietnam?
Miscalculation of the enemy by MacArthur was a catastrophic misstep early in the war. Successful tactics learned in fighting the Japanese in World War II would also work against another Asian nation in Korea – or so thought MacArthur: “… MacArthur believed one war would be much the same as the next – even if it was against an entirely different enemy… the Chinese, by contrast, were the least industrialized of major nations, understood their vulnerabilities all too well, and adjusted their tactics accordingly.”  Fighting Japan in World War II was fighting against a traditional army in a conventional war, vastly different than that in Korea against the Chinese: “Much of the way they fought reflected the primitive status of their industrial economy. Their ability to shift vast forces without detection – moving some of their divisions up to fifteen miles at night without a single cigarette being smoked, then burrowing into handmade caves during the day – caught MacArthur and his immediate staff completely by surprise.”  MacArthur would have never known that he was one of the last American generals to see conventional warfare fought by conventional armies – witness Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq and Afghanistan. Insurgents and a “hidden enemy” among the indigenous population now the norm has made the Korean War a historic “pivot point” in the way in which wars are fought. As the United States has found out in places such as Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq/Afghanistan – all of the technology in the world doesn’t matter if you can’t see your enemy.
I found The Coldest Winter to be one of the better books I’ve recently read within the realm of military history. The only criticism which I have of The Coldest Winter is the author’s focus on the fighting on Korea’s western and northern regions and omission of the U.S. Marine’s efforts along the eastern side of Korea.
Halberstam was a brilliant writer and infinitely qualified to write this history. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his writing on the Vietnam War for the New York Times, Harvard-educated Halberstam spent ten years researching and writing The Coldest War. I look forward to re-reading his work again.
Halberstam, David. The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War. New York: Hyperion, 2007.