David Halberstam turned in the last corrections for The Coldest Winter, his study of the first eight months of the Korean War, just five days before he died in a traffic accident while en route to an interview for his next project, a book on professional football. A former New York Times reporter and one of the finest nonfiction writers of his generation, Halberstam could switch from serious issues to more light-hearted topics with apparent ease. Over the last two decades, he had alternated sports books with works on U.S. foreign policy, the civil rights movement and the firefighters of 9/11.
In his last completed book, Halberstam focuses on the beginnings of the Korean War, which became the confluence of a mass of political stirrings. Chief among these was America’s growing fear of communism, an apprehension deepened by the recent communist takeover of China. Fueling this fear was the mighty China Lobby, which believed that the Korean conflict might both dislodge the hated and distrusted Democrats from power (as it surely helped to do) and also serve as the vehicle for returning the defeated Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek to mainland China. For Mao Zedong, the victor over Chiang, however, the war offered an opportunity to demonstrate that communist China had a world-class army and henceforth must be treated accordingly.
At the center of these conflicting movements stood the monstrously self-aggrandizing figure of Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Vain, racist and contemptuous of politicians particularly his commanders-in-chief MacArthur initially dismissed all the signs that the Korean conflict might escalate into a long and costly war. Not only did he keep honest intelligence to himself instead of sharing it with those who needed it most, he surrounded himself with toadies who tailored the intelligence they gathered to confirm his preconceptions. His one praiseworthy act during the war, says Halberstam, was planning and overseeing the successful landing of United Nation troops at Inchon. From there on, it was all downhill. He disparaged the possibility that China would send soldiers into Korea or that they could stand up to American firepower if they did come. He undercut his most effective commanders and promoted the least able ones. When his weaknesses became apparent, he blamed others. Finally and at great political risk to himself and his party President Harry Truman fired MacArthur.
As in his other historical works, Halberstam deftly sketches in the lives of all the major players. His most eloquent passages are about individual soldiers in combat. He follows the war in detail complete with battle maps from the North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, through the crucial battle for Chipyongni that ended February 15, 1951. It would be two more years before the war came to a mutually unsatisfactory draw.
Halberstam points to parallels between the defective information that needlessly doomed tens of thousands in Korea and that which precipitated later wars: “[I]t showed the extent to which 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. In 1965, the government of Lyndon Johnson manipulated the rationale for sending combat troops to Vietnam. . . . Then in 2003, the administration of George W. Bush . . . manipulated the Congress, the media, the public, and most dangerously of all, itself, with seriously flawed and doctored intelligence, and sent troops into the heart of Iraqi cities with disastrous results.”