Book Review: The Coldest Winter12 Apr 2008 0
Book Review: The Coldest Winter
The death of David Halberstam, who was killed in a car accident in April of this year, represents another significant loss to American historians. Halberstam, although known mainly for The Best and the Brightest—his book on Vietnam for which he won a Pulitzer, has superbly chronicled many subjects, both big and small, relating to America. Halberstam was excellent at discerning what information obtained from his myriad of interviews (for most books) would most clearly portray the picture his words would offer.
It was interesting to discover that The Coldest Winter had actually sprung from a 1962 conversation in Vietnam with an American soldier who had fought in Korea. The Coldest Winter is, as stated in Russell Baker's after word comments at the end of the book, "... a companion book to the The Best and the Brightest. The book was completed only days before Halberstam's death and he clearly believed it was one of his best works.
Those seeking a detailed history of all the battles of the Korean War should look elsewhere, because that is not the focus of "The Coldest War". This isn't to say that Halberstam doesn't chronicle the combat in Korea, because he does so brilliantly in several specific actions. The book has serious depth that at times can be daunting, at times slows the action to a crawl, yet most of this depth is what makes The Coldest Winter such an interesting and enjoyable book. What Halberstam accomplishes with the book is to starkly portray all the main players in the Korean drama in such a way that helps the reader understand their actions, lack of actions, views and in many ways their mindsets. Woven into this big picture look at these historic individuals is the story of American ground forces in Korea. These soldiers dealt with the realities on the battlefield created by the misconceptions, and at times deceit, carried on at the upper levels of command.
Halberstam begins the book with the battles that occurred around Unsan on November 1-2, 1950 where the Chinese put a clear warning shot across MacArthur's bow when they hit the 1st Cavalry's 8th Regiment very hard around Unsan—causing around 800 casualties to the 2400 strong force and virtually wiping out the 3rd Battalion, which lost around 600 of its 800 men. The description of events leading up to the assault, and the small unit action is excellent and draws the reader into the story quickly. Halberstam also manages to work in seeds that he brings to full fruition later in the book such as the fact that many soldiers, especially the intelligence sections, realized that there were many Chinese in the neighborhood and tried to pass that information up the command structure, only to see their reports given short shrift or in some cases stonewalled. Another small detail tossed in to the mix is the fact that MacArthur never spent a night in Korea during the time he commanded the Theater. The final paragraph of the chapter sums it well in that Unsan and Sudong, where the Marines were attacked on the eastern side of the peninsula, "...was the last chance to break off the drive north, move back and avoid a larger war with the Chinese. But Washington did nothing."
The Coldest Winter then moves back in time to the initial invasion. Halberstam does an exceptional job in sketching Kim Il Sung, North Korea's dictator-leader, and discussing his ties with both Moscow and China. It is a fact sometime lost in the history of the Korean conflict, that North Korea was much more an ally of Russia than of China. In both this discussion, and later in depth examination, Halberstam does an exceptional job of portraying the changing facets of the North Korean- Chinese relationship. He also outlines the policy mistakes made by the United States that helped set the stage for the invasion.
The initial invasion quickly led to American intervention. Halberstam discusses why the American forces were not prepared to fight and how their first contact with the North Koreans proved disastrous. The meeting of Task Force Smith with the North Koreans north of Osan clearly showed an overconfident American command that they faced a much more difficult situation than expected. In Halberstam's words, "It was a very bad beginning. Poorly prepared troops poorly deployed barely slowed down the ferocious drive south of the North Koreans- at best by a few days." The discussion of the American illusion that the atomic bomb was the only weapon needed to maintain peace helps the reader understand why the American military spending had been cut so deep, though Halberstam rightfully pillories President Truman and his appointment of Louis Johnson as Secretary of Defense. Johnson had slashed the military budget to the bone, with Truman's acquiesance, and that spelled trouble as America tried to react to the North Korean invasion.
Throughout the book, Halberstam does a superior job of filling in the history of critical individuals. These include not just the heads of state, but also down to the level of Walton Walker, the 8th Army Commander of American forces in Korea. The one place where these clinical reviews actually put a drag on the story is Halberstam's extensive examination undertaken in the "Politics of Two Continents" section. In this section, Halberstam spends a significant amount of time scrutinizing Mao, Stalin, Truman and American politics as they converged to the Korean War. As much as I was fascinated by the information, this in-depth dissection also takes some serious slogging as a reader to work through. The placement in the book, between the invasion and the battles around Pusan, means it takes a bit of dedication (or possibly some skimming depending on the interest of the reader) to work through. Once past, the rest of the book reverts to a 'just one more page' quality.
Halberstam focuses on the battles at Naktong River in examining the last major North Korean push to drive the Americans and ROK forces into the sea. The battles occurred on August 31st and September 1st 1950, just before the landing at Inchon on September 15th. Walton Walker posthumously carried a poor reputation from Korea. Halberstam demonstrates that Walker provided some excellent leadership in withstanding the North Korean effort to drive out the Americans by collapsing the Pusan perimeter. The Naktong final battles are seen through the eyes of the 1st Battalion, 23rd Regiment, 2nd Division. They were stationed along the Naktong and were overwhelmed when attacked by approximately 15 to 20 thousand North Koreans. The descriptions of the action are both heroic and haunting.