‘The Coldest Winter’ is a great book, puts Korean War in perspective

Published 1:30 pm Tuesday, July 22, 2008

I have finished “The Coldest Winter” by David Halberstam and must say the late author only got better with age, and he was great to start with.

Halberstam, son of a U.S. Army surgeon, was born in New York and educated at Harvard, but he got his start as a writer right here in Mississippi. His first reporting job out of Harvard was at the West Point (Miss.) Daily Times Leader.

From there, he went to the Tennessean in Nashville and then to the New York Times. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the early days of the Vietnam War and then went on to his career as an author of some of the most thoughtful and comprehensive contemporary histories ever written.

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Probably the first book most people remember him for is “The Best and the Brightest,” which was about Vietnam, especially how John Kennedy and his crew of intellectuals slide into it. He revisits some of that at the end of “The Coldest Winter,” tying the two wars together.

Russell Baker, a fellow writer and friend of Halberstam’s, added an end note to what became Halberstam’s final book. In it, he says that “The Best and the Brightest” and “The Coldest Winter” are in many respects companion books. I agree with him.

Between them, they bridge the Cold War and its two hottest flare-ups.

In writing the book, Halberstam covers the politics of the United States, the Soviet Union, North Korea, South Korea and China, and to some very small respect the politics of Vietnam and France. The politics of the post-World War II U.S. Army and Pentagon are most fascinating, especially given the egos of the men who had just won World War II, and most especially the warped ego of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was a hero in spite of himself..

Halberstam also covers the major battles and campaigns of Korea, of course, especially the early battles before the war settled down into the gristmill of human life that it came to be. He likens that last part of the war, interestingly enough, to the trench warfare of World War I. If there is a weakness in the book, it is in this part, because he does not draw a clear picture to fully support the likeness to World War I, not to me anyway.

However, he does cover the battles of first part of the war up through Chipyongni exceptionally well, I think. I was less familiar with them than I was with the last part of the war and didn’t realize how fluid the war had been in its early days, though I did know that the U.N. forces, primarily American, had been forced to retreat from the Yalu River and Chosin Reservoir.

As a former Marine, I would have liked to see him write more about the retreat from the Chosin Reservoir, of course, but it was a resounding success, even a victory of sorts, compared to the Army’s bloody retreat through The Gauntlet. The fight through the Chinese ambush in The Gauntlet is much less storied than the Chosin breakout and needed the emphasis that Halberstam gave it.

As fascinating as his stories of the fighting may be, to me it was the political battles going on behind the scenes in Washington, D.C., and between Washington and MacArthur in Tokyo, Japan, that were truly telling.

I had often wondered how China, which had only been consolidated under Mao Tse Tung and the Communists for about a year or so, could come into the Korean War and do so much damage to the U.N. forces. Halberstam clears up that picture. Also, he puts the war into perspective of the Cold War that was going on in Europe between the West and the Soviet Union.

Another question Halberstam answered for me was why did North Korea attack in the first place. The answer to that was similar to what happened when Iraq marched into Kuwait to start the first Iraq War — poor communications and misunderstanding on each side of the questions being posed by the other.

Those who want a purely military history of Korea won’t find it in “The Coldest Winter,” but those who want to understand the war, how it started and why, its conduct and relationship to the world as it was developing just after the end of World War II, will find their answers in this book.

Halberstam was a great writer and those of us who love history will greatly miss the power of intellect he used to put history into context of both our times and the times in which it was made. We also will miss the clarity and conciseness of his writing skills.