The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War
David Halberstram

I have often found that popular writing about war falls into two broad types, each with its own constituents who want to see something of themselves reflected in it. On is the soldier’s history, the history of a unit, or even an army, but emphasizing the experience of the soldier, what the combat, food and weather were like, all the while describing the individual acts of soldiering, some pure survival, some that are called bravery in retrospect, but were just one soldier looking to protect the rest of the unit. The soldier’s war is the easiest one to turn into silly heroics, done right, though, it can describe not only the actual experience but what it is that binds soldiers together long after the war and gives them an unchangeable loyalty to the unit they belonged to (I think EB Sledge’s With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa is the best example). Often at the end, though, you have a sense that if it weren’t for this one private, or this one company, the whole war would have been lost.

The other I often see is the strategic or political history of a war: who were the generals, what political constraints did they have. While these can have elements of the soldier’s war, more often the books seem to be interested in finding what made the subjects so good, or so bad, or so something that one can understand how the war was one or lost. Of course, the better books will paint a much more complex picture where you may wonder how anything was accomplished (David Kennedy’s Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945, can easily give one that impression). So many times, though, I’ve come away from a history of a way and thought, that general was some genius, even though not everyone can be a genius.

I mention these two broad types, because The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War has both of these elements and it makes for an excellent history which outlines some of the more salient moments. Yet is far from a complete history of the war. While no book can be the complete history, there are large gaps that made me wish he had stuck to either the political side of the story or the soldier’s. Each one part he relates is excellent and the detail he goes into on some encounters is impressive, but at other times, such as the Marine evacuation from the Chosin Reservoir, some incidents receive just a paragraph.

Halberstram had a particular story he wanted to relate about the Korean war and the gaps point as much to his focus as much as the parts he relates. It is not so much the war he wanted to document, but the transition from the victor of World War II and reluctant super power to an anti-communist state willing to pour billions of dollars and thousands of lives into preventing the expansion of communism. Korea forced the United States to modernize the Army, develop new strategies, and break with the World War II notion of unconditional surrender and settle for stalemates and containment. Moreover, it was the beginning of the rightward turn within the country and the rise of virulent anti-communism with the likes of McCarthy that was not only an ideological position, but a political tool to differentiate Republicans from Democrats and the New Deal.

With the change in political circumstances and the bad generalship due in large part to generals more interested in politics than sound strategy, particularly MacArthur and Almond, the war became the harbinger of all that was to go wrong in Vietnam. For Halberstram the war may have resulted in the development of South Korea and helped put together a sound defense establishment, but it also helped create the environment where no leader dare appear weak on communism. No leader would be able to analyze communism in subtle terms as George Kennan had and see the Vietnam War as an anti-colonial war , instead of the steady march of a monolithic communism. For this folly, for this inability to separate foreign policy from internal politics, the United States would suffer the Vietnam War, the policy making origins rooted deeply in the political battles of the Korean War.

Halberstram makes a compelling case and as I think about the political histories of war it is amazing that anything ever turns out even remotely like the participants planned.

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