Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (Hyperion, 2007)

Nov 10, 2007 9:56 pm


Luther Spoehr: Review of David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (Hyperion, 2007)



Coming between the cataclysm of World War II and the prolonged agony of Vietnam, the Korean War is often called “America’s forgotten war.” Although the United States suffered over 30,000 combat deaths, the war was technically a “police action,” lasted “only” three years, and ended in stalemate. Not, apparently, the stuff of legend, or for popular epics saluting a “greatest generation.”

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam wanted to change that. Best known for The Best and the Brightest, his 1972 chronicle of America’s descent into the Vietnam quagmire, Halberstam spent years researching this, his twenty-first book, a top-to-bottom, beginning-to-end rendition of an American experience known to many people only through re-runs of M*A*S*H. He had just put the finishing touches on it when he was killed in an auto accident last April.

All of the authorial virtues and vices displayed in Halberstam’s previous books are on display here. On the one hand, there’s his vigorous prose, his gift for vivid portraiture of the leaders (including Generals Douglas MacArthur and Matthew Ridgway) and the led (Sgt. Paul McGee and dozens of other GIs whom Halberstam interviewed), his willingness to set a larger context for the smallest actions, his eye for the symbolically significant detail.

On the other hand, there’s his tendency to pile up insignificant details and turn minor digressions into major ones—for instance, we get many more biographical details than we need on virtually every American political and military leader. Moreover, the emphasis on personalities shortchanges any discussion of larger forces at work. Halberstam places most of the blame for the pain caused by Korea on General MacArthur, who followed up his daring triumph at Inchon by recklessly sending troops north toward the Chinese border at the Yalu River, insisting in the face of contrary intelligence that the Chinese would never enter the war.

They came in with a vengeance and pushed United Nations forces back down the peninsula during the “Coldest Winter” of 1950-51, before being halted at the 38th parallel, where the line between the communist North and anti-Communist South remains today. Fighting in weather so cold that oil froze in jeeps and tanks, on terrain resembling a cratered moonscape, American GIs came home with stories of savagery and matter-of-fact bravery that, as Halberstam relates them, will deepen every reader’s understanding of what the war was like.

Halberstam tells his tale as a series of set pieces that different readers will approach differently. Those unfamiliar with the war can march through every page-- pausing periodically to orient themselves, especially when Halberstam shifts the scene abruptly. Those who know the war’s politics can do some readerly “island-hopping,” flying over familiar scenes of policymaking in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo, and alighting on those focused on the GIs, whose experiences from Unsan to Chipyongni deserve the careful attention Halberstam gives them.

In short, despite its flaws, Halberstam’s book has its rewards for all readers, even though, sadly, it also writes “30” to a distinguished career.




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Lewis Bernstein - 1/1/2008

While I may not be as informed as the reviewer, I believe that Halberstam's book sets the Korean War in its historical context. Quite honestly he shows how the interplay of personality and judgment makes history and highlights the influence individuals have on shaping events. I'm not sure what "larger forces" the reviewer would cite for the course of the war, but a lengthy digression on MacArthur's biography serves to illustrate the role he played in the 20th century US Army. An important note is that by 1950 Douglas MacArthur had been a general for 33 years! He had held almost every type of major command in the Army and was a former Army Chief of Staff as well as one of the acknowledged victors of World War II. Everyone in the Army was junior to him--the only man who matched MacArthur's length of service was George C. Marshall. While Halberstam's work concentrates on MacArthur and his eventual downfall, it is important to note that the shooting war continued until July 1953 when a truce was signed. There is still no peace treaty.


R. R. Hamilton - 1/1/2008

"They came in with a vengeance and pushed United Nations forces back down the peninsula during the “Coldest Winter” of 1950-51, before being halted at the 38th parallel, where the line between the communist North and anti-Communist South remains today."

First, the Chinese were not "halted at the 38th parallel". They captured Seoul and pushed as far south as Suwon or Osan, I believe. Second, the line between North and South Korea no longer "remains on the 38th parallel. It is near the 38th parallel, but runs now in a more southwest-to-northeast direction across the peninsula. Finally, you lower-cased "communist" then upper-cased it in "anti-Communist"; you should probably be consistent on your capitalization.

Thank you for your book review though.