Despite its accuracy, there’s a deadly irony in David Halberstam’s new book when he scathingly observes that what little Americans think they know about the Korean War is mostly derived from the film and TV series M-A-S-H, both nominally set in Korea but actually thinly disguised parables of the Vietnam War. For if The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War proves anything, it’s that Halberstam’s own vision of history was hopelessly and permanently clouded by Vietnam.
Halberstam spent his formative years as a reporter in Saigon dissecting what he called the U.S. government’s “lying machine” with such ferocity that President Kennedy tried to get the New York Times to bring him home while at the same time screaming at his aides: “Why can I get this stuff from Halberstam when I can’t get it from my own people?” Later, he wrote two books, The Making of a Quagmire and The Best and the Brightest, documenting the missteps that ensnared Washington in the Southeastern Asia briar patch.
Unfortunately, in The Coldest Winter, Halberstam (who died at 73 in a traffic accident this spring, shortly after completing the book) simply cuts and pastes his analysis of Vietnam onto Korea: It was, he writes, simply one more chapter in a century-long series of American imperial adventures in Asia in which Washington mistook Third World communism that was merely “a convenient instrument of anticolonial forces” for a cat’s-paw of the Russians.
But that paradigm, which is at least arguable in the case of Vietnam (though judging from the number of desperate boat people who fled after the fall of Saigon, Vietnam sure must have had a large pro-colonial population), is simply nutty when applied to Korea.
The North Korean dictator who touched off the war, Kim Il Sung, was not an opponent but a product of colonialism. Barely known in Korea, he had lived almost his entire life in Russia when the Soviets installed him after the partition of Korea by Washington and Moscow at the end of World War II. (Nor were his subjects impressed by their new master; the prevailing opinion after Kim’s first public appearance was that he sounded like a duck, albeit a scary one with his fulsome praise of Stalin’s labor camps.)
Kim began lobbying his sponsors in Moscow and Beijing for permission to invade the south almost immediately; the weak and dissolute United States, he predicted, had no stomach for a fight and would quickly abandon its South Korean allies. When he finally got permission in May 1950, the result was not civil war led by indigenous guerrillas—Kim had no support in the south; there was no South Korean equivalent of the Viet Cong—but a flat-out invasion across an internationally recognized border.
Halberstam touches on some of the points, but dwells on none of them, mostly because they do not fit his thesis. But he’s also handicapped by relying almost entirely on secondary sources for the substantial part of The Coldest Winter devoted to geopolitics, and history books have yet to catch up with the flood of secret documents released by former communist regimes since the end of the Cold War.
Halberstam spends countless pages debating whether U.S. commander Douglas MacArthur’s decision to send troops north to the Yalu River, North Korea’s border with China, prompted the Chinese to enter the war. But documents in now-public archives in Moscow and Beijing show that Mao Tse-tung promised troops to the North Koreans a full year before it began.
When Halberstam is giving the grunt’s-eye-view of the war, aided by extensive interviews with American veterans, The Coldest Winter is much better. His descriptions of a frigid battlefield that matched China’s icy indifference to human costs (“The death of 10 or 20 million people is nothing to be afraid of,” Mao sniffed to those worried that the United States might use its atomic bombs) against the Americans’ superior firepower (U.S. artillery pumped a staggering 100,000 rounds into Chinese forces over two days in a battle for a militarily insignificant hill near the end of the war) can be downright horrifying.
Horrifying, too, is MacArthur’s ineptitude and vainglory. Halberstam offers a withering portrait of MacArthur: so secretive he withheld his war plans from even the Pentagon; so arrogant he refused to salute his commander in chief President Truman; so certain he was fighting a racially inferior enemy that he never bothered to spend a night in Korea during the entire conflict.
The result was a roller-coaster war in which U.S. troops were almost pushed into the sea by the initial invasion, regained the upper hand with a surprise amphibious landing behind North Korean lines, then lost it again by stretching their supply lines too thin as they drove north.
Even here, though, Halberstam’s Vietnam obsession shows through. Determined to show that Korea was a military failure, he concentrates almost exclusively on American defeats. His description of the collapse of U.S. troops in the face of the early North Korean offensive takes 104 pages; of the victorious American landing at Inchon that broke the back of Kim’s army, just 15 pages. The Chinese rout of the U.S. Army units near the Yalu takes up 84 pages; the more orderly Marine withdrawal, in which American forces inflicted 60,000 casualties on the enemy, 4 pages. From those numbers, you might think the Korean War was an American defeat. The 49 million citizens of a prosperous and democratic South Korea, gazing across the barbed wire at the starving Stalinist hellhole to the north, will tell you otherwise.