The Coldest Winter (By David Halberstam)

A Most Dangerous Precedent

Reviewed by Stanley Weintraub
Sunday, September 23, 2007


America and the Korean War

By David Halberstam

Hyperion. 719 pp. $35

No "Mission Accomplished" banner has ever been flaunted about the Korean War. The conflict that David Halberstam calls a "black hole" in history (despite shelves of books about it) achieved its original objective. At great cost, military intervention reversed the communist thrust into South Korea, now a model of prosperity; North Korea remains an impoverished, Stalinist state. But in the 1950s, Americans did not perceive the Korean War as a success, and we have even more reason to view it with misgiving now, in light of our imbroglio in Iraq.

As Halberstam recounts with mounting indignation in The Coldest Winter, some of the worst decisions in Korea were based on skewed intelligence. To be sure, it was military officers who massaged the facts they reported to civilian leaders. In Vietnam and Iraq, the pattern reversed, with civilians cherry-picking the intelligence to manipulate the military and the public. But in Halberstam's view, the Korean War set a "most dangerous" precedent: "the American government had begun to make fateful decisions based on the most limited of truths and the most deeply flawed intelligence in order to do what it wanted to do for political reasons, whether it would work or not." Half a century later, we still have thousands of U.S. troops in Korea -- not a good omen for Iraq.

Halberstam was one of the great war journalists of our time. In April, five days after delivering final revisions to this book, he was killed in a car crash in Menlo Park, Calif. Among his 19 previous books is the iconic The Best and the Brightest (1972), probing how and why some of the most able Americans of their generation entangled the United States in an unwinnable war in Vietnam.

When communist North Korea invaded the South in June 1950, Halberstam was 16, too young to take much notice. He learned about the Korean quagmire from men in Vietnam who had endured the earlier misery. Vietnam dominated his life for seven years, after which he tackled other subjects, from sports to the automobile industry. It was only in the late 1990s that he returned to the Cold War's first hot war. Now, because of his untimely death, The Coldest Winter will stand with The Best and the Brightest as the big bookends of his career -- parallel accounts, 35 years apart, of wars characterized by a disconnect between reality and authority.

Some readers may find The Coldest Winter to be something of a quagmire itself. Halberstam acknowledges in an author's note that it does not have a "linear" structure. Rather, "it takes you on its own journey, and you learn along the way. It becomes not just the story of the Chinese entering the war and what happened in those critical weeks. On the way there is a great deal of political history to be learned, all of which forms the background on both sides. And there are other battles. People kept telling me about the brutal fighting in the earlier Pusan Perimeter days, and so I had to learn about that." In the process, we reach page 395 before the weather turns cold. By then, Douglas MacArthur, for five years unanswerable to anyone as occupation boss of Japan, was running the war by remote control -- never spending, as Halberstam acidly notes, "a night in the field in Korea." He was already 70, and his willfulness was unyielding, abetted by pseudo-intelligence subserviently packaged by staff toadies in Tokyo.

In a miscalculation of his opponent's character and a display of his own hubris, MacArthur claimed that Chairman Mao would be intimidated if the United States inserted an army by sea at Inchon, above Seoul. He believed it would be too late for the Red Chinese to intervene; the hapless North Korean aggressors would be cut off and crushed. Regardless of MacArthur's arrogant incaution, who in Washington, or even in Korea, could dispute his strategy after the Inchon landing's initial success? "MacArthur has thought it all through," the X Corps intelligence chief declared, "and it's not to their advantage to come in, so they won't come in."

Yet the very existence of X Corps was a problem. To evade Washington and allow him to run the war personally, MacArthur had set up X Corps as a parallel force to the Eighth Army, which was still struggling to push north toward Seoul. By splitting his troops (to Halberstam, "the unthinkable") to give his favorite courtier, Edward Almond, a combat command and eligibility for a third star, MacArthur stalled pursuit of the enemy for a month.

Halberstam vividly describes how, after Inchon that September, MacArthur visited the awed I Corps staff, to whom he was "walking history." Confidently, he boasted: "The war is over. The Chinese are not coming . . . The Third Division will be back in Fort Benning for Christmas dinner." Then he flew back to comfortable Tokyo. No one doubted him, a colonel recalled, because "it would have been questioning an announcement from God."

Yet the facts on the ground looked different. U.S. forces were divided into two widely separated fronts as an early and lethal winter set in. After concealing themselves in the snowy hills, the Chinese -- uncowed and opportunistic -- struck hard. While the dysfunctional Eighth Army retreated in chaos, Marines of the X Corps in the east, resourcefully led by Maj. Gen. Oliver Smith, withdrew from the icy Chosin Reservoir heights late in December to evacuate by sea. MacArthur's prematurely celebrated victory turned into what his troops ruefully called "die for a tie." Even that stalemate became possible only under the tough, tireless Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgway once MacArthur, imperious and insubordinate to the end, was sacked by Harry Truman in April 1951.

Why had the ouster taken so long? Military necessity, Halberstam suggests, finally outweighed the domestic political consequences. As MacArthur continued to stretch his mandate and openly criticize a strategy intended to contain the war to Korea, the Pentagon worried that his megalomania could have horrific consequences now that Stalin had the Bomb. But the mystique of MacArthur, who had been cosseted timidly by Washington for a decade, paralyzed the process. When his lapses had helped lose the Philippines after Pearl Harbor, he was 9,000 miles away and untouchable. In the dark months when the nation needed a hero, Gen. George C. Marshall, the army chief of staff, overcame his scorn and drafted an unearned Medal of Honor citation for the self-styled hero of Bataan, where MacArthur had spent all of two hours. The gesture was fitting for someone Halberstam characterizes as believing "that the truth was whatever he said it was at that moment."

Domestic politics made MacArthur's overdue dismissal partisanly divisive. His favorite president, the elderly Herbert Hoover, hailed him, after his "Old Soldiers Never Die" valedictory to Congress, as "the reincarnation of St. Paul into the persona of a great General of the Army who had come out of the East." And veneration of MacArthur continued, in some quarters, for decades, although the congressional hearings upon which diehards insisted after his firing only further diminished him. Halberstam's narrative closes more than a year before a hard-won truce halted the fighting in Korea. But what his formidable indictment does end is the mythologizing of Douglas MacArthur. *

Stanley Weintraub, a wartime army officer in Korea, is author of "MacArthur's War" (2000) and the recent "15 Stars: Eisenhower, MacArthur, Marshall."

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