Book Review: The Coldest Winter

The Coldest Winter
Author: David Halberstam
Genre: Nonfiction, Military, History
Publisher: Hyperion (NYC)
Publication Date: January 1, 2007
Pages: 733
Format Read: audiobook & book
Standalone or series: standalone
Where I got the book: Library Libby app & bookstore
Date finished reading:  February 24, 2019

Goodreads Description: “In a grand gesture of reclamation & remembrance, Mr Halberstam has brought the war back home.”–NY Times
Halberstam’s magisterial & thrilling The Best & the Brightest was a defining book about the Vietnam conflict. More than three decades later, he used his research & journalistic skills to shed light on another pivotal moment in our history: the Korean War. He considered The Coldest Winter his most accomplished work, the culmination of 45 years of writing about America’s postwar foreign policy. He gives a masterful narrative of the political decisions & miscalculations on both sides. He charts the disastrous path that led to the massive entry of Chinese forces near the Yalu River & that caught Douglas MacArthur & his soldiers by surprise. He provides vivid & nuanced portraits of all the major figures-Eisenhower, Truman, Acheson, Kim, & Mao, & Generals MacArthur, Almond & Ridgway. At the same time, he provides us with his trademark highly evocative narrative journalism, chronicling the crucial battles with reportage of the highest order. As ever, he was concerned with the extraordinary courage & resolve of people asked to bear an extraordinary burden. The Coldest Winter is contemporary history in its most literary & luminescent form, providing crucial perspective on every war America has been involved in since. It’s a book that Halberstam first decided to write over 30 years ago that took him nearly a decade to complete. It stands as a lasting testament to one of the greatest journalists & historians of our time, & to the fighting men whose heroism it chronicles.

My Review: In school I remember studying World War I and II and also the Vietnam War, but I don’t remember discussing the Korean War at all. It is truly the “Forgotten War.” However, if there is anything that David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter taught me, it is all the lessons that can be learned by studying the Korean War. Lessons that might be as valuable in today’s world, as they were in the 1950s.

With the end of World War II, the United States was just coming to terms with its new role in the international community. We had military in Europe and Asia. The U.S. was now seen as a world leader and with that power comes great responsibility. To be honest, I don’t believe the US knew what that responsibility was, but the U.S. did feel threatened by China and Russia’s power. China and Russia both had plans to increase their power, and it was not just to spread communism. Through some coaxing of a few U.S. military individuals in the Pacific region, one being General MacArthur, President Truman decided that we needed to prevent some of China’s actions in Asia, as their forces and influence were moving into the Korean peninsula. On June 30, 1950, President Truman gave the order for ground troops in Korea.

Though these actions would have support from the United Nations, there were quite a few issues with this order. First, many military men had just fought a hard and painful (both physically and psychologically) war (World War II) and were not anxious to fight in another war, especially not in a region that they were unfamiliar with. The U.S. military was not at all prepared to fight the massive Chinese forces. Troops were ill-equipped and under-trained. The battle in Chipyong-ni in February of 1951 “was one of the decisive battles of the war, because it was where the American forces finally learned to fight the Chinese.” Prior to that, US soldiers were losing their lives at a rapid speed. They had completely underestimated their opponent. In the words of Commander T.R. Fehrenbach, they were “fighting a war they didn’t understand. They knew neither their ally nor their enemy.”

The Coldest Winter brings to light so many elements of the Korean War, one being the politics and relationships among countries at that time. Stalin and Mao both were leaders of communist countries, but that did not always mean that they were always on the same side. “To Mao, the Soviets might be communists, but they were first and foremost Russians.” They both displayed a nationalistic side that doesn’t leave a lot of room for diplomacy.

There are so many things to take away from this book, that I hope I have absorbed at least 10%. I found the insight into General MacArthur really fascinating, especially his relationship with Washington and President Truman. It was quite dramatic. In 1944, General Joseph Stilwell stated, “The problem with MacArthur was that he had been a general too long. He got his first star in 1918, and that means he has had almost 30 years as a general. 30 years of people playing to him and kissing his ass and doing what he wants.” He did not always accept the orders from Washington and in the end, President Truman did fire General MacArthur.

The Korean War was really the beginning of the Cold War, as U.S. military and political leaders realized that the Soviet Union had many powerful weapons, including nuclear weapons. This was also the beginning of a division on the Korean Peninsula that continues to this day – a conflict that does not seem to be over as North Korea continues to concern the international community.

Even though The Coldest Winter reads like a textbook, if you want a comprehensive look into the Korean War and its players, this is a must read.

My Rating: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦


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