Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Coldest Winter

David Halberstam's wonderful book The Coldest Winter is about the Korean War, but it not a history of the war itself. It is, rather, an excellent analysis of the geopolitical climate in which the war took place, but in the United States and Korea and, of particular importance, in China.

But there is also plenty of analysis of specific battles. Several chapters are devoted to the troops in the trenches so to speak. For that reason, this is truly history as it should be written - a mix of the strategic, operational, and tactical considerations of the war.

Critics have noted that the work is not really about the war so much as it is about the strategic thinking (and failings) of General Douglas MacArthur and the aspects of the war dealing with China. This criticism is correct but really misses the mark. The book doesn't pretend to be more than a summary of most of the war. Its primary focus is on the US (under the guise of the United Nations) battling a surprise, massive Chinese invasion of 300,000 troops that almost broke the back of the largely American forces.

The Korean War is known as "the forgotten war" because it is so often overlooked in US military history. In a nutshell, North Korean troops invaded South Korea after receiving assurances of Soviet support (most of which never materialized). The North Koreans almost swept the Korean Peninsula clean, forcing weak South Korean and American troops into a pocket around the southern port of Pusan.

MacArthur then surprised the North Koreans with an invasion at Inchon that led to retaking all the ground originally lost. Then MacArthur drove north, capturing the North Korean capital and beyond into the mountainous regions near the Chinese border. At this point, unknown to UN strategists, China decided to enter the war.

The Chinese offensives (there were several of them) initially decimated the chiefly US forces, retook Seoul, and drove south again. But, due to logistical problems on the part of Chinese, to clever adaption by the US field commanders (General Matt Ridgeway among others) in learning how to fight this fierce new opponent, and to overwhelming US air and artillery support, the South Korean capital was retaken and matters resulted in a stalemate of trench warfare until a ceasefire was signed, ending the military fighting in 1953.

Most Americans do not realize we had a war with China in the early 1950's.


As a result of the Chinese counteroffensive, US President Harry Truman dismissed General MacArthur. The Coldest Winter deals a lot with the political aspects of this as well as the political reasons for China entering the war. Halberstam is highly critical of General MacArthur as a bold but out-of-touch commander that did not understand the Chinese and placed US forces in a precarious position which resulted in some of the worst military defeats in our nation's history.

Some highlights from The Coldest Winter to give you some idea of the flavor of the book...

“In those early days, Korea remained very much a Soviet satellite, with the Russians making a deliberate effort to minimize the influence of the Chinese. Kim’s top advisors as D-day approached were all Russian generals, and they gradually took over the war planning. They considered Kim’s early plans for the invasion amateurish, and the plans were redrawn to specifications.” (page 51)

“But the (Truman) administration’s political opponents…saw the beginning of the Korean War as a way of striking against the president and his secretary of state, and of tying Korea to an issue on which they were already attacking Truman, the loss of China.” (page 97)

“The United States would go to war totally unprepared. The first American units thrown into battle were poorly armed, in terrible shape physically, and, more often than not, poorly led. The mighty army that had stood victorious in two great theaters of war, Europe and Asia, just five years earlier was a mere shell of itself. Militarily, America was a country trying to get by on the cheap, and in Korea it showed immediately.” (page 138) According to Halberstam, Truman and the Democrat contolled congress were mostly responsible for sweeping military cutbacks trying to pay off the debt from World War Two. Douglas MacArthur was also partly at fault for an inadequate training program.

China becoming communist was a major American political issue. Truman was accused of being too soft on communism. Their was a polarizing debate in US foreign policy. “As the Truman administration sent troops to Korea, there was always a vast dark unanswered question haunting them, which was the threat of the entry of Chinese Communists into the war, something the president and most of the men around him greatly feared, and that the general commanding in the field and some of his supporters seemed on occasion ready to welcome.” (page 214)

“The ability of the Eighth Army to hold on in the previous two months represented an immense personal achievement for Johnnie Walker. Disrespected by both Tokyo and Washington…in those six or seven weeks from the end of July to the middle of September he was nothing less than a remarkable, fearless commander, doing almost everything right. If American military history has shortchanged any of this country’s wars in the past century, it is Korea, and…if any one commander has not been given the credit he deserves, it is surely Walton Walker in those battles.” (pp. 254-255)

“Inchon was to be Douglas MacArthur’s last great success, and his alone. It was a brilliant, daring gamble. It surely saved thousands of American lives just as he predicted. He fought for it almost alone against the doubts of the principle Navy planners and very much against the wishes of the Joint Chiefs. Inchon was Douglas MacArthur at his best: audacious, original, unpredictable, thinking outside the conventional mode, and of course, it would turn out, very lucky as well.” (page 293)

“The Chinese decided to send their troops into Korea because Mao believed it was good for the new China and necessary for the future of the revolution, both domestically and internationally. He also feared what a failure to intervene would mean – that his China, for all its rhetoric, was not that different from the old China, a powerless giant when facing what was in their eyes the armies of the Western oppressors. Therefore, almost from the moment it became clear that Kim’s offensive was doomed, Mao had begun the planning that would end with the use of Chinese troops in Korea.” (page 338)


MacArthur had the North Koreans on the run. He drove the UN forces deep into the Korean mountains in the north, desiring to overrun the entire country. "Of all the many professional sins of which Douglas MacArthur was guilty in that moment, including hubris and vanity, none was greater than his complete underestimation of the enemy. The China he thought he knew - despite all his time in Asia, he had spent almost no time there - was part of the nineteenth-century world. As Bruce Cummings, a historian on the Korean War, noted, Asians in MacArthur's mind were 'obedient, dutiful, childlike, and quick to follow resolute leadership.' In the late 1940's, that was certainly true of Japan, because the Japanese, having disastrously lost the war, were looking for lessons from the victors. But much of the rest of the region was caught up in nascent revolution. What had happened in the Chinese civil war as much as anything else reflected those changes, something MacArthur never chose to understand." (page 370)

The Chinese struck and mauled the overextended American forces. “It had been on of the worst days in the history of the American Army, surely the worst week in the history of the Second Infantry Division. The numbers were heartbreaking. In those final days of November, the Ninth Regiment had lost an estimated 1,474 men (including non-battle casualties, which usually meant frostbite); the Thirty-eighth Regiment, 1,178; and the Twenty-third, 545. The Second Engineers had lost 561 men to battle casualties. Any infantry regiment had an authorized strength of about 3,800 men; when it was time to regroup, the Ninth had only about 1,400 men left; the Thirty-eighth, 1,700; and the Twenty-third, 2,200.” (page 467)

Elsewhere, however, American Marines acquitted themselves well. “Had (the Chinese) communications been more modern, as Colonel Alpha Bowser later said, the First Marine Division would never have made it back from the Chosin Reservoir. Their breakout from the Chosin Reservoir is one of the classic moments in their own exceptional history, a masterpiece of leadership on the part of their officers and of simple, relentless, abiding courage on the part of the ordinary fighting men – fighting a vastly larger force in the worst kind of mountainous terrain and unbearable cold that sometimes reached down to minus forty.” (page 468)

As I mentioned, Halberstam liberally spices his history with the stories of individual soldiers fighting in these situations which I do not go into here.

As the Chinese advanced, Mao became s overly confident as MacArthur had been before Mao struck. In Mao’s mind, however, the Americans had behaved as he had predicted, as capitalist pawns pressed reluctantly into an unwanted war. There were times now, as the Chinese moved south and Mao pressed for a more aggressive strategy, that (General) Peng (Dehuai) would shake his head, turn to his aide, and complain about Mao becoming drunk with success.” (page 506) Peng was very concerned about logistics (food and ammo), or lack thereof, and of American control of the skies. To help compensate the Chinese almost always maneuvered and attacked at night.

Ultimately, it wasn’t MacArthur but another American general that stabilized the situation. “Chipyongni turned out to be the battle Matt Ridgeway had wanted from the moment he arrived in country. It was one of the most decisive battles of the war, because it was where the American forces finally learned to fight the Chinese. When Chipyongni was over, there was a new sense, not just among the commanders but among the fighting men themselves, that if they held the right positions with the right fields of fire and had the right leadership, the burden of battle would be on the less heavily armed Chinese. Equally important, when it was over, the Chinese knew it too.” (page 541)

The Americans learned to tenaciously defend against Chinese attacks, inflicting heavy losses. If that position fell then the Chinese troops were fixed into the position and they were decimated. “Not only did the Americans have the capacity to hammer a given target with endless artillery rounds, but they had now added a new weapon that the Chinese quickly came to fear, a jellied death that American planes could spread from the air and that had the capacity to burn out entire units in fiery communal deaths. It was called napalm.” (page 582)

Truman and McArthur had their infamous political battle which is a story in and of itself. MacArthur was dismissed but Truman was badly damaged by the war. “If some of its policies had been exonerated, the administration itself had ended up severely, perhaps terminally, wounded by all these events, most particularly the entrance of the Chinese into the war. The defeat along the Yalu. Dean Acheson wrote to Harry Truman five years later, ‘destroyed the Truman Administration.’” (page 617)

Significantly, Halberstam points out that the post-war success by the US and allied countries in the new South Korea ranked: “...even above the success of the Marshall Plan….Korea, by contrast, had little in the way of a democratic past and little in the way of a middle-class life or an industrial base. What was created after the war was politically, economically, and in many ways socially strikingly new.” (page 641) Yet, democracy and industry thrived as this people, for the first time, were allowed to develop without being dominated by a foreign power.

Ultimately, that has to be the final justification for the war itself.

Tragically, David Halberstam died in a vehicle accident just as the latest work of his distinguished career was being released. He was certainly one of the leading historians of the twentieth century. The Coldest Winter is a fitting testament to his professional life, offering splendid insights into "the forgotten war" in a balanced account of human bravery under fire, human mistakes of leadership, and how the US military managed to acquit itself solidly (though certainly not decisively) from some of the heaviest fighting to which the US army has ever been subjected.

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