David Halberstam, who died in a car crash in April, put his lifelong skills as a journalist to work in this examination of the Korean War, especially in its indictment of Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
David Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter" is not so much about the Korean War as it is about everything behind the war. Chiefly it is about the American who was behind it for its first nine months, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and the tale is not a pretty one.
Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of a score of books ("The Best and the Brightest,"The Fifties"), put the finishing touches on this one just five days before he was killed last April in a California car crash. Into its 700-plus pages he appears to have poured all he had learned about East-West politics and conflicts in nearly five decades of reporting, research and writing. It is possibly the best one-volume history of the conflict yet, easily the equal of Clay Blair's "The Forgotten War" and T.R. Fehrenbach's "This Kind of War."
Not that Halberstam is the first to make a case against MacArthur. Historian Stanley Weintraub did a tightly focused job of that seven years ago in "MacArthur's War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero."
And not that he ignores MacArthur's positive qualities and accomplishments, both before and after North Korea invaded South Korea June 25, 1950, most notably his decision to make an amphibious landing at Inchon three months into the war. Perceived by his military advisers as completely unworkable, it turned out to be a masterstroke.
The list of indictments against MacArthur, however, is seemingly endless, all stemming from his megalomaniac desire to carry the war into China and his overweening arrogance and sense of destiny. Perhaps wickedest of all is that his intelligence people, deliberately and with MacArthur's knowledge, falsified intelligence reports to reflect what they knew their boss wanted to hear.
Although a divided command is probably the biggest no-no in the U.S. Army, Mac- Arthur nevertheless split the command between 8th Army and 10th Corps in order to create a plum job for a sycophantic favorite, Gen. Ned Almond. As overall commander, MacArthur ran the war by remote control from Tokyo, never spending a night in Korea.
He was insubordinate and disrespectful to military and civilian authorities, including President Harry Truman, and routinely lied or failed to tell them the whole truth. He continually overstepped restrictions on pursuing the war in North Korea.
Halberstam appears to agree with an argument made persuasively by historian and Korean War veteran Bevin Alexander in "Korea: The First War We Lost" that there were two wars in Korea: one against the North Koreans, which the U.N. forces won, and one against the Chinese (after they entered the war in November 1950), which they did not win. MacArthur, unwilling to settle for limited victory, made almost daily attempts to sabotage efforts for a compromise end to the increasingly unpopular war. His insubordination grew so outrageous that in April 1951 Truman sacked him.
"The Coldest Winter" is especially good on the post-World War II military politics and clashes of personalities that affected events on the ground, politics that revolved around proximity to the "throne" of MacArthur. In fact, Halberstam encompasses in one book what Joseph Goulden did in two, "The Best Years: 1945-1950" and "Korea: The Untold Story of the War."
Individual mini-biographies of participants humanize and explain what is going on. The author has a facility for making combat maneuvers, which can be confusing at this distance of time and space, understandable and gripping. In particular he makes vivid the 2nd Division's withdrawal down through "the Gauntlet" on Nov. 30, "one of the worst days in the history of the American Army," and the Marine/Army breakout from the Chosin Reservoir.
Like most Korean War books, this one does not include the last two years of fighting that ended with an armistice in July 1953. But, whereas most carry the war through to the end of what is known as the "war of movement" in July 1951, Halberstam ends his account in February 1951 with the battles of Wonju and Chipyongni. His reasoning presumably is that with these battles Gen. Matthew Ridgway, MacArthur's successor, had turned the war around and learned how to fight the Chinese.
Halberstam thinks that this war -- unlike Vietnam, the one he covered as a journalist -- was well worth fighting, and judges that the U.S. achievement in it was greater than that of the Marshall Plan. Too bad, he concludes, that the young Americans who served there did not receive the same expressions of gratitude at home as they did from the South Koreans.
Roger K. Miller is the author of "Invisible Hero," a novel inspired by the life of a Korean War rifleman, to be published this fall. He lives in Wisconsin.