The Dog Days of Winter: Reading David Halberstam’s Book on the Korean War

hawkeye martini
It wasn’t all martinis (and it wasn’t really about Korea either but never mind…)

Even though I pride myself on being an American history buff, my knowledge of the Korean War had been limited. I am familiar with the 1970 Robert Altman movie M*A*S*H, starring Donald Sutherland, Elliot Gould, Sally Kellerman, and Robert Duvall. Though set in a medical unit in Korea, the motion picture is considered more to be a metaphor for the insanity of Vietnam. Then there was the long running M*A*S*H television series (1972-1983) starring Alan Alda, and you find it regularly on your favorite Rehash Channel. Like me you might be mildly entertained, though some of Hawkeye Pierce’s sexual advances towards the nurses makes everyone uncomfortable.

There was an anti-war sentiment in the series, callouts against racism towards Asians and a few episodes where it is cold and windy. But there was no snow swirling around those 20th Century Fox studio lots and frigid weather is one of the first facts I learned while reading David Halberstam’s The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (2007). In fact, much of the first year of the war, which Halberstam focuses on, was fought in sub-zero temperatures on icy and snowy mountaintops.

Halberstam Coldest Winter cover

Summer and Winter Olympics aside, there is ongoing Korean influence in our daily lives. We drive Korean automobiles such Hyundai and Kia, buy electronics from Samsung and LG and many U.S. citizens are from Korea —the United States has the second largest population of Koreans living outside of Korea (China is first).  On a personal level, I am always indebted to my good-natured chiropractor who came from South Korea, has now become a U.S. citizen, and has rescued me from back surgery. He regularly reminds me that I should “walk straight, with shoulders back like a marching Korean soldier.” Of course, there is the recent news cycle of President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which was preceded by threats of mutual nuclear destruction. The latter was particularly disturbing considering that the most I have hoped for with the Trump administration was that they didn’t blow up the world.

Reading Halberstam’s 650-page tome did not provide me with any immediate insights to the current situation between North Korea and the United States. But because reading is a serendipitous act, we often learn different things than we initially sought, and in that department, The Coldest Winter did not disappoint. Here are just a few of my takeaways worth sharing.

You Cannot Talk About Korea Without Talking About China

Fundamentally, the history of Korea is a geographical issue. As Halberstam writes, Korea has “the misfortune to lie in the path of three infinitely, larger, stronger and more ambitious powers — Japan, China, and Russia.” Japan however feels itself vulnerable. As one Japanese politician put it, “Korea sticks out like a dagger pointed towards the heart of Japan.” This has meant centuries of conflict. The current geopolitical situation began in 1904 when the Japanese fleet defeated the Russian navy in the Battle of Tsushima Straits.  Japan invaded and controlled most of Korea before World War II.  In the final months of World War II, Russia declared war on Japan, (a decision supported by the United States military) and used the declaration as a stepping stone to its influence in the northern half of Korea.

In China meanwhile, the civil war between the Mao-Zedong-led communist forces versus the American-supported Nationalist troops led by General Chiang Kai-shek diverted American interest in Korea. This Chinese civil war raged for several years after World War II and though the Americans supported the Nationalists against global communism – coaxed by the media empire of Henry Luce (Time magazine) — Chiang Kai-Shek was pushed off the mainland to Taiwan. China then shifted its attention to Korea, monitoring the Soviet influence and the global intentions of the United States. Halberstam goes to great length to explain these political dynamics in China and the United States.

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On June 25, 1950 North Korean troops invaded the south (the original 38th parallel) and immediately routed the ROK (Republic of Korea) troops. In a matter of weeks, the North Korean troops nearly drove the newly arrived, mostly inexperienced, under-equipped American forces and South Korean troops into the Sea of Japan until the United Nations (UN) regrouped near Pusan on the southeast tip of the peninsula. (Although American troops predominated in numbers, other nations under the aegis of the United Nations provided support as well.)  Resupplied and reinforced, UN forces began to bust out, but the coup de grace was a surprise amphibious invasion at the port of Inchon on September 11, 1950, which was planned by General Douglas MacArthur, the architect of America’s victory over Japan in the Pacific. After Inchon, the North Koreans were pushed back across the 38th parallel. Hardly content to stop there and promising Washington that the war would be over by Christmas, MacArthur rushed his troops north towards the Yalu River, which separates Korea and China, ignoring the misgivings of political experts that this would bring China into the war.

The Americans fell into a Chinese trap in the remote, mountainous regions of North Korea. They were ill-equipped to handle the sub-zero temperatures or the hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops that routed them in a matter of a few days. As Halberstam writes “the American military miscalculation of the 20th century, Douglas MacArthur’s decision to send his troops all the way to the Yalu stands alone.” (Halberstam clarifies that Vietnam was the political  (italics mine) miscalculation of the 20th century.)

The misery was compounded as the troops who were not even supplied with winter clothing retreated south in the winter of 1950. Halberstam spares no grisly detail of the American 2nd Infantry Division’s withdrawal from Kunari, through a six mile stretch of narrow icy road surrounded by ridges known as The Gauntlet. He provides an account of the carnage through the eyes of Captain Alan Jones of the Ninth Regiment:

The first thing Jones was aware of as he moved through The Gauntlet was that he was witnessing the complete breakdown of order and hierarchy…nothing less than the destruction of much of an American division right in front of his eyes…A vehicle would be hit, and it would block the road for others, and some brave soul would try to move it aside, and all the while the Chinese would be pouring fire down on them. Bodies lay right in the middle of the road—some possibly still alive, for all anyone knew—and the driver of the next truck or jeep would have no choice in that narrow passage but to run right over them.

American and UN forces finally regrouped south of Seoul, which fell to Communists for the second time in less than a year, but fierce fighting at nearby Chipyongni and Wonjin proved to be decisive victories for the Allies.  But unlike Omaha Beach, Iwo Jima, or the Battle of the Bulge those names do not resonate in our collective 20th Century military memories as they should.

The Americans were finally able to push north to the 38th parallel and this time there was no MacArthur around to demand that the Communists be driven north to the Yalu. President Harry S. Truman sacked the controversial MacArthur in April, 1951 and along with the general’s dismissal went any thoughts of re-invading North Korea. By September of that year, slightly more than a year after the initial North Korean invasion, the war had settled into a bloody, senseless stalemate, until a ceasefire was agreed upon in 1953. It is the same ceasefire that it is still in effect today.

Don’t Believe That Military Types Are Infallible

If there is any main character in Halberstam’s book, it is General Douglas MacArthur, whose biographer, William Manchester, aptly named him the American Caesar.  Although we often think of MacArthur as a heroic leader, he, in fact,  left his besieged troops behind in 1942 while he evacuated the Philippines in a submarine — only to return to those beaches to stage his famous “I shall return” moment for photographers. To his credit, however, MacArthur orchestrated the plan to island hop to the Japanese mainland avoiding large concentrations of Japanese without ever engaging them. He later became the replacement emperor of a post war Japan and spent almost all his time at his Tokyo headquarters even though he was commander of the troops on the Korean peninsula

To better understand MacArthur’s flaws stemmed from the same root — his tremendous ego. Like a novelist, Halberstam goes back to MacArthur’s childhood where he was groomed for success. Although his father, had been a young hero in the Civil War and later became commander of the American forces in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War, it was MacArthur’s mother, Pinky, who groomed Douglas. She even took up residency near West Point while her son was a cadet. Halberstam refers to MacArthur as a “mama’s boy” before describing Pinky’s motivations:

Pinky MacArthur took a room in the best local hotel, Craney’s, in order to stand watch over Douglas for four full years at the academy, lest he fall below her expectations and slough off into mediocrity. West Point might been the most rigidly demanding four-year institution in America, but Pinky MacArthur was there anyway, just in case the academy’s contemporary custodians slipped a bit or did not realize how a remarkable a young man she had bequeathed them.

Throughout his career and especially in Korea, MacArthur surrounded himself with a fiercely loyal staff who were themselves blinded by their own ambitions. Two of these men included second-in-command General Edward Almond and Charles Willoughby, his chief of intelligence.  The Prussian-born Willoughby who MacArthur called “my lovable fascist” deliberately prefabricated facts to match his boss’s preconceived notions while squashing any dissenting information. Almond was a longtime MacArthur yes-man dating from the days of the occupation of Japan. He became the leader of the Tenth Corps and contributed to the disaster of 1950. Yet he remained “Ned the Anointed One” because of MacArthur’s favoritism.

What saved Korea from being a complete disaster to the U.S. was the installment of Matthew B. Ridgway as head of the Eighth Army in December of 1950, replacing General Walton Walker who was killed while a jeep he was riding in flipped on an icy road.  It was a rare instance that MacArthur and the Washington-based Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed on anything, but they did choose Ridgway, whose reputation as a top general and military record in World War II preceded him.  Affectionally nicknamed “Old Iron Tits” because he liked to wear a grenade and a metal medical kit over his front shirt pockets, Ridgway immediately turned the defeated Eighth Army around – resupplying his troops, sacking incompetent officers, and stepping up his military intelligence. Halberstam called Ridgway, “the most underrated senior military office of his immediate post-war generation.” It was Ridgway who learned quickly how to defeat the Chinese in the battles at Chipyongni and Wonjin.

Halberstam’s examination of leadership in a historical context helps us to understand our current geopolitical situation. There is a “restorative quality of history” when we can fully appreciate those who acted with courage and integrity (like Ridgway, President Truman, andcountless squad and platoon leaders) and take some satisfaction that those who acted cowardly or in their own self-interest are exposed for who they really were. At the least, it provides some dubious comfort in knowing that the despicable politics that govern our current political climate is not unique.

Halberstam Delivers the Goods

In these days when journalism is often disparaged and attacked, keep in mind great writing lives long after the journalist has passed. As an undergraduate at Indiana University I saw Halberstam speak about his Pulitzer Prize winning The Best and the Brightest (1972) to a half-full business school auditorium. This was the Watergate years, when journalists were either attacked as being unpatriotic or revered. Little did I know then, sitting in that large lecture room, it would be decades before I could fully appreciate Halberstam’s career. It began last year when I read Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988), (link here).

Like Sheehan, Halberstam realizes the danger of lies. In The Coldest Winter Halberstam writes about the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s first leader Kim Il Sung, who had been placed into power by the Soviets after World War II: “Kim remained the last great Stalinist in power: rigid, doctrinaire, inflexible, a man who believed all the old truths even as so many of them had turned out to be false. They were not lies, at least not in Korea, because he could, with the hand and the power of the dictator, make them truths.” This becomes a sobering reminder of what we are dealing with in Pyongyang and the Oval Office.

If there is a positive takeaway from reading The Coldest Winter it’s that now I have a partial answer to songwriter’s John Prine’s question that his aging narrator asks in the haunting 1971 folk song “Hello In There” who wonders why his son died in Korean War. In one of the final chapters of the book Halberstam addresses this issue. Basically, if the United States and the United Nations hadn’t stepped in quickly. (The U.S sent its first troops into Korea within days of the North Korean invasion). All of Korea would have become a totalitarian state. No Samsung, No Kia, No Democracy. Halberstam writes:

Nothing reflected the growing change between his country and that of the South more than the ability to look at photos taken from above the two Koreas at night by satellite – the land below the 38th parallel alive with lights and commerce of all kinds, the land above the parallel blacked out, a kind of self-inflicted wasteland.

Since he died shortly after the publication of the book in an automobile accident, Halberstam never was able to experience the profound appreciation from those who fought in the Korean War must have had when they read his book. And for anyone who has read The Coldest Winter, the Korean War is no longer The Forgotten War. And with that newly discovered appreciation, we should at least demonstrate some interest and vigilance when negotiating with the North Koreans.

Murray Browne lives and writes in Decatur, Georgia. His latest book Down and Outbound: A Mass Transit Satire is available on Amazon.