WWII over, the military demobilized, and America set about its civilian business. But, David Halberstam avers, America was now a world power, and it would be impossible to return to anything like the just-leave-us-alone status so many wanted. We had the bomb. Russian communism threatened Europe. Maoist communism threatened Asia. We suddenly had responsibilities, and like it or not, they were about to come seek us out. And so, we found ourselves in a war no one anticipated or wanted. The first of the hot proxy battles, undeclared wars, of the cold war.
Halberstam does a masterful job of taking us around the Korean battlefields.. His deft weaving of individual tales with military overviews keeps his story both personal and comprehensive. You get a wonderful sense of what’s politically and personally at stake for men from top to bottom of the hierarchy. However, it’s in his placing of the Korean “conflict” in political and historical context that makes The Coldest Winter such an important work. This war became both symptom and cause of proclivities that drove American–indeed western–politics for the next fifty years.
The Coldest Winter takes its title from what happened in the months following MacArthur’s brilliant (and extremely lucky) amphibious landing triumph at Inchon in September, 1950, a response to a North Korean violation of the borders agreed upon after WWII. The legendary general then sent an underdressed, undertrained, underarmed group of American and South Korean soldiers northward with the mission of recapturing all of North Korea and installing a democracy on the borders of mainland China. Disaster. Slaughter.
MacArthur not only underestimated the difficulties of the campaign, he dismissed them. He preferred to stay in Tokyo, insulated by sycophants, as potentate of Japan, a country he was doing a wonderful job of turning into a prosperous, self-governing society. He never spent a night in Korea. Travelled there only a couple of times. He had no respect for the people, their soldiers, or their “fourth rate” culture. He ignored warnings that China might cross the Yalu River and join the fight. If they did, well, bring it on. They might have the numbers, but we had the might, and we could always unloose the (venal and defeated) forces of Chiang Kai Shek, huddled in exile on Formosa. Chiang’s only real strength was in Washington D.C., where a corps of politicians and diplomats helped funnel him money and arms to an extent that the U.S. inadvertently became Mao’s chief military supplier by dint of the guns and ammo the Nationalist troops left behind on battlefield after battlefield as they fled in retreat. MacArthur also failed to account for the fact that the mountainous terrain, traced by few roads, made perfect battlegrounds for the light-traveling Chinese, disastrous for the vehicle-bound Americans. And then it got to be forty below. With gale winds. And snow.
Eventually, of course, the American military recovered sufficiently to take advantage of the Chinese weaknesses–lack of supply systems, anemic industrial systems incapable of meeting the needs for arms and ammunition, for example. However, there was little appetite in the military and none in Washington for another drive North, so we ended up with the stalemate we have today. “Die for a tie,” was one of the mordant phrases the troops applied to the situation.
And what about those politics I mentioned above? Communism became the Republicans’ number one weapon against the democrats and MacArthur the man eager to pull the trigger. Eventually, MacArthur was politically defanged, defeated by his own overblown rhetoric and contradictory declarations. However, indiscriminate anti-communism flourished. Democrats had been in power for twenty years. Their reign was wearing down.Truman was a competent, intelligent, courageous man, but he had no stature, eloquence, or resonance. FDR’s shadow was always at his back. With the North Korean invasion, he was in a trap. He could charge forth into North Korea and launch a huge war for which the country had no appetite whatsoever. Especially after that initial defeat, which MacArthur sought to pin on Washington. Or he could stand pat and be buried by the soft-on-communism label. And that dilemma became the fulcrum all politicians needed to gain any leverage at all until at least the fall of the Berlin wall.
Eisenhower got a personal pass from the rabid anti-communists (except McCarthy, of course) but the military machinery to defend against and defeat what a certain president thirty years later called “The Evil Empire” began its manufacture in the 1950’s. To such an extent that Eisenhower, the general, chose with his last words as president to warn against the industrial-military complex that had developed. From then on, no politician could afford to be seen as anything but a zealous anti-communist. Kennedy needed to look tough on Castro and on Ho Chi Minh in order to get anything else done.
Not that his anti-Castro actions weren’t right or that he didn’t pursue them sincerely. The point is that he had no choice if he wanted political leverage of any kind. Lyndon Johnson felt he could never pass voting rights or anything else unless he battled the communists in Vietnam. Which led directly to the long, bloody, futile escalation. The attitude engendered by the arguments surrounding Korea made it impossible for us to discriminate between imperialist communists like the Russians and nationalist communists like Ho. We backed anyone who was anti-communist, corrupt or brutal though they might be. So we fought all communists or anyone who could be so labeled, and fought each other tooth and nail. We couldn’t tell the difference between whom it was in our best interests to fight and whom to leave alone. And we wasted time and treasure that might have been well-spent much more intelligently and humanely.
Halberstam’s look back shows clearly how Korea contained the seeds of all these dramas. And, of course, there was another unintended consequence, South Korea became a marvelously prosperous republic, which produces dynamite speed skaters. So maybe we did something right after all. I hope so.