The Coldest Winter by David Halberstam, a book review

Posted on June 25, 2009. Filed under: American History, Book Reviews, Korea |

“The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War” is an immediate must read for America’s Politicians, State Department professionals and the military. This tour de force and the final volume bequeathed to us by David Halberstam is no mere history of a War fought almost 60 years ago, this book is a stark warning to the World of what likely lies in our immediate future. While he does include fine summaries of the battles, the book is first and foremost a political history of the times, showing the intricate details that led all the nations involved inexorably to a war that only one man, Kim Ill Sung, wanted.

Halberstam’s prose is a joy to read, even with such a heavy, joyless, topic. He can not only craft a sentence well (he did win a Pulitzer in 1964 for his writing on Viet Nam) but his psychological insights into the main characters draws you in so that you think you actually know the person about whom he is writing. The book is written as a series of mini-biographies. His insights on Kim Ill Sung, Syngman Rhee, General MacArthur, President Truman, Henry Luce and Chiang Kai-shek,  and many others, are remarkable to read. I found the chapter on Kim Ill Sung especially chilling as we are currently dealing with his son, Kim Jong Ill, who seems to have inherited his father’s zeal for starting a war.

The opening chapters show that America was grossly unprepared for war and that MacArthur not only ignored Korea prior to the war, but thought that his post-war troops could stop the North Koreans with ease. He boldly claimed that China would not get involved and he was wrong on every count. Neither the Russians nor the Chinese wanted the war initially, and neither expected America to get involved. The American people never much cared for the war and it has earned the moniker: The Forgotten War.

What is terrifying as I read the book is how similar things are today. The big difference today is that with our troops on the front line everybody knows that America will fight for South Korea this time. But are we prepared? After 8 years of war in the Mideast and a reorganization of the Army to reflect a counter insurgency, low intensity war, are we now not capable of fighting a big war with tanks and infantry? Most of all artillery? Many do not understand that with Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army has demobilized a lot of field artillery units and turned them into infantrymen. The Korean War included some of the largest, most intense and sustained artillery barrages of all time.

At the start of the Korean War there was an unjustified faith in the newly created Air Force to stop the North Koreans in their tracks. It did not and could not happen that way. The Korean War was fought with Infantry and Artillery. After the initial year of maneuver it became like WW1 with trenches, bunkers, and artillery duels. Today there is an overly optimistic view of modern technology and air power still.

In Halberstam’s book he clearly shows how the generals and politicians all misread the intentions of Kim Ill Sung and the Chinese. I think we are doing the same today. Kim Jong Ill has recently announced the end of the Armistice; this means he considers us to be in a state of war. He has tested a nuclear weapon and launched an ICBM. In recent years he has moved 70% of his Army within striking distance of the DMZ. He has over 100,000 Special Forces soldiers ready to cross the border in a variety of ways to blend in to the South Korean society and strike from behind. He has hundreds of missiles that can take out every airbase in S. Korea and in Japan. He is positioned for a fight, equipped for a fight, and is asking for a fight. Just like his father in 1950.

It seems that American leadership doesn’t much believe history or the evidence before their very eyes now.

Halberstam gives an outstanding background on China, Chiang Kai-shek, and the politics of America as it relates to China for the 50-60 years prior to the war. One of his keenest insights is the religious angle. Very few authors ever understand, let alone articulate well, the impact of religion on politics and the culture at large. Halberstam is a master of this fine art. In discussing China he understood that it was impossible to know the American view of China apart from understanding the great missionary movement in China from America. In one of the most important paragraphs of the book we read (p.240):

For the China Firsters who had grown up in China as the children of missionaries, that country’s pull was deep and unrelenting; China was in some ways as much their home and their native country as the United States was. In addition, to say that Chiang had failed was to say that their own parents, who had devoted their lives to bringing Christianity to China, had been failures (as indeed, in at least the narrow sense of their mission, they had failed).

In my childhood and youth, being raised a Southern Baptist, with more missionaries abroad than any other evangelical group, I grew up hearing of Lottie Moon, Hudson Taylor and Bill Wallace, famous missionaries to China all. Politically I came to maturation in the Jimmy Carter presidency and knew the differences between the two Chinas and that Pres. Carter was selling out the “good China”. Earlier, I was concerned as Richard Nixon went to Communist China. I have long held to the proper conservative belief that we must defend Taiwan.

But now, Halberstam has opened my eyes to the reasons that China fell to the Communists. Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Chinese were corrupt to the core. All our foreign aide did was enrich Chiang’s family. All our military aid did was to supply the Communists. This book is an eye opener of how reckless,  fickle and stupid American foreign policy and aid has continued to be.

Halberstam does not spare the press. His chapter on Henry Luce and the press, though not an eye opener, I have long ago given up any respect for the press, is very interesting. Luce, publisher of Time and Life, the son of missionaries to China, did everything he could for Chiang and the Nationalists. The way the Republicans and the Press used the China issue was interesting, in a sick sort of way. Oh that Halberstam had lived to write a book on the War on Terror since 9/11!

In discussing Chinese tactics and their view of the American soldiers, Halberstam repeats a phrase over and over in his book. One example is on p.488, “He (Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgeway) was a Spartan. He worried that America was in decline because of the country’s ever greater materialism; he warned that it was becoming a place where people never walked anymore and that the nation’s men were becoming softer every year. His views, ironically, were not all that different from those of the Chinese commanders who launched their successful assault on American troops. He believed a loss of fiber had contributed to the disappointing early performance of America’s young men in Korea. They had become too dependent on their machines and their technology. The first thing he intended to do when he took over the command was get them out of the warmth of their jeeps and trucks and make them patrol exactly as their predecessors had done, climbing the hills on foot.” The highlighted phrase is used time and again by Halberstam in one form or another.

The warning for us today from Halberstam’s book, is that the Chinese today recognize that we still have the same weakness. Today China is the LEADER in hacking into American computer systems whether it is civilian or military. And, the Chinese networks and computers are the toughest to hack into. The Chinese have a distinct advantage in asymmetrical warfare today and will exploit that advantage when we go to war. Some think they even have the ability to either control or disable many of our satellites and they have proven their ability to shoot down satellites with either missiles or laser. Without our satellites and computer networks, the American military would be deaf, dumb and blind. We rely too much on our technology and the Chinese know it. That is Halberstam’s unstated warning.

Halberstam’s STATED warning is that since WW2, the American Government, both Democrats and Republicans, have gotten us involved with unwinnable, limited wars for political purposes by deceiving the people. He makes some good comments about the Viet Nam War but goes on to speak about Pres. George W. Bush and the Invasion of Iraq in 2003. While I do not share Halberstam’s cynical interpretation of Bush’s reasons for going to war, his major point is taken well: Politicians get us into war for stupid reasons.

Isn’t that how it has always been?

Buy this book and read it now. If you have been living in a cave these last few months and do not realize Kim Jong Ill of North Korea is seriously threatening war you need to wake up. This book will wake and shake you when you read it in light of current events.

Today is the 59th anniversary of the invasion of South Korea by North Korea. Pray for our President, pray for the leaders of North and South Korea, China and Russia. If the west caves in and allows Kim Jong Ill to obtain nuclear armed ballistic missiles western civilization is doomed to suffer a nuclear war. If we take action now, Kim will start another Korean War that will make the first one look like a small battle. Read this book!,2792,DRMN_63_5703287,00.html

Equality 7-2521


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