three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
31-Nov-Dec-2007
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America and the Korean War

A-The Coldest WinterThe Korean War (1950–1953) ended in stalemate, yet it still claimed the lives of more than 30,000 Americans, 400,000 South Koreans, and 1.5 million North Korean and Chinese troops. Touted by the publisher as the precursor to David Halberstam’s seminal The Best and the Brightest (1972), about Washington’s descent into Vietnam, The Coldest Winter chronicles the strategies, battles, and vast missteps of our previous entanglement. The war’s major figures—Eisenhower, Truman, Acheson, Kim, Mao, and General MacArthur—as well as the soldiers on the front lines—come alive, and the gaffes shock. Some of the war’s worst decisions were made in intelligence, Halberstam argues, and these flawed maneuvers set a "most dangerous" precedent not only for Korea, in which the United States still maintains thousands of troops, but in Iraq as well.
Hyperion. 736 pages. $35. ISBN: 1401300529

Baltimore Sun 4 of 5 Stars
"In tracing the origins, conduct and conclusion of the conflict, Halberstam relies on the published work of foreign policy specialists. He rarely challenges conventional wisdom. His prose, at times, is slack and repetitious. Nonetheless, The Coldest Winter is easily the best popular history of the Korean War." Glenn C. Altschuler

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"[Halberstam] may be at his best in the foxholes, chronicling the courage and sacrifice of dozens of GIs and Marines who were sent to die for other men’s mistakes. Halberstam’s regard for those fighting men, and his contempt for those mistakes, drives the narrative at a white-hot pace, turning a massive history into a riveting page-turner." Tom Feran

San Diego Union-Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"This book is unexpectedly good on inter-and intra-service rivalry. Fresh interviews with foot soldiers, generals and diplomats buttress the author’s argument that the war was mismanaged by MacArthur, who never came to grips with the realities on the Korean ground." Peter Rowe

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Halberstam covers all four bases of a military-history home run: He sets the conflict in its political and geopolitical context; perceptively profiles the era’s leading statesmen and scoundrels; analyzes the many strategic and tactical miscalculations by all parties; and provides gripping descriptive narratives of battles and the men who fought them. … If Mr. Halberstam awes us with stories of individual Americans at war, he perplexes us with the total absence of any tales of heroism or even of suffering by individual Koreans." Peter R. Kann

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Combining his typically prodigious research with more than a hundred interviews, Halberstam has graphically (if sometimes tediously) recreated the trench warfare up and down that frozen peninsula, juxtaposing accounts of the petty backstabbing and vainglorious posturing at the Tokyo headquarters of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the catastrophic miscalculations by Truman, Stalin, Mao and Kim Il Sung of North Korea. The result is an outsize but fascinating epic directed simultaneously to battle buffs and pacifists, history enthusiasts and political moralists." Max Frankel

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Some readers may find The Coldest Winter to be something of a quagmire itself. Halberstam acknowledges in an author’s note that it does not have a ‘linear’ structure." Stanley Weintraub

Miami Herald 2 of 5 Stars
"Unfortunately, in The Coldest Winter, Halberstam … simply cuts and pastes his analysis of Vietnam onto Korea: It was, he writes, simply one more chapter in a century-long series of American imperial adventures in Asia in which Washington mistook Third World communism that was merely ‘a convenient instrument of anticolonial forces’ for a cat’s-paw of the Russians. But that paradigm, which is at least arguable in the case of Vietnam … is simply nutty when applied to Korea." Glenn Garvin

Critical Summary

Publicized as a bookend to The Best and the Brightest, The Coldest Winter is a fitting, if premature, conclusion to David Halberstam’s illustrious career. (He died in a car accident last spring, shortly after completing the book.) Magisterial in scope, eminently readable, well researched, and even gripping at times, Coldest Winter is hailed as a book destined to become the subject’s most popular history. Much of this success rests with the immediacy of Halberstam’s storytelling, his gemlike portraits of the major players (particularly General MacArthur), and his close-up descriptions of the trenches. The Miami Herald accuses Halberstam of inappropriately lifting his framework from Best and Brightest to fit Coldest Winter; other reviewers note factual errors and an overly epic (and sometimes numbingly detailed) story. But in the end, Coldest Winter is not only a compelling history but a story that resounds loudly today.