The Coldest Winter/America and the Korean War

By David Halberstam | Hyperion | $35 | 736 pages | 2007

Many Tennessee lawyers I know are serious history buffs, whether it comes from an appreciation of how situations can go terribly wrong without warning or simply a love of reading. David Halberstam won the Pulitzer Prize for his political history of Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest, and has written The Coldest Winter. This account of the first year of the Korean War is his last work. He died in April 2007 in a car accident shortly after finishing this book.

Halberstam brings a fresh look and clarity to a war that seems oddly misplaced or ignored following the end of World War II. He graphically recounts the first military engagements between the North Korean, Chinese and American armies. While the invasion of Inchon and the heroism of the Marines at the Chosin Reservoir have been told many times, Halberstam brings into focus other engagements and events less well known. More significantly, he provides a context and narrative that is clear and compelling. He describes an American army grown soft after World War II and suffering in 1950 with a crisis in senior leadership. He also provides insight on the North Korean and Chinese armies and their offensive capabilities and shortcomings. Finally, he describes the devastating impact on military intelligence and strategy due to the personality of General Douglas McArthur. Halberstam's book is very critical of McArthur and his staff who seem devoted only to protecting the General's image and reputation.

This work examines primarily the first year of the war, beginning with the invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, by seven North Korean divisions. The attacks caught the Republic of Korea and U.S. armies completely by surprise. The South Korean capital, Seoul, fell in just two days to the North Korean army. Within a few weeks, the U.S. and R.O.K. forces were in full retreat, falling back toward Pusan on the south end of the peninsula. Having initially underestimated the resiliency and offensive spirit of the North Koreans, General MacArthur then devised a stunning reversal of fortune. He directed the Inchon amphibious landings behind their lines, and by September 1950 the North Korean army was in full retreat from South Korea.

The American army then pushed across the 38th Parallel into North Korea, assured of victory. MacArthur was certain that China would not come to the aid of the North Koreans. The prevailing attitude was that the war would be over by Christmas 1950. MacArthur was certain that he understood the oriental mind better than anyone else and eschewed any effort to learn how the Chinese would react to the invasion of North Korea. He rushed his forces north across North Korea in two main thrusts reaching the Yala River and the Chinese border. At the same time, he was reassuring President Truman and the world that the Chinese would not respond to this incursion to their border. He never spent a night in Korea during his command.

Halberstam describes in detail the end of this delusion with the November 25, 1950, Chinese ambush of the American Army's 2nd Division at the Chongchon River on the western side of the peninsula. This ambush and subsequent engagements are less well known than the similar ambush of the Marines at the Chosin Reservoir on the eastern side of Korea. The author records the overwhelming attacks by the Chinese army and the incredible bravery of isolated American units, many without sufficient supplies, communications or leadership. The Chinese moved at night and attacked with skill and courage, either overrunning surrounded units or inflicting substantial losses on the retreating Americans. The result was catastrophic, leaving a gauntlet filled with abandoned vehicles and dead and wounded soldiers.

McArthur had bet the Chinese would not attack, and his men paid a terrible price for his arrogance. The descriptions of American units trying to stem the tide of the Chinese advance highlight the price of military unpreparedness.

The military reversals and political pronouncements of MacArthur eventually led to the appointment of General Matthew Ridgeway to assume command of the 8th Army. General Ridgeway was the right choice and immediately had an impact on his forces. He quickly studied the Chinese army and took note of its limitations. His revision of American strategy led to major engagements at Chipyongni and Wonju in February 1951. In those engagements, Ridgeway brought to bear American firepower and superior tactics leading to the trapping and slaughter of several Chinese divisions. There would be no further retreat by the American army in Korea.

Halberstam describes in very readable fashion those features of the military and political background, which make the Korean War still relevant today. For the many lawyers interested in American military history, The Coldest Winter is a must read.


ERNEST A. PETROFF is a lawyer in Huntsville, Tenn.