- Audible Audio Edition
- Listening Length: 13 hours and 53 minutes
- Program Type: Audiobook
- Version: Abridged
- Publisher: Hyperion AudioBooks
- Audible.com Release Date: September 19, 2007
- Language: English
- ASIN: B000WGUIUE
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank:
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The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War Audiobook – Abridged
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Halberstam skillfully combines first-hand interviews and existing second-hand sources to weave an interesting, thoughtful narrative that not only tells the story of the war (mainly its first year), but also provides some thoughtful, higher themes. He's written one of the better general histories about a war that I've read.
He covers much territory, and gives gripping combat descriptions that show what the everyday soldiers (primarily Americans) went through. Halberstam's eye for detail, and his ability to pull these stories out of men who largely have been reluctant to tell their stories to nonveterans, is commendable. In keeping with "The Best and the Brightest," he seems particularly fascinated with the foibles of the higher ups, and in this regard he covers all 4 main combatants well, with a special emphasis on the Chinese and American leaders, primarily through the use of their memoirs and diaries.
It may have been the "coldest" or "bitterest" winter of the Coldest War. As Stalin shored up his eastern border in Europe, the process of decolonization was starting to appear in other areas of the world, and Korea (a former Japanese colony divided by the USSR and USA) was an early battleground. On balance, Halberstam's account paints the Chinese and the United States as using the Korean War to bolster political positions at home. Halberstam spends much time analyzing (maybe overanalyzing) the origins of American beliefs of the Cold War in terms of fears of Communist penetration into US government and other institutions.
In brief, the Democrats in the Truman administration felt compelled to act in Korea in order to deflect Republican charges of being soft on Communism, and to defend against the pro-Chiang, anti-Communist China lobby. Many in America believed that the USA had "lost China," and Halberstam spends some time explaining the lies and half-truths that accompanied what may be the first of American misadventures in Asia (China, then Korea, and then Vietnam). In any event, the Hank Luces of the time wanted to believe that China could be redeemed. MacArthur played to this anti-Democrat counterforce well, and he seemed to embrace a tougher stance on China himself, which is what ultimately got him dismissed. Mao, for his part, apparently saw Korea as a way to assert China's new independence, from the former colonialists in the West, the pro-Chiang remnants in mainland China, and from his rivals in the USSR.
Halberstam clearly sees a connection in Mao and MacArthur by way of their vanity and the monstrosity of their egos. MacArthur had the potential to take his country down a dark path by going to war with China in order to whitewash his huge error in concluding that the Chinese would never invade Korea. Truman removed him, removing that potential threat. Mao had no such check, despite Peng's attempt to get Mao to face reality. As a result, Mao indeed led China down a dark path, and maybe into an abyss, all of his own making. The perils of unchecked egos in government, and the benefits of democratic civilian authority, are made crystal clear by Halberstam's morality tale.
How all this Greek drama related to the average Joe in Korea isn't exactly made clear by Halberstam, except that the soldiers on both sides suffered, and too many lost their lives. This seems to be another theme: While the senior leaders argued with each other or indulged their private fantasies, the common people underwent misery. Halberstam tries to balance some decent combat descriptions with a lot of politics, but this is certainly not a complete telling of the war, and nor does it aim to be. While Halberstam does provide some good background and insights on Rhee and Kim, both of whom underscore Halberstam's main lesson of democracies vs dictatorships, little is said about everyday Koreans. However, the subtitle does make it clear that this is about "America and the Korean War," and sometimes Halberstam uses "we" to relate to his presumably American audience.
Also, in his search for unambiguous dichotomies, for good and bad characters, he may go a little soft on Truman. Truman had a number of moments when he could have relieved or reprimanded MacArthur earlier, in spite of MacArthur's heightened popularity immediately after Inchon. Isn't Truman at fault for not being stronger than he was, for letting MacArthur push him too far before making the politically dangerous choice? Perhaps this just highlights the powerful undertow of domestic politics on US foreign policy in the time, but one must wonder if Halberstam too easily gives Truman a pass to set him up as the hero of tale.
In a similar way, the fight between the Republicans and the Democrats is a central conflict, and it's questionable if Halberstam is seeing this war-within-a-war completely objectively at all points. Like Truman, perhaps the Democrats as a whole were too weak and on the defensive when they didn't need to be. Too, there are some soft conclusions that the American effort wasn't wasted because it resulted in a prosperous South Korea, a sort of mini-Japan; yet, North Korea still exists today and continues to bring misery to its own people and the region, and Halberstam doesn't adequately address this fact in light of the events of 1950-1953. Indeed, perhaps the Korean War was indeed (as someone else has said) a war with a draw, a victory, and a defeat. Its ambiguities were the real lesson, and the USA didn't seem to adequately learn them until Vietnam, wisdom that came too late.
Despite the book's shortcomings, it is a good introduction to the war, its centrality to the developing Cold War, and its impact on later policy, namely in Vietnam. Halberstam writes with a well-practiced, accessible "plain English" style, and he seems to try very hard to rarely exceed two syllables. Typical punchy sentences: "It was a classic Stalin move" and (about a critical miscalculation by MacArthur) "He was wrong." Halberstam's varied, engaging style makes each paragraph a quick, lively, and usually enlightening read.
The maps are sufficient and numerous enough to follow the action throughout, although this is certainly not an operational "war" history by any means. Given Halberstam's love of story and his fondness for painting human portraits, the lack of photographs is particular striking (in the softcover version, at least). Such photographs could have underscored some points, giving a sense of the personality of the leaders, for example, or covered some gaps in the narrative (showing the war's devastation on the Korean people, for example). Even so, Halberstam's work is a readable and informative account of the war and the events surrounding it. Unfortunately, it was his last.