Wednesday, April 23, 2008


The first chapter of David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter is completely compelling and totally absorbing. Unfortunately, the other 620 pages fail to live up to the promise of the first few.

The Coldest Winter purports to be a history of the Korean War, a story ranging from the lowly privates who fought the battles to the heads of state who sent their young men to fight for a country that no one was particularly interested in.

After spending time with the soldiers who initially fought the Chinese at Unsan, Halberstam goes on to describe the various players involved in this drama - Kim Il Sung, Mao Tse Tung, Joseph Stalin, Chang Kai Shek, Douglas MacArthur, Dean Acheson and Harry Truman. The combined miscalculations, fears and egos of these men lead to five years of war in a country that none of the principal fighters really wanted to fight over.

China wanted to strike at the United States in defiance of its support for Taiwan. Douglas MacArthur wanted to leave the world stage as a great general, Joseph Stalin wanted China and the United States at each other's throats, and Harry Truman had a powerful China lobby and resurging Republican minority at home to contend with.

Needless to say, that's a hell of a lot to cram into a book, and Halberstam does it, but I don't think he did it particularly well. He goes into great details outlining the causes of the war and its early days, but he completely glosses over the last two years of the war. He goes into some detail on some of the battles and completely glosses over others - I would have liked to read how the First Marine Division held off six Chinese divisions while escaping the Chosin Reservoir, but all we get is "it was a magnificent battle." I'll bet it was.

Overall, I would say if you're looking to learn more about Korea, this is a good place to start. I plan to spend a little more time reading about it in the near future, but hopefully, I'll find something with a little more focus.

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