Book review: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War

A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.
I’ve always really enjoyed reading David Halberstam’s writing. I first read The Best and the Brightest in high school probably sometime around 2005, and only recently got around to finishing the final book he published before his death, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.

The book is a deep examination of the Korean War and it ranges broadly to cover a number of topics that include:
  1. The political shift to conservatism in the United States following the end of World War II
  2. The political shift in China as Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist Party collapsed and Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Party rose to power
  3. Early American involvement in the Korean War and how rapidly our armed forces had deteriorated following the conclusion of the second World War
  4. The power struggle between Douglas MacArthur and Harry Truman as the war being waged against North Korea eventually expanded into a larger conflict with China itself
  5. The near collapse of American forces abroad when faced with direct combat with the Chinese
  6. A in-depth examinations of the larger military campaigns undertaken by UN forces throughout the Korean War as well as specific individual and heroic actions undertaken by platoons, companies, and divisions
The Korean War was largely something that most of the United States public was uninterested in fighting at the time, and which chose to very quickly forget following the signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953.
The cover of The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.
The cover of The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War.
I’ve read a number of books on the war itself and some of my favorites include The Last Stand of Fox Company: A True Story of U.S. Marines in Combat, Give Me Tomorrow: The Korean War's Greatest Untold Story, and Breakout: The Chosin Reservoir Campaign, Korea 1950. The biggest difference between these books and Halberstam’s are the focus that Halberstam places on the political elements both domestic and foreign that  made the war possible in the first place.

Most books written on this particular conflict focus almost entirely on military actions undertaken during the war, and of those almost all place an undue emphasis on the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir specifically because that battle almost resulted in the complete destruction of US forces abroad on the Asian continent and the start of World War III. With this in mind, being able to unpack the Korean War in a different way and understand more intellectually how it was perceived at home and abroad made the book a fascinating read.

Another part of what made the book so compelling were the numerous parallels between the current political climate in the United States to the political currents that were shaping our country throughout the 1940s and 1950s.

Certain passages really resonated with me, such as when former Secretary of State Dean Acheson while describing MacArthur, quoted Euripides as saying,

“Whom the gods destroy they first make mad.”

Several other passages that especially struck me contained Halberstam’s description of the Republican party during the era, the first of which was,

“The more it lost, the angrier it became. Each time, its representatives had come to the national convention confident of their greater truths only to see the nomination hijacked by an elite from the big industrial states backed up by a few powerful international publishers. The residual bitterness from the 1940 and 1944 conventions was very real; it was hard to tell who the right wingers were angrier at, FDR and the Democrats or the internationalist wing of their own party.”

Another passage which stood out to me enough that I wrote it down was,

“Their cause, as the saw it, was nothing less than simple Americanism, or the protection of an America of sturdy old-fashioned values, which had produced people exactly like them, against the America of their enemies, which had produced people that favored what they saw as socialism, or, in their minds people whose lives were too heavily subsidized by the government.”

If you’re interested in learning about the Korean War, about the foundations of the modern day Republican party in the United States, or just generally looking for a compelling book which will be hard to put down once you start reading, I can’t recommend The Coldest Winter enough.
A photo of my Harley and I taken by my friend Katie.