Reviews ...

'The Coldest Winter'.. David Halberstam's last book

... the late David Halberstam's book about the war in Korea provides some political page-turning history

by Joe Sullivan

David Halberstam’s  book "The Coldest Winter, America and the Korean War" came to market late last year. Why would he write a book about something that happened over fifty-four years ago? We’ll probably never know since Halberstam was instantly killed in a car crash in the San Francisco Bay Area just before his book was published.

News reports almost always mention that the reason he was in the Bay Area was to interview Y.A.Tittle, the former Forty Niners and New York Giants quarterback. Halberstam was gathering background for a book that he was writing about a New York Giants-Baltimore Colts Championship game which, some say, was the greatest football game ever played.

He was in town for something else, too. Earlier he had delivered a speech at the University of California’s Graduate School of Journalism. His subject was, “What it means to turn reporting into a work of history.” If you would like to see how it’s done there is no better place to learn than by reading The Coldest Winter. It is truly a remarkable book.

The book describes the major battles of the Korean war with completeness and insight. It goes far beyond descriptions of combat engagements. The book also covers another historical confrontation, Halberstam shows how the Korean War served as the showdown for a political battle between the “China Lobby” in the Congress  and the Truman Administration. The China Lobby was trying to draw Red China into a deeper war with the U.S. while the administration was working to limit the war to Korea.

The goal of this story you’re reading now is to use David Halberstam’s book to summarize the intense political battle between the China Lobby and the Truman Administration, a battle that was to affect the war itself.

The China Lobby and its friends

The China Lobby had a significant ally in this confrontation. General Douglas MacArthur, headquartered in Tokyo was commander of the troops in the Far East. He was highly sympathetic to the lobby and would frequently communicate with the lobby’s members in Congress, passing on his views of events.

MacArthur because of his exploits in World War II was highly popular with the American people. He had taken on an aura of legend and did little, if anything, to downplay it. He was a brilliant military commander with a penchant for mingling in the political end of the business. He used his contacts in Washington and would write to them with his perspective on issues, especially ones with which he disagreed.

He was not popular with his immediate bosses the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The general was demanding of his staff’s loyalty to the point of devotion. His critics said his staff had been turned into a coterie of sycophants. It portrayed to many a personality of which to be wary, an opinion held by the Truman Administration back in Washington.

The China Lobby included many conservative Republican members of Congress as well as some powerful members of the media. Among others it included Henry Luce, publisher of Time, Life and Roy Howard of the Scripps-Howard chain. The lobby was entirely sympathetic to the Chinese Nationalist Government under its leader Chiang Kai-shek. In the late forties the Nationalist Government was in meltdown in China. The recipient of massive aid packages including arms from the U.S., it was nevertheless being overwhelmed by Mao Zedong and the Chinese Reds. Because of Chiang’s powerful political constituency in America the U.S. could not disengage itself from China. It was a situation that would move Red China and the U.S. to military collision. Even after the loss of the mainland Chiang Kai-shek still had enough political support to keep him in power in Taiwan.

When the North Koreans crossed the 38th parallel to invade South Korea the Washington D.C. political scene was one of turmoil. The Cold War was causing an atmosphere of increasing anxiety with the American people. Partisan rhetoric like that coming from Senator Joe McCarthy was pushing the perception that the government was riven with Communists who were working for foreign powers.

The China Lobby was pushing the notion that Truman’s foreign policy was one of “appeasement” which had resulted in the loss of China to the Communists. The spirit of bipartisanship which had unified Congress during World War II was gone, political partisanship that had stayed bottled up during the war burst like a torrent on the Truman Administration. It was “soft on Communism” cried its Republican critics. Republicans had been out of power for over twenty years and they were attempting to ride these issues back into power.

For whatever the perception of its apathy to Communist aggression the Truman Administration responded swiftly to the invasion of South Korea. Not only would it intervene but it would do so with ground troops, not just air strikes and naval bombardments.

Initially the intervention initially would fare badly for the Americans who were fighting as part of a United Nations force. The North Koreans relentlessly drove them out of the major cities and back southward into a small, tight perimeter around Pusan. It was there that the U.N. forces held and waited for more reinforcements and a direction as to how they would push back

The amphibious landings at Inchon

It was here that MacArthur’s military genius would manifest itself. MacArthur recommended an amphibious landing at the western port of Inchon which would leave the American forces behind the North Koreans and cut them off. It was a high-risk operation with logistics bordering on nightmare.

No one, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed with it. MacArthur finessed them and without leaving them time to modify his final plan he proceeded. That it turned out to be a brilliant success did nothing to moderate the resentment of the Joint Chiefs about how he outflanked the approval process.

The success at Inchon presented Washington with another issue. As the troops drove northward, should they be allowed to cross the 38th parallel; if so, how far north? What was being clarified were the different political positions of Washington. On one side MacArthur and the China Lobby looking to drive north to the Yalu River that bordered Manchuria. The administration’s position was not to initiate  an action that would bring an intervention by the Red Chinese and, possibly, even the USSR.

The decision was being reflected in Washington politics. Senator Bill Knowland of California, member of the China Lobby, was describing stopping at the 38th parallel as appeasement. John Foster Dulles who had been brought into the State Department as a concession to its Republicans described stopping as “rewarding aggression.“

Harry Truman knew the Red Chinese were massing at the boarder between North Korea and Manchuria. He was in a jam. With mid-term elections and with Democrats being pounded as appeasers he could not risk being accused of restraining MacArthur. Some said his approval was really only for actions that were already underway.

MacArthur had strong popular support. If the Red Chinese intervened he vowed that he would turn the Yalu River red with their blood. But as the offensive moved forward into the sub-zero North Korea weather, and with the troops who were told they would be home for Christmas still dressed in summer-weight uniforms, dire consequences were being planned somewhere else.

Chairman Mao decides to intervene

Mao Zedong had felt that there was an inevitability to Red China being drawn into the Korean War. When the North Korean troops were at the point of collapse Kim Il Sung sought help from Stalin who refused and directed him to seek help instead from the Red Chinese.

In an effort to bargain air support  from the Soviets Mao concealed  from Stalin that the decision had been made already to intervene. Stalin initially agreed to provide Mao air support but would eventually renege. The month of September had been set aside to do two things: 1. Getting troops to the Yalu and 2. Bringing the politburo leadership over to Mao’s need to go to war. Both objectives were met.

Mao’s motive for the intervention was not so much to save North Korea as it was to achieve Red China’s own objectives. It was an opportunity to take advantage of a situation which would enable a humiliating defeat of the Americans and thereby provide Red China recognition as a world power.

Halberstam describes how wary Americans were as they advanced toward the Yalu. Their troops had been spread by the widening terrain. This sentiment was not shared at MacArthur headquarters in Tokyo. There was euphoria when elements of the Seventh Division reached the Yalu. Many times MacArthur said the troops would be home for Christmas after they achieved this goal. But the troops were experiencing a cold that they never knew during Christmas back home. Temperatures on the Yalu reached thirty below for the troops who were still in summer-weight uniforms.

MacArthur's staff manipulates the intelligence reports

During the drive north the men at the Dai Ichi had been doctoring the intelligence being sent back to Washington. To prevent any possibility that the drive would be halted by Washington, the intelligence reports of any confrontations with Chinese Red  would reduce the numbers of the troops involved. The purpose was to make the Chinese confrontations appear insignificant when in fact they were not. Halberstam points out that this precedent would be followed in two other wars: in Vietnam, when flawed intelligence by civilians was used to achieve political objectives and again by the Bush Administration to send troops into Iraqi cities with disastrous results.

When the Red Chinese attack was unleashed it was devastating. With a huge advantage in numbers it swarmed the American units. The Second Infantry Division was especially hard hit. Halberstam’s interviews of many of the soldiers involved carefully describes the tribulations they suffered. The intervention, that MacArthur said would not come, instead, came in massive numbers which inflicted a stinging defeat involving high casualties on the American Eighth Army which was sent reeling southward in disarray.

MacArthur would not accept responsibility for the defeat. He spoke as if he were a victim of Washington’s policies. The line emerging from Tokyo was that Washington had hamstrung the General by not allowing him to attack bases on the other side of the Yalu

He was conducting his defense in friendly journals back home. After a long article in Newsweek in which he claimed the administrations refusal to let him bomb the Reds in their Manchurian bases left on him an enormous handicap without precedent in history. A furious Truman established a gag order requiring all comments on policy be issued by the State Department. MacArthur ignored it.

It was the fortunes of war that allowed both the military and Washington to share the common judgment  that Korea was to be a limited war. It would not involve mining Chinese harbors or bombing bases in China. The fighting would be contained to Korea. The situation of commonality came about when Walton Walker, commander of the troops in Korea was killed in a Jeep accident. He was replaced by General Matthew Ridgeway a highly popular choice of the Administration and the Joint Chiefs. He understood that his job was to implement the administration’s policy.

Ironically, Ridgway had been requested by MacArthur who, in a meeting in Tokyo, turned over the responsibility of the Korean campaign to him .The Eighth Army was at low morale and in disarray. The question now was could the U.N. troops hold or would Korea be another Dunkirk?

Ridgway restored the Eighth Army into a strong fighting force. Morale improved. In contrast to MacArthur, who had never spent a night in Korea, he established his headquarters there. The troops knew the boss would be sharing their existence. Ridgway set out to prove that the Americans with their superior fire power and air power could defeat the Chinese even on a field of their own choosing.

Under his leadership the Eighth Army pushed the Chinese back north of the 38th parallel. Again, Halberstam’ carefully describes the battles  and the soldiers who fought in them.

MacArthur moves to frustrate peace initiatives

MacArthur had moved to frustrate the administration’s wish to start peace initiatives with China. He would write to his admirer’s in the press that he could take the same forces now being used in Korea’s limited war and instead drive them to the Yalu. He would issue communiqués taunting the Chinese belittling their ability to control air, land and sea. In summary, he equated stalemate in Korea to defeat and would sabotage any effort to achieve it.

The situation came to a head when his response to a letter from Joe Martin, Republican leader in Congress and a staunch member of the China Lobby, was read on the House floor. MacArthur said he agreed with Martin’s position to use Nationalist Chinese troops in China to launch a second front against the Chinese. Surpassing that, were the radio intercepts that had been picked up and reported to the administration. The reportds stated that Spanish and Portuguese diplomats told their offices that MacArhtur had assured them that he could turn Korea into a larger war with China.

When Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur and replaced him with Matthew Ridgeway it released a titanic political firestorm. The paranoia  about the government being infiltrated by Communists was best expressed by Senator William Jenner of Indiana, “I charge this country today is in he hands of a secret coterie which is directed by agents of the Soviet Union. Our only choice is to impeach President Truman.

The hero returns

Huge crowds turned out to support MacArthur, the estimate was seven million for those who tuned out for his ticker-tape parade in New York. He was at his high point when he addressed Congress with his “old soldiers never die” speech.

Things would change in the Congressional hearings that were being held in secret.. Each day MacArthur was diminished. The Joint Chiefs were especially hard on him. General Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered a most punishing comment when he said that MacArthur’s  position would, “leave us in the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time with the wrong enemy.” In the end the hearings were a victory for Truman.

If MacArthur had any political hopes they would end at the Republican Convention in 1952. As the keynote speaker, dressed in civilian clothes, he was entirely out of his element. The delegates did not respond to his speech, some of them left in the middle of it. There would be a general nominated for president, a softer, more middle-of- the-road candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower who would go on to be elected president.

...and the war continues

The War in Korea continued on for almost two years after the election. With the death of Josef Stalin who had been urging the Chinese to be more obstinate a breakthrough became possible. A routine request to the Chinese for a switch of sick and wounded prisoners received an immediate response. Progress was being made but there were impediments, too. In an effort to thwart a truce that would leave Korea split,  Syngman Rhee in mid June released 27,000 North Korean prisoners of war allowing them to blend into South Korean Society. These were prisoners who would have been forced into repatriation. Pynongyang was livid. But the two big powers wanted out, so negotiations moved on.

In the meantime the war continued. By mid 1952, according to Halberstam, it had become to resemble the worst of the First World War: trench warfare, days and nights of constant artillery barrages. The war had become a struggle with the slow and agonizing peace talks at Panmunjom. The fighting itself was just enough by both sides that it was not going to lose military face.

On July 27, 1953 a truce began in Korea. As Halberstam states this had been a draining, cruel war that was ending under terms that no one was happy with, but, it had not been expanded to the China mainland.

Halberstam points out that the American intervention did produce a significant success. It allowed South Korea to develop into a prosperous democratic society. Pictures that show cities like Seoul with large buildings, busy with auto traffic and well-dressed citizens seem almost impossible to believe for anyone who was there during the war.

David Halberstam’s exhausting research and talented narrative style has made his book of history into a page turner. It is carefully crafted and written in an easy, matter-of-fact, newspaperman style. It is a marvelous read.

May 2, 2008


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