Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Book review: The Coldest Winter

Sometimes you can read a book and consider it timely. I feel this way with "The Coldest Winter" by David Halberstam. Halberstam tackles the overlooked conflict known as the Korean War. With North Korea in a tailspin currently and lashing out at South Korea, creating tension globally, it is timely to see how it all began. Halberstam does not disappoint, and for those of you out there foreign to the Korean War, this is a great starting point.

Halberstam does his usual, wonderful job of bring many different currents together to discuss how and why something worked out the way it did. Things are never clear cut nor move in a straight line. Halberstam works in the Chinese Civil War, Truman & US politics, MacArthur's legend, the rapid US demobilization after WW2, and Korea's history to set the table. How fast America dismembered the fighting force that fought the Japanese virtually alone and was the muscle in the Western Front in Europe is startling. Halberstam gets you the reader to feel like an in.formed reader even if some of the things are new to you. He can break things down well, and he does a great job of capturing the big picture and making the subject fit into it and influence it.

Halberstam's strength is his dedication to getting interviews with people deep down in the muck. Halberstam interviewed the lowest men on the totem pole, as they do not write published books of their own on Korea. The foxhole details he gathers from these men will give you chills and makes the war easier to envision compared to just dates, big names, battle stats and campaign orders. The emotion that pours off the page is deep, and you wonder how people move on & go back to the normal world after they come home. If ever in DC, please see the Korean War Memorial. I like it far more than the WW2 or Vietnam Memorials. These tales are the glue to the book.

The big conflict between Truman and MacArthur is portrayed very evenhanded here, and with more details, it is pretty clear that Truman did what was right (but unpopular) at the time. Truman was the boss and needed to defuse a situation from going critical worldwide. MacArthur was playing his word games with big players (China and the Soviets) when nuclear weapons were on the playing board. This book clearly shows how the US had a problem moving from the isolationist, rising power to global superpower. Truman was not a foreign policy genius nor an expert when thrust into the spotlight as POTUS. He had to hit the ground running with WW2, the Berlin airlift, the Greek-Turkey civil issues and the Korean War. The US was assuming the old role of naval trade custodian that the British had held for years. Truman made a lot of far reaching moves in a short span of time.
China, the 'loss' of China, features so prominently in this book. Commie China was the true muscle in this conflict for the North Koreans, and bailed them out once the US came to South Korea's rescue. China going commie was a blow to the US psyche and would haunt us not just in Korea but in Vietnam. If China never goes commie, does Stalin give Kim the green light to press his luck on the Korean peninsula? Does Vietnam have as much material and support to fight the French and then US without big red China just to its north? Mao wanted to make a statement, despite his forces being tired from the civil war, and pushed his forces too far and too fast. Mao also was a mass murderer and hypocrite who had mansions, food and women everywhere while his people suffered, but that is another post. (gotta love how wikipedia says his policies are 'blamed' for the deaths of millions like forced famines are not responsible for mass deaths) China definitely suffered horrendous losses, but could go back to their homeland saying they, not the Soviets, helped a fellow commie (which created a client state they could use to antagonize the West), and that they battled the mighty US to a draw. It is a shame China entered the Korean War, because without them, the entire Korean peninsula is free as South Korea is today, and several hundred thousand Chinese survive.

The Korean War is often called America's Forgotten War. It is a shame because this was a battle where the US (yeah the UN force was mostly US) came to the aid of South Korea and repelled the commies of North Korea from taking over. Part of the problem might lie in the sandwiching of the ultimate good vs. evil war (WW2: Kill Nazis and avenge Pearl Harbor) and the ultimate baby boomer whine fest quagmire war (Vietnam). Looking at the development of South and North Korea, we can see why fighting for freedom is a just cause. North Korea had more resources at their disposal when the conflict ended, but the South overtook them in every measurable metric. While the Korean War was more about protecting Japan, not 'losing' another country, and standing up to communist aggression, it was also about allowing people to have the choice to live life as they wanted. South Korea was an interesting progression from UN created country to tightly controlled quasi-dictatorship to economic mini-miracle to politically advanced democratic society.

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