The Coldest Winter
David Halberstam
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Buy *The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War* by David Halberstam online

The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War
David Halberstam
736 pages
September 2007
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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David Halberstam, in his final book, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, provides readers with a solid education in the political decisions and indecisions that sometimes lead to war. The Coldest Winter, however, is more than a book about politics; it's as much about the men who warmed the seats of power between May 1950 and July 1953, and how devastating political and military power struggles can be on the nations involved in them. Halberstam makes a strong argument for the Korean War as a comedy of political misjudgment, one on top of another, and shares a disquieting collage of egos, particularly of the military leaders and their gross underestimation of the enemy silently advancing on them. One could argue it as a comedy of error, except there's nothing humorous about death and destruction.

My uncle fought and was wounded in the Korean War. It was a time in his life he never liked to talk about, and it wasn't until his death in recent years that he shared more than a veiled memory or two of that time. So painful were the memories of that war for him that he couldn't bring himself to watch war movies on television, even movies about wars he hadn't fought in. There was simply no movie, I suppose, that could bring about a sense of nostalgia, nor was there any film adequate to convey the hatefulness of death he witnessed firsthand. Growing up, my knowledge of the Korean War was stunted, to say the least, both by the fact that it didn't seem to be discussed, by anyone, and because it seemed to fall beneath the radar of most of the educational writers of that time. It wasn't a popular war, if any war can be called that, like World War II with its bond drives, and war songs, and all the things that rallied the people in support of the troops.

I'm grateful for Halberstam's book. It fills in a gap in my education that I hadn't before realized was there. I recall an inordinate amount of time being spent on World War II and the social climate of the time, and I recall the weeks spent on the social and political conflicts resulting from Vietnam. But Korea? Could I have even found it on a map, or related who the military leaders were during that time? Could I have even told someone what the war was about, how it began, and what its outcome was? Not before reading The Coldest Winter. This is a long book and certainly not a quick read, but then no education worth having is obtained too quickly. An education to be valued requires time, and The Coldest Winter is certainly worth the investment. Undertake it knowing that there will be moments, sometimes entire chapters, where the reader may feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of detail Halberstam has compiled and may even want to reread more than one, as I did with Chapter 9, but Halberstam has taken care to pull forward the most important threads the reader will need to stay on track, so long as they keep reading. Too long away from the book, however, can have a disorienting effect. The reader may find themselves wondering if they hadn't already read a section or passage at an earlier time. Halberstam's threads keep the big picture recognizable and understandable. There will be places where the reader will have to refer back to previous chapters to keep the names of people and places straight, simply because they are so numerous. Still, there is a coherence to Halberstam's work and The Coldest Winter is a testament to his ability as a researcher, writer, and chronicler of historic events.

Readers will get to know Douglas MacArthur, a hero of World War II, in a different way, from his parents down, and will certainly have their perspective of him changed, perhaps not for the better. It takes a strong man to do the work that MacArthur did throughout his career, but I cannot help but wonder if MacArthur wasn't his own worst enemy at times.

It will not surprise me to find The Coldest Winter being drawn on by history professors, secondary and post secondary, and it certainly would be worth assigning to students of political science as well as history. But for the average person who wants to know about Korea, who wants to learn for the sake of learning, for the acquiring of new knowledge, this book is a must.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Susan Cronk, 2007

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