David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, Hyperion, $35.00.
In June, 1950, Syngman Rhee, the militant leader of South Korea, and his imperialistic American capitalist allies, decided to invade the peaceful socialist land of North Korea. That's just about how it went down according to I.F. Stone, author of Hidden History of the Korean War, still taken seriously by people who read the Nation. How much of a propaganda gambit that book actually was will emerge in The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, by David Halberstam.
Korea gets billed as America's "first Vietnam," about which Halberstam wrote about in The Best and the Brightest. The jacket of Halberstam's current book calls the Korean conflict "another dark corner in our history," the default position for any American conflict against Communism. That will come as no surprise in a publishing industry that can refer to George Orwell as the author of Animal House. None of that for David Halberstam, who understands that from the beginning this conflict was a Stalinist crusade.
"From the time he was first installed in Pyongyang by the Soviets in 1945," Halberstam writes, "Kim Il Sung, the North Korean leader, had been obsessed with the need to attack the South and unite Korea. He was single-minded on the subject, constantly bringing it up with the one man who could give him permission, the Russian dictator Joseph Stalin." Likewise, "There was, however, only one person who could give the green light for the invasion – Stalin himself." As for Kim Il Sung, whom General Douglas MacArthur called "Kim Buck Tooth," he was the Soviets' Manchurian candidate.
Halberstam traces his service in the Soviet army in a secret battalion, the Eighty-Eighth Special Independent Sniper Brigade. Kim Il Sung "was in all ways a Soviet soldier and a de facto Soviet citizen." Further,
"In the end he managed to create one of the most tightly controlled, durable and draconian societies – one of the most truly Stalinist societies – in the world. If Joseph Stalin had been born in Korea and had come to power there in the same era, he would have ruled almost exactly like Kim Il Sung and survived just as Kim did, till death did him part." (original emphasis)
Stalin and Kim Il Sung are not the sort of people to whom one should send mixed signals, which the United States did, according to Halberstam. In January, 1949,
Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave speech seeming to signal that Korea was not part of America's Asian defense perimeter. The author does a good job of showing the chaos in Washington when the Stalinist forces invaded on June 25, 1950, and the hard questions American policy makers faced. Was this part of larger plan of Soviet aggression, perhaps in Europe? On the day of the invasion, president Truman said, "There's no telling what they'll do if we don't put up a fight now."
America did put up a fight, here charted in detail, much of it unpleasant. Fighting Stalinist forces on the far side of the world, during the coldest winter in 100 years, with Communist China joining the fray, is not an easy matter. The conflict abounded in what Clausewitz called friction. Bloggers and television news, particularly CNN, would have had a field day. The troops often lacked ammunition and even sleeping bags. They took horrendous casualties but Halberstam gives readers many closeups of their courage. U.S. forces in Korea did not always have the right tools for the job, but they prevented Kim Il Sung from turning South Korea into another Stalinist colony.
The maps will prove helpful for the specialist and the author even includes a glossary of military terms. These will provide useful for journalists whose reporting seems governed by ignorance of the U.S. military and contempt for what it does. For his part, Halberstam shows a lapse of his own.
He describes Syngman Rhee and others as "virulent" anti-communists. That comes straight out of the leftist lexicon, and is unworthy of such a distinguished author, who never seems to encounter virulent pro-communists or even virulent communists. Fortunately, he does understand the dynamic behind the Korean conflict.
"The Communists were men of faith," the author explains, "politics and war having been entwined together into what was virtually a religious fervor, a certainty on their part that they were a force of destiny." Change the tense and you've got it.
The Korean War did not end. Rather, there was only a cease-fire, still in effect. South Korea, Japan and the United States, among others, now face the Kim Jong Il, who starves and imprisons the people. For that story, readers should consult The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps, by David Hawk.
Like his father, Kim Jong Il is a Communist man of faith, certain that he is a force of destiny. He deploys a huge army and aspires to fire nuclear missiles. Clearly there will be trouble. David Halberstam won't be around to see it because he died last April in a car accident. But The Coldest Winter will help those who must deal with the most Stalinist society in the world.