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on 17 April 2009
The necessity for this book is exemplified by the author's experience in a provincial Florida library: when looking at the shelves found it had eighty eight books on the Vietnam War, and only four on Korea.

This is a magisterial single volume history of the American involvement in a major war with Communist China. David Halberstam draws on considerable historical and journalistic skills to follow in the footsteps of Chester Wilmot's Crusade in Europe: the same effortless movement between platoon level experience of single combat to the liaisons and conferences of the chiefs of staff. I was as engaged by the character sketches of key politicians and diplomats as I was by the gripping depiction of close quarter conflict with the Chinese army. The portrait of MacArthur is worthy of Greek tragedy.

This was a highly politicised conflict exposed fault line between soldiers and civilians in the American way of making war. It explores the tension between the American instinct to isolationism and its global responsibilities - and provides sharp contrasts between the outstanding success of the USA in stabilising and securing democracy in post-war Europe with a far more problematic experience in Asia

Some qualifications: if you are a British reader, and your previous reading on the war is centred on Max Hastings and Michael Hickey, then you are likely to be disappointed by the very peripheral treatment of the UN effort outside the US armed forces. I think this is to be expected, but it is a little sad. My major criticism is the very poor index which does very little service to an excellently scholarly and readable book.

The key axis of power in the 21st century is likely to be between the USA and China, and the events of 1950-1953 will remain central to the dynamic of this relationship. This book is a fine tribute to its author who was so tragically killed in a car accident just as it was completed.
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on 5 February 2016
This is a tour de force of a book which not only covers the War itself but the dynamics which led to it and the personalities on both sides who played such a major part in this grim forgotten war. Halberstam is ruthless in his analysis, which is always backed up by evidence or contemporary accounts of others who were there. This is required reading for anyone interested in this and the period which follows. Go buy it now...
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on 9 April 2013
I acquired this book in the hope of expanding my knowledge of the Korean military campaign, but was sorely disappointed. The narrative starts off well enough, with a well constructed relation of the first Chinese border crossing and the ensuing battle of Unsan, interspersed with nicely edited anecdotes from veterans of the action. Then it starts to fall apart...

Virtually half the book is a diatribe against MacArthur and his personal failings and shortcomings as a military leader, coupled with long passages chronicling the political intrigue in Washington. I have no particular problem with this being an integral part of the history, but the author is interminably repetitive in describing the machinations of these situations. The book could probably have been edited to half its length, and would have been twice as good...
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on 4 October 2009
I have a bad or good habit, judge as you will, of pretty much always finishing a book once I've started it. This was tested sorely to the limits with David Halberstams "The Coldest Winter" which I had borrowed from my local Library in the hope of filling in the ample gaps in my knowledge of the Korean War. Instead, within a few score pages, it became apparent that the book had immense and ultimately fatal problems. The fact that there are 650+ pages meant that my reading endurance was tested to its limits.

The amount of clichés is simply astounding as well as a blizzard of trite sound bites, sentimentalism and more than a few dubious judgements. Sentences such as "he passed all kinds of secret tests, and he [Kim Il Sung] was a true believer" appear continuously in the text: the stuff of caricature and they occur with regard to everyone who makes an appearance, from the lowliest soldier to such historical figures as General MacArthur, Harry Truman, Mao and General Ridgeway.

The book is subtitled "America and the Korean War" and I expected that the American contribution to the Korean War would have primacy. What I cannot accept is the utterly miserable amount of space that is given to the Koreans. With the exception of the two leading figures of North and South there is only the odd sentence or paragraph on the Korean people themselves. The reader is left, beyond a few shallow generalities, with little idea of what their experience of the War was. There is not even much in the way of detail regarding how partition happened, or the status of the two Koreas in the period between the end of WW2 and the beginning of the Korean War. The War itself is sometimes glossed over and at other times actions are given in excessive detail, every other soldier seems to get his fifteen cliché ridden sentences of fame.

The analysis at times is a little dubious, for example Truman is quoted as saying "If we stand up to them like we did in Greece three years ago, they won't take any next steps. But if just stand by, they'll move into Iran and they'll take over the whole Middle East." Truman is speaking about what the Soviets will do if he doesn't intervene in Korea, but Halberstam does not think to add that the Soviets never supported the Greek communists and had left Iran four or so years before under a minimal amount of external diplomatic pressure.

The book does have a few saving graces but could have been cut in half, or even more, and been a fairly reasonable account of the Korean War. The lunacy of General MacArthur: his extreme right wing views and the personality cult that surrounded him are clearly stated, as are the tensions in Washington between the Democrat adminstration and a right wing Republican opposition in the post Chinese Revolution era (with its endless debates about who lost China) and their McCarthyism in full flow. The abrasive relationship between General MacArthur and the Democrats in Government is made reasonably clear and even at times interesting. The role that the pervasive American racism regarding Asians played in underestimating first the North Korean forces and then the Chinese is a persistant theme, though it is merely explicated as being of "that time".

In brief, I think that this is a book with more than a few interesting points to make but they are few and far between and any reader who undertakes the journey will have to wade through an unbelievable amount of trite quotes and clichés. There must surely be a better general history of the Korean War than this book?
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on 21 February 2013
I like the writing of David Halberstam. At its best it is magisterial in its sweep and the 'helicopter' approach of recording and recounting events at both the highest and lowest levels of action makes it for me the ideal sort of reading material. I did not know a lot about the Korean War but Halberstam has in this work placed on the record for all time the sacrifices that were made by the men on the front line and the arrogant stupidity of some of the Senior Command involved in the decision making process which ended up causing the needless deaths of so many men.

This book should be mandatory reading for all OCS entrants in the US military and beyond.
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on 17 April 2013
This is a very good read and great way to learn about this brutal and significant war between 1950-1953.
Recommended for readers interested in forgotten conflicts
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on 30 March 2011
David Halberstam has the whole conflict wrong. Though now eighty years old, I still clearly remember my three years served in the Korean conflict. I'd just joined Special Forces in Malaysia when I was moved to Korea soon after the US went in. I served two years on the ground then was seconded to an intelligence unit attached to the UN military headquarters. I'm in a good position to put the record straight. Syngman Rhee and Kim Chang-ryong deliberately incited the North Koreans and the Chinese to invade across the 38th Parallel. Rhee's motive was to draw the US in to support his regime. He even attempted to get the US to nuke Pyongyan (the North Korean capital), on the basis that the nukes in Japan had ended the conflict in WW2 (a couple of CIA guys and a journalist told me this). Rhee had been educated in the US, and was returned by them into South Korea to take power following the end of WW2. We have to remember that the US was paranoid about the perceived communist threat in the years following WW2, and Rhee was considered to be a suitable leader to support US policies in the region. Syngman Rhee and Kim Chang-ryong committed several atrocities against his own people before, during and after the Korean conflict, the most notable one being on Jeju island in which over 30,000 of his own people were killed. Even well after the end of the Korean conflict, when Rhee was overthrown by the general population, the CIA flew him out of Korea to Hawaii, together with $20M filched from the South Korean government. He died in Hawii in 1965. The US still maintains a military force of 30,000 troops in South Korea. Korea, like Vietnam, is just another example of flawed US foreign policies. In Korea, had the US not put a dictator and despot in as their proxy, and instead troubled themselves to set up a democratically elected government, the Korean Conflict would never have happened.
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on 7 April 2011
Excellent insight into development of international perspectives in Amercian politics post WWII. Depressing to see the same mistakes being made 50 years on. Fascinating combination of social commentary, history and journalism.
Excellent book: history of Korean war, combining social history - across US, China, Korea and USSR - with excellent accounts of various military manoeuvres during the Korean war.

Interesting to look back at how China slipped from America's zone of influence. And to think forward to what would subsequently transpire in Vietnam.

Halberstein is so readable for the amateur historian. Why did we not learn history at school through book like this?
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on 30 October 2014
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