Recommended Book: The Coldest Winter, David Halberstam

As the six-party talks continue to dance around the question of the future of the Korean peninsula — and the major powers plan for the collapse of the DPRK — it is worthwhile to look back to the (unresolved) conflict that cemented the division of the peninsula and had untold consequences for US Asia policy.

In his final book, The Coldest Winter, the late David Halberstam, who died in April 2007, provided a magisterial account of the Korean War that weaves together biography, political analysis, and historical narrative to explain how the war unfolded at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. As the subtitle suggests, his focus is on the war’s impact on the US and much of the narrative is told from the American perspective, but he takes time to look at the war from the perspectives of Pyongyang, Moscow, and Beijing (if not the perspective of Chinese and Korean foot soldiers).

The greatest virtue of this book is the care Halberstam took to embed the war in contemporary American debates about the future of US foreign policy and the growing struggle between anti-communists, most notably Senator Joseph McCarthy, and the foreign policy establishment, epitomized by Secretary of State Dean Acheson and his fellow “wise men.” This book is in many ways a prequel to his earlier The Best and The Brightest. Halberstam showed an America that in 1950 was still unprepared for the global role envisioned by policymakers. For all the commitments that Washington had undertaken 1945-1950, in 1950 the American people were still mentally unprepared to meet those commitments. Part of that mental unpreparedness was a tendency to embrace the crudest anti-communism, the anti-communism of the “Asia-Firsters — the China Lobby and General Douglas MacArthur — that minimized the importance of Europe and called for a “crusade” that would reverse the “loss” of China by the Democrats and begin the process of rolling back communism worldwide. This facile anti-communism eliminated all nuance from US Asia policy, leading the US to ignore signs of tension in the Sino-Soviet relationship and to view all indigenous independence movements in Asia through the prism of the cold war. (It also led to the purge of the “China hands,” those policymakers who might have been able to implement a more nuanced Asia policy.) The result was a quarter-century of unmitigated Sino-US hostility and all the wasted opportunities that entailed; the enduring protection of Chiang Kai-shek’s government; the disastrous intervention in Indochina; and the overall failure of the US to appreciate the significance of decolonization.

The failure of the US foreign policy and military establishments was total. The “eastern” liberal elites, overwhelmingly focused on containing Soviet expansion in Europe, underappreciated the role the US had to play in Asia, leaving them open to the hysterical charges of isolationist-turned-Asia First members of Congress and the media. On the defensive, they found it difficult to elaborate a more sensible Asia policy. They were unable to explain to the American people that backing Chiang — a corrupt, incompetent, unpopular leader — was a dead end, and that China wasn’t America’s to lose in the first place. They were also unable to say no to MacArthur, darling of the Asia-Firsters, who was dangerously out of touch with reality on the ground during the war and inexcusably contemptuous of his military and, more importantly, his civilian superiors.

Of course, as far MacArthur is concerned, by the time the war began it was too late for Washington to be able to curb him. As members of the Truman administration came to realize during the war, five years as the unquestioned ruler of Japan made him effectively a foreign sovereign and thus as impossible to control in war as in peace. Halberstam’s portrait of MacArthur is, not surprisingly, unflattering, not least because of the contempt with which he treated the lives of the soldiers under his command.

The foreign policy elite do not, however, deserve all the blame for the fiasco. In some way it was inevitable. The Truman administration had been painted into a corner. With Republicans hungry to reclaim the White House after losing five straight elections (after 1948), they needed an issue with which to hammer the Democrats. The Soviet menace combined with the Chinese Communist victory proved the perfect formula: the Democrats, whether as a result of incompetence or, in the McCarthyite version, communist sympathies, were dangerously unprepared to resist monolithic communism, which was supposedly on the march everywhere. The result was that Democrats came to feel the need to look tough on communism — and cower in the face of those seen as tough on communism (i.e., MacArthur). This psychological need for Democrats to appear strong on foreign policy lingers today, and could become an incredibly important factor in US foreign policy should a Democrat win the presidency this year. (It is not at all hard to see Republicans in opposition once again castigating a Democratic president for being soft on what they say is an existential threat to the US, in this case Islamic terrorism — and the Democrats overcompensating in response, with disastrous effects.)

In their campaign against the administration, the Republicans had the backing of much of the American public, who were simultaneously convinced of the communist menace (and in the case of China, the administration’s failure to protect a democratic ally of the US from it) and unwilling to support properly the global commitments necessary to resist communism. (Hence the US military was dangerously unprepared for war in Korea when it came.) In Kennan’s containment policy, the US had a prudent strategy for resisting Soviet expansionism — but as Halberstam made clear, the American people and their elected representatives were not up to the strategy. Indeed, the conversion of the US from isolationism to superpower was messy, especially in Asia, where wartime propaganda about “our ally” China contributed to a major overreaction to the communist takeover.

The result of all this was a bitter, inconclusive war on the Korean peninsula that destroyed for two decades the possibility of a modus vivendi between the US and Mao’s China (and ensured a lingering element of mistrust in the relationship even after the opening). It was a war that took the lives of more than 36,000 American servicemen and hundreds of thousands of Koreans and Chinese, and, as a result of the brittle anticommunism it engendered, contributed to the deaths of thousands if not millions more as the US intensified its commitment to fight communism in Indochina. And it bequeathed to future generations flashpoints that might yet be the death of us all.

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