The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 9 Sep 2015
The Coldest Winter was written as a history of the Korean War, thus on the surface it was an off-topic read as far as WW2DB was concerned. That said, the reason why I picked it up (aside from my interest to start learning about the Korean War) and why this review made it on this website was that I had been told the author, journalist David Halberstam, had extensively developed many among his cast of characters from their WW2 careers. As I finished the book, I had very mixed feelings about this book.
On the positive end, Halberstam, a Pulitzer-willing journalist, commanded his language. His dramatic flair gave his storytelling an intimate feel, grabbing my utmost attention with his telling of Washington political intrigues and brutal front line combat as if the book was an adventure novel. Looking at the book as a work of history, his extensive research from existing biographies and histories was apparent, but what stood out was the stories he told that could have only come from interviews with combat veterans and decision makers, adding dimensions to his narration. While his liberal and far ranging forays into anecdotes from the WW2-era (and other periods) might frustrate Korean War purists, these side stories helped me tie my understanding of WW2 with how WW2 personalities and their WW2-era decisions affected later events.
On the other hand, a few things about the book bothered me very much. The foremost was the author twisting facts and statistics to suit his agenda, something I was extremely disappointed to see from a Pulitzer Prize winner. As an example, in one chapter Halberstam noted that, during the post-WW2 continuation of the Chinese Civil War, Nationalist divisions were always under-strength by about 50%, but Nationalist commanders were routinely reporting full strength so that they would receive full allotments of American weapons, some of which went into stores for future fighting, some of which went into the black market. Yet merely a couple of chapters later, when Halberstam told of a particularly disgraceful defeat in which entire Nationalist divisions surrendered after minimal fighting, the author tallied the amount of weapons lost to the communists as if all the lost Nationalist divisions were at their theoretical full strength, contradicting his previous statement. Another characteristic about the book that troubled me deeply was the author's tendency to turn large parts of his work of popular history into a sensational editorial, which yet again damaged his credibility in my mind, not just as a historian but also as a journalist.
I had reviewed this title in its audio book format. Scott Brick had a couple of awkward moments with certain Asian names of people and places, but in general he had done a good job. His steady pace and clarity certainly helped me through this book of immense size.
David Halberstam's masterful storytelling made The Coldest Winter a great read. The book was a fine political history of the war from an American point of view, but at the same time, the author's utter failure to be objective tainted the otherwise good work. For that reason, I would not recommend this book. Should a WW2DB reader find this book in his or her possession, caution must be exercised so to separate fact from exaggeration and history from personal opinion, all of which were found in these pages in abundance.
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Joachim von Ribbentrop, German Foreign Minister, Aug 1939