Wednesday, November 21, 2007

David Halberstam's The Coldest Winter

This widely noted book about the Korean War has been a very interesting read. The start is painful and hard to get through - a flash forward to the stage of the war where American soldiers, near the Chinese border, were being overwhelmed by Chinese forces for whom the sleeping MacArthur had totally failed to prepare despite more than ample warnings.

A lot that happened in the Korean War era is painfully recognizable today. Policy being driven by ignorance about the other side. People who knew something being ignored, as the "China hands" had been driven from influence for the sin of correctly predicting the outcome of the Chinese Civil War. People who knew better lying about what had happened in China to score political points against the Truman Administration. The overwhelming inclination in U.S. politics to be over-hawkish at all costs, without regard to rational pursuit of national self-interest. The arrogant disregard of local realities out there. Absurd worship of military figures, permitting them to exercise malign influence. Deliberate exploitation of patriotism themes by right-wingers determined to pursue nefarious ends, or in some cases well-meant but unrealistic ones. Knowledgeable civil servants being defamed and ignored. Insistence on reading every single situation in world politics as Munich revisited, with "appeasement" of a mythically monolithic adversary to be avoided at all costs, and with "appeasement" defined to include any exercise of sanity and common sense.

Interesting side-point: MacArthur's daring Inchon landing succeeded for a reason that no one fully understood at the time. It was guaranteed to fail if the North Koreans were at all prepared for it, highly likely to succeed (as it did) if it caught them completely by surprise. What we didn't know, before the archives opened abroad, was how close it came to failing. The Chinese knew from their intelligence sources in Japan that the U.S. was planning a landing somewhere. Being a lot savvier and more experienced than Kim Il Sung, they correctly guessed Inchon because they had studied MacArthur and knew his style. So they told Kim, a couple of weeks before the landing, to prepare for it. He wouldn't have had to do much - just put minimal resources there without greatly diverting from anywhere else. But luckily enough he arrogantly ignored them. So MacArthur's gamble worked because of Kim, but certainly was not bound to work given that the Chinese had figured it out. Being a racist, MacArthur had counted on "Asians" lacking the wit to foresee what he was up to.

Back to the main themes and how familiar they feel from the perspective of 2007. We really are reliving 1946 to 1954 in a lot of ways, albeit without responsible adults running the Executive Branch or the Republican Party. Let's hope we are lucky enough to emerge again. But I am not very confident that we will.

1 comment:

Ted Johnson said...

While reading the early chapters of this book it became obvious that the author was suffering from BDS. The last few sentences on page 391 sealed it for me. George H. W. Bush did not manipulate Congress, the media, the public or itself. He did not deliberately use "seriously flawed or doctored intelligence". It would have been better if Mr. Halberstam had stuck to Korea and checked his BDS at the door before writing this book. I'll have to decide whether or not to finish the rest of this book or re-read Clair Blair's 'The Forgotten War' again.