David Halberstam died in a car crash near San Francisco in April, days after putting the finishing touches on The Coldest Winter, his exhaustive, compelling account of the Korean War.
At the time of his death, Halberstam was on his way to interview retired NFL star Y.A. Tittle – the beginning of yet another book for a tireless journalist whose pedigreed career included a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Vietnam War and numerous bestselling titles.
He routinely alternated between lighter sports fare and intensely researched political and historical chronicles, and his enthusiasm for the grunt work of journalism never wavered. Halberstam seemed to spend his life on planes and in hotels, pursuing major and minor players alike as he crafted portraits of White House administrations, wars, and shifting social conditions.
That relentless work ethic made for sober-minded portraits and also helped establish a ready rapport with all manner of subjects. "The Coldest Winter" offers infinite examples of Halberstam's ability to coax former soldiers to tell their stories in the starkest, most human terms.
A typical example: Paul McGee, a former Army platoon commander who led 46 men through a hillside battle that left just four of the men able to walk out under their own power. McGee's recollections provide the foundation for a stirring depiction of combat in all its ugly reality.
In an author's note, Halberstam remembers the day he interviewed McGee at his North Carolina home. After conducting five interviews in five days across the state, Halberstam awoke to a snowy, miserable day and pondered catching an earlier flight home.
"The temptation to bag the McGee interview and take an earlier flight was overwhelming; then I thought again, why not see him?" writes Halberstam. "I had come all this way and this was what I get paid to do. So I went out and found his home and for four hours it all poured out.... It was as if he had been waiting for me ... for fifty-five years, and he remembered everything as if it had been yesterday."
Halberstam worked on "The Coldest Winter" off and on for a decade. His commitment to the project shows, as the book chronicles multiple facets of the war: the battles, the soldiers, the commanders, geopolitical landscapes and the emerging cold war that shaped the responses of all the players.
The forgotten war
Many Americans have little notion of what caused the Korean War, what happened during the three years of agonizing battle – and how those machinations played a pivotal role in the subsequent Communist-containment war in Vietnam.
In that sense, Halberstam's Korea book serves as a companion to his Vietnam account, "The Best and the Brightest."
Both books provide remarkable insight into the bureaucratic web and political entanglements that led the US into untenable positions. Fear of Communist encroachment drove military and political leaders alike, with wildly uneven results.
Halberstam spares no one in his account. He notes the failures of the Truman administration to maintain a capable military in the wake of World War II, a major factor in the early stumbles by American troops during the Korean War.
Red-baiting and McCarthyism wreaked havoc on otherwise sensible men, creating additional pressure to maintain a hard-line stance. Korea itself stood divided, with China's Chairman Mao eyeing an opportunity to exploit vulnerable US troops in the wake of Communist North Korea's plunge across the 38th parallel into South Korea – the move that started the conflict in June 1950.
A panoply of intriguing characters come into sharp focus under Halberstam's gaze, including Mao and President Truman as well as Joseph Stalin, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung, military visionary George Marshall, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson.
His comparisons of Douglas MacArthur and Matt Ridgway, the two men who led US forces in Korea, offer a perfect primer on what went wrong – and right – with the American campaign.
Fade to black
The towering showdown between MacArthur and Truman again leaves the once-beloved soldier diminished in stature. Halberstam punctures the aging general's blowhard jingoism and slapdash strategy with devastating detail.
Among the examples cited: MacArthur never spent a single night in Korea.
Instead, he delivered orders from afar at his Tokyo command post. His lone stroke of genius, the surprise attack at Inchon, predicated his precipitous fall from grace. A Time magazine correspondent noted that Inchon proved costly "because it led to the complete deification of MacArthur and the terrible, terrible defeats that happened next."
MacArthur blustered and rewrote history before his adoring press corps for months and months, defying the orders of Truman and the White House all the while. The president compared MacArthur's vainglorious maneuvering to that of Lincoln's disastrous military leader, George McClellan. Finally, Truman fired MacArthur, suffering a short-term publicity backlash but winning the long-term historical debate.
Late in the book, Halberstam skips over large portions of the war's final two years, exhausted, no doubt, by the endless skirmishes over anonymous hills and villages for little to no gain on both sides.
That is a minor quibble in a book filled with insight and marvelous detail. Some of Halberstam's work in recent years smacked of a reporting treadmill, churned out too quickly. With "The Coldest Winter," it is clear that Halberstam invested all of his considerable talents – and energy – without being rushed to meet a publishing deadline.
Stalin's death in 1953 allowed the Chinese to throw off the yoke of Soviet pressure to keep fighting in Korea (Stalin offered no significant military support even as he prodded Mao to sacrifice Chinese soldiers in the name of Communism) and negotiate an end to war with the US.
No one won much of anything, but the ripples and lessons of political and military hubris echo to the present. "The Coldest Winter" is a fitting, warm tribute to the art of reporting, the most appropriate epitaph imaginable for David Halberstam.
In other words, he ranks as one of the best and brightest stars in American journalism with good reason.
• Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.