The Korean War’s Rumsfeld

With binoculars slung round its neck and a jaunty officer’s cap on its head, a sixteen-foot-tall bronze statue of General Douglas A. MacArthur stands on a bluff in Incheon, South Korea. It overlooks the very spot where thousands of U.S. troops, under MacArthur’s command, landed in 1950 to drive back the North Korean forces. Devotees regularly pay homage to the Korean War general with bouquets of chrysanthemums accompanied by admiring notes”Long Live MacArthur, the savior of freedom,” read one when I visited a few years back. But much larger numbers of South Korean students and trade unionists have chosen this same place for a different purpose: to stage unruly protests in which they unfurl their cri de guerre: “Tear it down,” they chant. “Tear it down.”

MacArthur’s detractors call him a war criminal. They contend that his lies and blunders unnecessarily prolonged the war in Korea, causing tens of thousands of deaths and leaving the country as the last front line of the cold war. This view of the American legacy in Korea has prevailed among younger generations of South Koreans for at least a decade. Now along comes The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, a 700-page-plus accounting of the conflict by the late David Halberstam. It is Halberstam’s last book, completed shortly before his April 2007 death in a car accident. The Coldest Winter is a methodical dissection of many of the illusions about the Korean War, and it would seem that David Halberstam agreed with the South Korean dissidents: indeed, where they have failed in toppling General MacArthur from his pedestal, Halberstam has succeeded.

To the extent that most Americans think about the Korean War at all, it is as a selfless military invention to prevent a ruthless Communist dictator from overrunning South Korea. The damning particulars were never reexamined to the degree that they were after the conflict in Vietnam. Except for those who actually fought there, Halberstam notes, Korea became something of a black hole in U.S. history. As the years passed after the ceasefire in 1953, Americans wanted to know less about the conflict, not more. “Perhaps all wars are in some way or another the product of miscalculations,” Halberstam writes. “But Korea was a place where almost every key decision on both sides turned on miscalculation.”

The Communist invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, caught America by surprise. “Where is Korea?” asked one officer stationed in Japan upon hearing that North Korean forces had crossed the thirty-eighth parallel, the line separating the country into two parts. Although the United States had itself partitioned the Korean peninsula after the defeat of the Japaneseand installed its own man, Syngman Rhee, in SeoulKorea was still viewed as an irrelevant backwater. In a speech in January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson described Korea as being “outside the U.S. security perimeter.”

Acheson’s remark would have the same repercussions as April Glaspie’s insinuation to Saddam Hussein in 1990 that the United States would not be interested if Iraq crossed the border into Kuwait. North Korea’s Kim Il Sungas well as his backers, Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalinunderstandably made the assumption that the United States would not intervene in a war between North and South Korea. But after Communist troops stormed across the border, the United States responded: a U.S.-led coalition was put together, under the United Nations flag. The Incheon landing was a spectacular successthe UN forces chased the North Koreans back across the thirty-eighth parallel, where they belongedand by mid-October, UN troops occupied Pyongyang.

MacArthur, who was directing the show from Tokyo (where he was also supreme commander of U.S. Occupation forces in Japan), flew to Korea to take a bow. “Any celebrities here to greet me?” he asked as he stepped off the planeadding, in a mocking reference to Kim Il Sung, “Where is Kim Buck Tooth?”

MacArthur was a towering figure because of his World War II exploits; as supreme commander of Allied forces in the southwest Pacific area, MacArthur had liberated not only the Philippines from the Japanese, but most of Southwest Asia and Australia as well. With the strategic use of air power to influence a land war, he effectively denied the Japanese access to both air and sea supply routes. The first victories in the Korean War reflected that earlier glory, and elevated his statureas well as his egoto new heights. (“A colossus bestriding Korea until the nemesis of his hubris overtook him,” is how MacArthur’s biographer William Manchester puts it.) MacArthur was utterly convinced that anti-Communist forces could capture the entire Korean peninsula if U.S. troops pushed all the way to the Yalu River, which forms the border between Korea and China. The United States haughtily rejected a peace proposal advanced by an Indian envoy to reestablish the border at the thirty-eighth parallel, and chose to fight on. Just as the Communists had assumed the United States would not intervene, MacArthur believed the Chinese would not enter the war.

So it was that MacArthur sent thousands of American troops marching into the largest military ambush of modern military history. The men were disastrously ill-equipped; in temperatures plunging at times to twenty-five degrees below zero, some of them were clothed only in the summer dress uniforms they’d worn to celebrate the capture of Pyongyang. As American soldiers slogged northward, their supply lines became more attenuated, the terrain more foreboding. Arctic temperatures enveloped the mountains. (This was the “coldest winter” that gives Halberstam’s book its title.) When some people later wrote of American troops killed in their sleeping bags, one veteran noted with fury, “We didn’t have sleeping bags.” Halberstam lavishes hundreds of pages on the march to the Yalu River, and watching the catastrophe unfold in slow motion is like watching a road accident: it’s simultaneously excruciating and compelling.

Some officers on the ground were convinced they were walking into a trap set by the Chinese. But in Southeast Asia, MacArthur was God, and no one could contradict the word of God: The Chinese, he declared, would not intervene. When an enemy soldier was captured and told his interrogators that he was Chinese, and the report was sent back to MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo, the intelligence staff there claimed he was in fact an ethnic Korean.

When incontrovertible evidence emerged of a Chinese presence in the area, MacArthur’s men claimed they were merely guarding electric installations near the Yalu River. When at last MacArthur was forced to admit that there were Chinese troops inside North Korea, he estimated the number at 16,500 to 27,000. In reality, the number was 250,000.

According to Halberstam, MacArthur always “played in nothing less than the theater of historyas if life were always a stage and the world his audience.” He didn’t understand modern-day Asia, or listen to anyone who did. “He seemed not to care how and why Mao had come to power and seemed to have little interest in the forces that the revolution had unleashed,” Halberstam writes. “He showed astonishingly little curiosity about who his enemy was and why they had been so successful in the past.”

MacArthur didn’t spend a single night in Korea, instead flying in from Tokyo just long enough to strut for the cameras and make bold pronouncements. “You can tell [the soldiers] when they get up to the Yalu, they can all come home. I want to make good on my statement that they will get Christmas dinner at home,” he said in late November 1950, just as the Chinese were closing the trap around the American forces.

The senior officers in Korea rolled their eyes at the absurdity of MacArthur’s optimism. They knew he was critically underestimating the Chinese, but had no standing to challenge a man who postured himself as the emperor of Asia. The gulf between the officers on the ground and those in Tokyo had become ever wider:

The rest, as they say, is history. The last week of November 1950 was one of the worst in the record of the U.S. Army, as hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers who had been lying in wait struck out with a terrible fury. Some U.S. infantry regiments lost two-thirds of their men. The remnants did not so much retreat as flee, along narrow, icy mountain passages under a barrage of Chinese fire. By the time they stopped running, the U.S. position was back near Seoul. Another year and a half of fighting later, the front line was reestablished around the thirty-eighth parallelback where it had started. The United States eventually accepted an unsatisfying armistice that remains in place today, in the tangle of barbed wire, land mines, and tank barriers that comprise the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

Douglas MacArthur, predictably, did not accept the blame for the failures in Korea. Instead, he lashed out at everyone else: the Chinese, his own officers, and President Harry Truman. Enraged by humiliation, he demanded the right to use all the tools at his disposalincluding the atom bomband blamed the defeat on the White House’s refusal to give him free rein. He sabotaged a promising peace initiative that would have ended a futile and destructive war.

Truman had always been wary of MacArthur; in the aftermath of the Korean War, he saw him as a dangerous Napoleonic figure who could possibly drag the United States into an all-out war with not only China but the Soviet Union as well, possibly resulting in a nuclear holocaust. In April 1951, the president fired MacArthur, a move that took enormous courage. “Firing MacArthur,” writes Halberstam,”was like tearing pages out of your most prized history book.”

Halberstam’s account is not entirely new. He draws from several excellent military historiesClay Blair’s The Forgotten War, Max Hastings’s The Korean War, Manchester’s MacArthur biography, and the works of Bruce Cumings, a historian who has been one of the harshest critics of the American legacy in Korea. Where Halberstam advances the story, however, is in the intersection between the military and the political. His narrative weaves deftly between Korea, Japan, and Washington, D.C., as he re-creates the atmosphere of the perfect storm that led to the Korean debacle. From the U.S. perspective, he relates, the war in Korea was never really about Korea itself, but about China. American conservatives were reeling over Chiang Kai-shek’s retreat to Taiwan in 1949, and as the cold war turned hot, anyone who dared to say that U.S. troops should not advance all the way to the Yalu River would have been labeled an appeaser.

When reading Halberstam’s account, one can’t help being reminded of yet another war in which intelligence was fabricated to suit a political agenda, a war in a misunderstood country where American troops arrived poorly equipped and misinformed, duped into believing they would be welcomed as liberators. A war in which the leadership declared that the mission had been accomplished when in fact it had hardly begun.

Unlike other Korean War scholars, whose accounts were written against the backdrop of previous military successes, Halberstam has the advantage of seeing what followed: his view of the Korean War is filtered through later failures. The first of these is Vietnam; the second, of course, is the current war in Iraq. (Halberstam knew what he was talking about in both cases: The Coldest Winter could be considered a prequel to his earlier masterpiece, The Best and the Brightest, about the Vietnam era. And the last piece Halberstam wrote for publication was an essay published in the August issue of Vanity Fair on the Bush administration’s lies about Iraq.)

Midway through The Coldest Winter, Halberstam states flatly that MacArthur and his intelligence staff (led by a cryptofascist named Charles Willoughby who later served as an aide to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco) “doctored the intelligence in order to permit MacArthur’s forces to go where they wanted to go militarily” and in the process “were setting the most dangerous of precedents for those who would follow them in office.” It was this precedent that in 1965 allowed Lyndon Johnson to exaggerate the threat posed to the United States by Hanoi, and, more recently, set the stage for the Bush administration to, according to Halberstam, “[manipulate] Congress, the media, the public, and most dangerously of all, itself with seriously flawed and doctored intelligence, [and send] troops into the heart of Iraqi cities with disastrous results.”

With these words, Halberstam makes clear why he believed that another book about Korea was needed, a half century after the war there ended. In an age consumed by conflict in Iraq, The Coldest Winter makes the Korean War more relevant than ever before. It also fills in an important missing piece in Halberstam’s chronicles of the twentieth century, and is a more than fitting swan song for a remarkable journalist.

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