Monday, January 07, 2008

Re: Halberstam And History.

Lawrence --

While I can't exactly disagree with your assessment of David Halberstam's opus on the Korean War, I can point out a few things regarding written histories of it that you might want to pass along to your recipient list.

Some 17 years before Halberstam completed writing THE COLDEST WINTER, in 1990 Orion Books published THE COLDEST WAR by James Brady, a memoir of that journalist's experiences as a very young Marine lieutenant in Korea during 1951-52. It is one of the better personal narratives of that war, along with Martin Russ's intensely personal THE LAST PARALLEL (Martin Press, 1957), recounting his experiences as a Marine lieutenant in 1952-53 Korea, and C. S. Crawford's memoir of his volunteering as a Marine sergeant to go to Korea in 1951-52. While some of the details Crawford recalls are a little too precise to be believable, his THE FOUR DEUCES (Presidio Press, 1989), while not historically important, is well worth reading for an understanding of that conflict.

There is one problem with Halberstam's book, however. While it examines in fine detail the first 10 months or so of the war, which includes Douglas MacArthur's drive to the Yalu, the Chinese counter-offensive, the disastrous Eighth Army bug-out in the face of that offensive, the awful ordeal of the Americans at Chosin, and Harry Truman's sacking of MacArthur in April, 1951, it generally treats the remainder of the war as an epilogue. The "coldest war" and its consequences extended far beyond the fall/winter of 1950-51.

Probably the most comprehensive (and what The Washington Post called most authoritative, too) popular history of the Korean conflict is Clay Blair's THE FORGOTTEN WAR (Anchor Books, Doubleday, 1989). While Halberstam's history is "well north of 600 pages in length," as you wrote, Blair's narrative is north of 950 pages, with acknowledgments, notes, and index taking the book over the pole to 1,100-plus. And that doesn't count 48 pages of plate-printed photos. Anyone who consumes this well-written opus will not forget that war.

There are several other nicely comprehensive histories of the Korean War. Max Hastings's THE KOREAN WAR pretty well leads that list. Hastings, who was (or still is) a newspaper editor as well as a military historian (OVERLORD: D-DAY AND THE BATTLE FOR NORMANDY and ARMAGEDDON: THE BATTLE FOR GERMANY, 1944-1945 and DEFEAT IN THE WEST, etc., etc.) writes more incisively than most authors, so this 350-or-so-page book would be much longer by another author.

Two other really good historical overviews of the war are John Toland's IN MORTAL COMBAT, KOREA 1950-1953 (Morrow and Co., 1991) and Richard Whelan's DRAWING THE LINE (Little, Brown, 1990). Toland, who was a Pulitzer Prize winner for his THE RISING SUN, includes some interesting details about Communist China, Mao Tse Tung, and Russia and the war that didn't make their way into other books published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean War. The book also has a couple of dozen pages of startling plate-printed photos. Whelan used his background as a cultural and political historian to write well what is more of a geopolitical examination than military history of the war. Maybe there is some revisionism in his analyses, maybe not.

Halberstam's book necessarily focuses on the war during the fall/winter of 1950-51 (hence its title, THE COLDEST WINTER) and does include events leading up to the North Korean invasion of the south in June, 1950 and events following that winter to the armistice in the summer of 1953. But for an absolutely riveting and highly focused examination the disaster wrought by MacArthur and his toady commander of the X Corps, Edward Almond, in their advance to the Yalu River that fall/winter, Shelby Stanton's AMERICA'S TENTH LEGION: X CORPS IN KOREA, 1950 (Presidio, 1989) fills the bill. Military-commander arrogance and stupidity are revealed in awful detail in this book by an absolutely outstanding military historian who has done official-history work for the U.S. military.

Some other good to outstanding books that can add to a person's knowledge and understanding of the Korean war include the following, some of which have some historical importance, some of which don't:


RECKLESS, PRIDE OF THE MARINES by Andrew Geer, E. P. Dutton, 1955.

EAST OF CHOSIN by Roy Appleman, Texas A & M University Press, 1987.

HEARTBREAK RIDGE by Arned Hinshaw, Praeger Publishers, 1989.

CRIMSON SKY: THE AIR BATTLE FOR KOREA by John Bruning, Brassey's, 1989.

THE DAY THE CHINESE ATTACKED by Edwin Hoyt, McGraw-Hill, 1990.

IN ENEMY HANDS: A PRISONER IN NORTH KOREA by Larry Zellers, University Press of Kentucky, 1991.

KOREAN WAR HEROES by Edward Murphy, Presidio Press, 1992

And last but far from least because of their interweaving of personal stories, regimental records, ships' logs, etc. --

THE KOREAN WAR, PUSAN TO CHOSIN: AN ORAL HISTORY by Donald Knox, Harcourt Brace & Co., 1985


All the preceding make up a little less than half the books on the Korean War that are in my library. I have read most of them, but certainly don't consider myself an expert on the conflict -- by any means.

My initial interest in the Korean War goes back to when I was 10 years old. My family returned to Kentucky from Kansas in 1950, after my World War Two veteran father's having finished going to school there on the G.I. Bill, and there was in our church a young woman whose husband was in Korea and was captured by the Chinese late that year. (He was released after the armistice.) Juvenile interest of a 10- to13-year-old also was whetted by the well-illustrated Korean War comic books of the time. Later adult interest was kindled by the U.S. Navy sending me as a junior officer to a Navy billet on the public affairs office staff of Commander, United Nations Command/Commander, U.S. Forces Korea/Commander Eighth U.S. Army in January, 1969. That job -- media liaison officer for the joint-unified command -- took me to perhaps 15 of the meetings between the "two sides" at Panmunjom that still continued in 1969 -- and afterward. The fire smoldered for a few years and then started burning upon the 40th anniversary of the start of the war and the publishing of many new books on the subject.

I really liked the movie M*A*S*H and the first two or three years of the television series. Heck, parts of southern California (where the movie and the TV series were shot) look just like Korea -- at least the south, a lot of which I traveled through and over in 1969. I think that I will watch the movie again tonight.

Excuse me for being so long-winded.

Happy New Year.

Joe Burgess
Frankfort, Ky.

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