David Halberstam's 1993 pop history The Fifties touched briefly on The Korean War, mainly in terms of how a three-year "police action" provoked a national personality shift. When General Douglas MacArthur was fired in 1951 and Dwight Eisenhower was elected president a year later, it was as though the country chose to bury the headstrong warriors of World War II and follow its avuncular administrators instead. In The Coldest Winter: America And The Korean War, Halberstam examines that change, suggesting that the Korean War's mistakes rolled back American confidence and established a pattern of strategic miscalculation that continued throughout the Cold War.

To drive home that point, Halberstam begins The Coldest Winter four months into the conflict, just after UN forces had effectively driven the North Koreans back across the 38th Parallel, and the decision was made to keep pressing forward. The UN troops found Soviet-armed Chinese soldiers lying in wait, and a campaign that was supposed to over by Christmas dragged on for two and a half more years, before ending roughly at the point it could've ended in October 1950. The Coldest Winter places much of the blame on MacArthur, who was presiding over the modernization and democratization of Japan when the war began, and refused to believe that a nation that had defeated Japan and Germany couldn't handle half a country. But MacArthur's willful ignorance was shared to a degree by President Harry Truman, who took a stand in Korea to avoid being perceived as soft on communism, and then couldn't back down.


Though The Coldest Winter was reportedly completed and fully edited before Halberstam died in a car crash earlier this year, it isn't as tight as his best books. The extensive descriptions of troop positions and battle strategy often read like a high-school history paper: Halberstam tells readers what's going to happen, describes it, then recaps it. But his analyses of the men who ran the war are absorbing and incisive, as is his depiction of an American military machine struggling to spring back into action after four years of rust. That disconnect between plan and execution is what makes studying the Korean War so valuable. It was a war founded on presumption—of what the U.S. could do and what the enemy might do—and yet it failed to prove to the Washington think tanks that when it comes to war, theory isn't practice.