The Coldest Winter

America and the Korean War


By David Halberstam

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“In a grand gesture of reclamation and remembrance, Mr. Halberstam has brought the war back home.”—The New York Times

David Halberstam’s magisterial and thrilling The Best and the Brightest was the defining book about the Vietnam conflict. More than three decades later, Halberstam used his unrivaled research and formidable journalistic skills to shed light on another pivotal moment in our history: the Korean War. Halberstam considered The Coldest Winter his most accomplished work, the culmination of forty-five years of writing about America’s postwar foreign policy.

Halberstam gives us a masterful narrative of the political decisions and miscalculations on both sides. He charts the disastrous path that led to the massive entry of Chinese forces near the Yalu River and that caught Douglas MacArthur and his soldiers by surprise. He provides astonishingly vivid and nuanced portraits of all the major figures–Eisenhower, Truman, Acheson, Kim, and Mao, and Generals MacArthur, Almond, and Ridgway. At the same time, Halberstam provides us with his trademark highly evocative narrative journalism, chronicling the crucial battles with reportage of the highest order. As ever, Halberstam was concerned with the extraordinary courage and resolve of people asked to bear an extraordinary burden.

The Coldest Winter is contemporary history in its most literary and luminescent form, providing crucial perspective on every war America has been involved in since. It is a book that Halberstam first decided to write more than thirty years ago and that took him nearly ten years to complete. It stands as a lasting testament to one of the greatest journalists and historians of our time, and to the fighting men whose heroism it chronicles.


Note on Military Map Symbols

Every effort has been made to update the maps in The Coldest Winter to a modified version of the standard MIL-STD-2525B common warfighter symbology used by the U.S. Military. This is a comprehensive system that gives a trained interpreter instant information about a military unit’s alignment, size, type, and identity.

In some cases, complete information was not available for specific military units, and rather than introduce inaccuracies, an easily legible shorthand has been applied. With clarity in mind, other modifications that aren’t standard MIL-STD-2525B have been made to improve readability.

While MIL-STD-2525B accounts for hundreds of military designations, only a few are necessary to understand the units employed in the Korean War.

UNIT ALIGNMENT: Artillery Division XX
Friendly Unit Engineer Brigade X
Hostile Unit Armor Regiment III
Infantry Army XXXX Company I
Cavalry Corps XXX Platoon •••

The name of the unit can be displayed to the left of the unit symbol, the name of the larger group it is part of appears to the right of the unit symbol, and the size of the unit is indicated by the marking at the top. For example, the symbol for the Third Battalion of the Eighth Cavalry is:

Unless otherwise noted, a solid black line represents U.N. positions or a defensive perimeter.


ON JUNE 25, 1950, nearly seven divisions of elite North Korean troops, many of whom had fought for the Communist side in the Chinese civil war, crossed the border into South Korea, with the intention of conquering the entire South in three weeks. Some six months earlier, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, in a colossal gaffe, had neglected to include South Korea in America’s Asian defense perimeter, and the only American forces then in the country, part of a tiny advisory mission, were almost completely unprepared for the attack. In the early weeks of the invasion, the Communist offensive was a stunning success. Every bit of news from the battlefield was negative. In Washington, President Harry Truman and his top advisers debated the enemy’s intentions. Was this, as they greatly feared, an assault ordered up by the Russians? Were the North Koreans nothing but Moscow’s pawns? Or was it a feint, the first in a series of what might be provocative Communist moves around the world? They quickly decided to use United States, and in time United Nations, forces to draw a line against Communist aggression in Korea.

The Korean War would last three years, not three weeks, and it would be the most bitter kind of war, in which relatively small American and United Nations forces worked to neutralize the superior numbers of their adversaries by the use of vastly superior hardware and technology. It was a war fought on strikingly harsh terrain and often in ghastly weather, most particularly a numbing winter cold that often seemed to American troops an even greater enemy than the North Koreans or Chinese. “The century’s nastiest little war,” the military historian S. L. A. Marshall called it. The Americans and their United Nations allies faced terrible, mountainous terrain, which worked against their advantage in hardware, most notably their armored vehicles, and offered caves and other forms of shelter to the enemy. “If the best minds in the world had set out to find us the worst possible location to fight this damnable war politically and militarily, the unanimous choice would have been Korea,” Secretary of State Acheson said years after it was over. “A sour war,” Acheson’s friend Averell Harriman said of it.

To call it an unwanted war on the part of the United States would be a vast understatement. Even the president who had ordered American troops into battle had not deigned to call it a war. From the start, Harry Truman had been careful to downplay the nature of the conflict because he was intent on limiting any sense of growing confrontation with the Soviet Union. One of the ways he tried to do that was by playing with the terminology. In the late afternoon of June 29, four days after the North Koreans had crossed the border, and even as he was sending Americans into battle, Truman met with the White House press corps. One of the reporters asked if America was actually at war. Truman answered that it was not, even though in fact it was. Then another reporter asked, “Would it be possible to call this a police action under the United Nations?” “Yes,” answered Truman. “That is exactly what it amounts to.” The implication that U.S. soldiers in Korea were more a police force than an army was a source of considerable bitterness to many of the men who went there. (A similar verbal delicacy would be employed four months later by Chinese leader Mao Zedong when he ordered hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers into battle, deciding, for reasons somewhat parallel to Truman’s, to call them volunteers.)

So, out of a question casually asked and rather casually answered, were policies and even wars defined. The terminology Truman offered that day in some ways endured. Korea would not prove a great national war of unifying singular purpose, as World War II had been, nor would it, like Vietnam a generation later, divide and thus haunt the nation. It was simply a puzzling, gray, very distant conflict, a war that went on and on and on, seemingly without hope or resolution, about which most Americans, save the men who fought there and their immediate families, preferred to know as little as possible. Nearly thirty years after it was over, John Prine caught this spirit exactly in the song “Hello in There,” where he sings eloquently of the tragic loss of a young man named Davy, and how he sacrificed himself for no good reason. Over half a century later, the war still remained largely outside American political and cultural consciousness. The Forgotten War was the apt title of one of the best books on it. Korea was a war that sometimes seemed to have been orphaned by history.

Many of the men who went to Korea harbored their own personal resentments over being sent there; some had already served once, during World War II, had been in the reserves, had been called away from their civilian jobs most reluctantly and told to serve in a war overseas for the second time within ten years, when all too many of their contemporaries had been called for neither. Others who had served in World War II and had decided to stay in the Army were embittered because of the pathetic state of U.S. forces when the North Koreans struck. Undermanned, poorly trained American units, with faulty, often outmoded equipment and surprisingly poor high-level command leadership, were an embarrassment. The drop-off between the strength of the Army they had known at the height of World War II, its sheer professionalism and muscularity, and the shabbiness of American forces as they existed at the beginning of the Korean War was nothing less than shocking to these men. The more experienced they were, the more disheartened and appalled they also were by the conditions under which they had to fight.

The worst aspect of the Korean War, wrote Lieutenant Colonel George Russell, a battalion commander with the Twenty-third Regiment of the Second Infantry Division, “was Korea itself.” For an army that was so dependent on its industrial production and the resulting military hardware, especially tanks, it was the worst kind of terrain. Countries like Spain and Switzerland had difficult mountain ranges, but these soon opened onto flat areas where industrially powerful nations might send their tanks. To American eyes, however, as Russell put it, in Korea “on the other side of every mountain [was] another mountain.” If there was a color to Korea, Russell claimed, “it came in all shades of brown”—and if there was a campaign ribbon given out for service there, he added, all the GIs who fought there would have bet on the color being brown.

Unlike Vietnam, the Korean War took place before television news came into its own and the United States became a communications society. In the days of Korea, television news shows were short, bland, and of marginal influence—fifteen minutes a night. Given the state of the technology, the footage from Korea, usually making it into the network newsrooms back in New York days late, rarely moved the nation. It was still largely a print war, reported in newspapers in black and white, and it remained black and white in the nation’s consciousness. In the year 2004, while working on this book, I chanced into the Key West, Florida, library: on its shelves were some eighty-eight books on Vietnam and only four on Korea, which more or less sums up the war’s fate in American memory. Arden Rowley, a young engineer with the Second Infantry Division who had spent two and a half years as a POW in a Chinese prison camp, noted somewhat bitterly that, from 2001 to 2002, each year marking a fiftieth anniversary of some major Korean battle, there were three major war movies made in America—Pearl Harbor, Windtalkers, and We Were Soldiers—the first two about World War II, the third about Vietnam; and if you added Saving Private Ryan, produced in 1998, the total was four. No film was made about Korea. The best known movie linked to Korea was 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, the story of an American POW who had been brainwashed in a Chinese prison camp and turned into a robotic assassin aimed by the Communists at an American presidential candidate.

To the degree that the Korean War ever had a niche in popular culture, it was through the Robert Altman antiwar movie (and then sitcom) M*A*S*H, about a mobile surgical hospital operating during that war. Ostensibly about Korea, the film was really about Vietnam, and came out in 1970, at the high-water mark of popular protest against that war. It was a time when Hollywood executives were still nervous about making an anti-Vietnam movie. As such Korea was a cover from the start for a movie about Vietnam; director Altman and the screenwriter, Ring Lardner, Jr., were focused on Vietnam but thought it was too sensitive a subject to be treated irreverently. Notably, the men and officers in the film wear the shaggy haircuts of the Vietnam years, not the crew cuts of the Korean era.

And so the true brutality of the war never really penetrated the American cultural consciousness. An estimated 33,000 Americans died in it. Another 105,000 were wounded. The South Koreans lost 415,000 killed and had 429,000 wounded. Both the Chinese and North Koreans were exceptionally secretive about their casualties, but American officials put their losses at roughly 1.5 million men killed. The Korean War momentarily turned the Cold War hot, heightening the already considerable (and mounting) tensions between the United States and the Communist world and deepening the chasm between the United States and Communist forces asserting themselves in Asia. Those tensions and divisions between the two sides in the bipolar struggle grew even more serious after American miscalculations brought China into the war. When it was all over and an armed truce ensued, both sides claimed victory, though the final division of the country was no different from the one that had existed when the war began. But the United States was not the same: its strategic vision of Asia had changed, and its domestic political equation had been greatly altered.


THE AMERICANS WHO fought in Korea often felt cut off from their countrymen, their sacrifices unappreciated, their faraway war of little importance in the eyes of contemporaries. It had none of the glory and legitimacy of World War II, so recently concluded, in which the entire country had seemed to share in one great purpose and every serviceman was seen to be an extension of the country’s democratic spirit and the best of its values, and was so honored. Korea was a grinding, limited war. Nothing very good, the nation quickly decided, was going to come out of it. When servicemen returned from their tours, they found their neighbors generally not very interested in what they had seen and done. The subject of the war was quickly dispensed with in conversation. Events on the home front, promotions at the office, the purchase of a new house or a new car were more compelling subjects. In part this was because the news from Korea was almost always so grim. Even when the war went well, it did not really go very well; the possibility of a larger breakthrough seldom seemed near, much less anything approaching victory, especially once the Chinese entered the war in force in late November 1950. Soon after, the sardonic phrase for a stalemate, “die for a tie,” became a favorite among the troops.

This vast disconnect between those who fought and the people at home, the sense that no matter the bravery they showed, or the validity of their cause, the soldiers of Korea had been granted a kind of second-class status compared to that of the men who had fought in previous wars, led to a great deal of quiet—and enduring—bitterness.

Part One

A Warning at Unsan


IT WAS THE warning shot the American commander in the Far East, Douglas MacArthur, did not heed, the one that allowed a smaller war to become a larger war.

On October 20, 1950, the men of the U.S. First Cavalry Division entered Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. Later, there was some controversy over who got there first, elements of the Fifth Regiment of the Cav or men from the South Korean First Division. The truth was the men of the Cav had been slowed because all the bridges in their sector going over the Taedong River had been blown, and so the South Korean troops, or ROKs (for Republic of Korea), beat them into the ruined city. That did not diminish their pleasure. To them, the capture of the city meant the war was almost over. Just to make sure everyone knew that of all American units in country, the Cav got there first, some troopers, armed with paint and brushes, painted the Cav logo all over town.

Small private celebrations were taking place throughout Pyongyang. Lieutenant Phil Peterson, forward observer with the Ninety-ninth Field Artillery Battalion, and his best buddy, Lieutenant Walt Mayo, both working with the Third Battalion of the Eighth Regiment of the Cav, had their own two-person celebration. They could not have been closer as friends, having been through so much together. Peterson thought it an unusual friendship, one only the Army could forge. Walt Mayo was a talented and sophisticated man who had gone to Boston College, where his father taught music, whereas Peterson was a product of Officer Candidate School, and his formal schooling had ended back in Morris, Minnesota, in the ninth grade because they were paying $5 a day for men to work in the fields. In Pyongyang Lieutenant Mayo had managed to procure a bottle of Russian bubbly from a large store of booze liberated from the Russian embassy, and they shared it, drinking the pseudo-champagne, so raw it made you gag, from the metal cups in their mess kits. Vile, but good, they decided.

Sergeant First Class Bill Richardson of Love Company of the Third Battalion felt a wave of relief sweep over him in Pyongyang. The war was virtually over, and the Cav might be getting out of Korea. He knew this, not just because of all the rumors, but because Company headquarters had called asking all men who had experience loading ships to notify their superiors. That was as sure a sign as any that they were going to ship out. Another sign that their days of hard fighting were over was that they had been told to turn in most of their ammo. All the rumors seeping out of the different headquarters must be true.

In his own mind Richardson was the old guy in his unit: almost everyone in his platoon now seemed new. He often thought of the men he had started out with three months earlier, a period that seemed to have lasted longer than the preceding twenty-one years of his life. Some were dead, some wounded, and some missing in action. The only other soldier in Richardson’s platoon who had been there from the start was his pal Staff Sergeant Jim Walsh, and Richardson sought him out. “Jesus, we did it, buddy, we made it all the way through,” he said, and they congratulated each other, not quite believing their good luck. That mini-celebration took place on one of the last days of October. The very next day they were reissued their ammo and ordered north to save some South Korean outfit that was getting kicked around.

Still, the word was out: there was going to be a victory parade in Tokyo, and the Cav, because it had fought so well for so long in the Korean campaign, and because it was a favorite of Douglas MacArthur’s, the overall commander, was going to lead it. They were supposed to have their yellow cavalry scarves back for the parade, and the word coming down was that they better be prepared to look parade-ground sharp, not battlefield grizzled: you couldn’t, after all, march down the Ginza in filthy uniforms and filthy helmets. The men of the Cav were planning to strut a bit when they passed MacArthur’s headquarters in the Dai Ichi Building. They deserved to strut a bit.

The mood in general among the American troops in Pyongyang just then was a combination of optimism and sheer exhaustion, emotional as well as physical. Betting pools were set up on when they would ship out. For some of the newest men, the replacements, who had only heard tales about how hard the fighting had been from the Pusan Perimeter to Pyongyang, there was relief that the worst of it was past. A young lieutenant named Ben Boyd from Clare-more, Oklahoma, who joined the Cav in Pyongyang, was given a platoon in Baker Company of the First Battalion. Boyd, who had graduated West Point only four years before, wanted this command badly, but he was made nervous by its recent history. “Lieutenant, do you know who you are in terms of this platoon?” one of the senior officers had asked. No, Boyd answered. “Well, Lieutenant, just so you don’t get too cocky, you’re the thirteenth platoon leader this unit has had since it’s been in Korea.” Boyd suddenly decided he didn’t feel cocky at all.

On one of their last days in Pyongyang there was another positive sign. Bob Hope held a show there for the troops. Now, that was really something: the famous comedian, who had done show after show for the troops in World War II, telling his jokes in the North Korean capital. That night many of the men in the Cav gathered to hear Hope, and then, the next morning, with their extra ammo restored, they set out for a place just north of them called Unsan, to protect a ROK unit under fire. Surely, all they would have to do was clean up a small mess, the kind they believed South Korean soldiers were always getting into.

When they headed off, they were not particularly well prepared. Yes, they had gotten some of their ammo back, but there had been the question of uniforms. Should they take the ones they would wear on parade in Tokyo, or winter clothes? Somehow, the choice was made for the dressier ones, even though a Korean winter—this was to be one of the coldest in a hundred years—was fast approaching. And there was their mood: a sense on the part of officers as well as troops, even as they headed for areas perilously close to the Yalu River, the border between Korea and Chinese Manchuria, that they were out of harm’s way. Many of them knew a little about the big meeting just two weeks earlier on Wake Island, between Harry Truman and Douglas MacArthur, and the word filtering down was that MacArthur had promised to give Washington back an entire American division then being used in Korea and ticket it for Europe.

MacArthur himself had shown up in Pyongyang right after the First Cav arrived there. “Any celebrities here to greet me?” he had asked when he stepped off his plane. “Where is Kim Buck Tooth?” he joked, in mocking reference to Kim Il Sung, the seemingly defeated North Korean Communist leader. Then he asked anyone in the Cav who had been with the unit from the beginning to step forward. Of the roughly two hundred men assembled, four took that step; each had been wounded at some point. Then MacArthur got back on his plane for the flight back to Tokyo. He did not spend the night in Korea; in fact he did not spend the night there during the entire time he commanded.


AS MACARTHUR HEADED back to Tokyo, it was becoming increasingly clear to some officials in Washington that he was planning to send his troops farther and farther north. He was sure that the Chinese would not enter the war. His troops were encountering very little resistance at that point, and the North Koreans had been in full flight, so he was stretching his orders, which in this case were much fuzzier than they should have been. He obviously intended to go all the way to the Yalu, to China’s border, brushing aside the step-by-step limits Washington thought it had imposed but was afraid of really imposing. A prohibition issued by the Joint Chiefs themselves against sending American troops to any province bordering China seemed not to slow MacArthur down at all. There was no real surprise in that: the only orders Douglas MacArthur had ever followed, it was believed, were his own. His confidence about what the vast Chinese armies everyone knew were poised just beyond the Yalu River would or would not do was far greater than that of top officials of the Truman administration. He had told the president at Wake Island that the Chinese would not enter the war. Besides, if they did, he had already boasted of his ability to turn their appearance into one of the great military slaughters in history. To MacArthur and the men on his staff, wonderfully removed from the Alaska-like temperatures and Alaska-like topography of this desolate part of the world, these were to be the final moments of a great victory march north that had begun with the amphibious Inchon landing behind North Korean lines. That had been a great success, perhaps the greatest triumph of a storied career, all the more so because the general had pulled it off against the opposition of much of Washington. Back in Washington most senior people, both civilian and military, were becoming more and more uneasy as MacArthur pushed north. They were not nearly as confident as the general about Chinese (or for that matter Russian) intentions, and they were made uneasy by the extreme vulnerability of the United Nations forces. But they realized that they had very little control over MacArthur himself—they seemed to fear him almost as much as they respected him.

If the balance now favored the UN, the first phase of the war, when the North Koreans had crossed the thirty-eighth parallel back in late June, had decidedly favored the Communists. They had gained victory after victory over weak and ill-prepared American and South Korean forces. But then more and better American troops had arrived, and MacArthur had pulled off his brilliant stroke at Inchon, landing his forces behind the North Korean lines. With that, the North Korean forces had unraveled, and once Seoul had been taken after some very hard fighting, the North Korean resistance had generally vanished. But in Washington many of the top people, though pleased by Inchon, were quite uneasy about the extra leverage it gave MacArthur. The Chinese had warned that they were going to enter the war, and yet MacArthur, difficult to deal with under the best of circumstances, had become even more godlike because of Inchon. He had said the Chinese would not come in, and he liked to think of himself as an expert on what he called the Oriental mind. But he had been wrong before, completely wrong, on Japanese intentions and abilities right before World War II. Later some of the senior people in Washington would look at the moment when the UN troops reached Pyongyang and before they went on to Unsan as the last chance to keep the war from escalating into something larger, a war with China.


NO LESS NERVOUS were some of the men and officers who were leading the drive north. For experienced officers making the trek as the temperature dropped alarmingly, and the terrain became more mountainous and forbidding, there was an eerie quality to the advance. Years later, General Paik Sun Yup, commander of the South Korean First Division (and considered by the Americans the best of the Korean commanders), remembered his own uneasiness as they moved forward without resistance. There was a sense of almost total isolation, as if they were too alone. At first, Paik, a veteran officer who had once fought with the Japanese Army, could not pinpoint what bothered him. Then it struck him: the absolute absence of people, the overwhelming silence that surrounded his troops. In the past, there had always been lots of refugees streaming south. Now the road was empty, as if something important were taking place, just beyond his view and his knowledge. Besides, it was getting colder all the time. Every day the temperature seemed to drop another few degrees.


  • "I could hardly put this book down. Meticulously and thoroughly researched, it is splendidly compelling reading. The Coldest Winter is a superb conjoining of all the factors of this tragic war: the military tactics and strategy of both sides; the international diplomacy; the internal politics; the personalities of the various players. A great work."—Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (Ret.), co-author of We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young
  • "Halberstam is at his very best."—The Wall Street Journal
  • "An instant classic look at the people, power and politicsthat created a dangerous stage...and then acted on it."—Chicago Sun-Times
  • "He is a peerless reporter of events and facts--with a signature human touch."—The Seattle Times
  • "In a grand gesture of reclamation and remembrance. Mr. Halberstam has brought the war back home."—The New York Times
  • "His most operatic war story."—The New York Times Book Review

On Sale
Sep 25, 2007
Page Count
736 pages
Hachette Books

David Halberstam

About the Author

David Halberstam (1934-2007) was the author of twenty-two books, including fifteen bestsellers. Born in New York City, Halberstam spent much of the 1960s as a reporter for the New York Times, covering the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. His Vietnam reporting earned him both a George C. Polk Award and a 1964 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting. Vanity Fair dubbed Halberstam “the Moses of American journalism,” and the subjects of his books reflect his passion and range: war, foreign policy, history, and sports.

The Best and the Brightest (1962), his sixth book, a critique of the Kennedy administration’s Vietnam policy, became a #1 bestseller. His next book, The Powers that Be, a study of four American media companies, was hailed by the New York Times as a “prodigy of research.” Many of Halberstam’s books explored themes in professional sports, including bestsellers The Teammates, a portrait of the friendship between baseball players Ted Williams, Dominic DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky, and Bobby Doerr, and The Education of a Coach, a profile of New England Patriots’ Coach Bill Belichick.

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