Out of Korea

The Coldest Winter

I bought this enormous tome – David Halberstam’s account of America and the Korean War – a few years ago, read the first chapter, a rather dry account of the first military encounter of US and Chinese forces in the war and put it down disappointedly.

English: 1st Marine Regiment, on supply and wi...

English: 1st Marine Regiment, on supply and withdrawal route of 5th and 7th Marines, had to repel repeated attacks by Chinese communists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But it was always floating about somewhere near my pillow ever since and for some reason I picked it up a few weeks ago, ignored the first chapter and started to read the rest and discovered a great book.

Not all of it works – it is too long and a bit repetitive at times – there are only so many times you need to be told by Halberstam what a great soldier Matt Ridgway was – and the absolute writing out of the Koreans, especially civilians, borders on the obscene: this is very much about America and not much else.

Yet the book is a great one because it challenges the ever more dominant view that the real fault of the western countries in the Cold War was to be insufficiently hardline in their opposition to the Communist “monolith”. These views echo those of the late 1940s and early 1950s era of McCarthyism (although there is little red baiting today) and, the book argues convincingly, were wrong then and, by extension, are wrong today.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union the idea that confrontation “won” the Cold War while detente prolonged it has become close to an orthodoxy, while the book reminds us that the global spread of states aligned to the Soviet Union had rather more to do with the Soviets’ willingness to sponsor nationalist and anti-colonialist movements (how cynical this sponsorship was was not likely to matter to the nationalists who had no other friends)  and the west’s willingness to prop-up corrupt dictatorships.

And China was the first and biggest example. What the book made clear to me – and I was really unaware of this – was just how important “losing China” was in US domestic politics. China was the “white man’s burden” for many in the US, and many ordinary US citizens had, through their churches, spent millions on missionaries and harboured dreams of a great Christian nation (eternally grateful or subservient to the US of course) arising there.

The truth of Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership, his unwillingness to fight the Japanese, the foul corruption of his state was systematically hidden from (or ignored by) the American people, partly for reasons of state, partly because no one wanted to hear it. US military missions to the Chinese Communists during the second world war returned with admiration, while those to the Nationalists returned with contempt, but neither was allowed to tell the truth.

Then, after the war, the US spent millions on arming the Nationalists (though those arms almost all ended up in Communist hands) and organised the greatest military airlift ever seen to ensure the Nationalists were able to control all of China’s major cities within weeks of the war’s end. The alternative – of seeing the Communists as having national interests and outlooks that would differ from those of the Soviet Union and drawing their support from legitimate popular disgust for the rule of the war lords and the Nationalists – was never given proper consideration. Instead of stepping back from the Chinese civil war the US was an active participant and domestic politics forced the Truman administration to highlight this even after the side they had backed had lost and efforts should have been focused on dealing with the new reality.

In the end the US’s failure to come to terms with the Communist victory in China strengthened the hand of the most uncompromising in the Chinese leadership – of which, of course, Mao Zedong was the leading example. Confrontation with China and the rejection of a detente policy strengthened the grip of the most extreme in the regime.

And when the North Korean army was routed after the landings at Incheon in September 1950 and Douglas McArthur ordered his forces north, the very clear signals from the Chinese that they would not tolerate a US army on their border were ignored – partly because anti-Communist hardliners and “China Firsters” (such as McArthur, who never set foot on the Chinese mainland but claimed Chiang was a great leader) wanted a general war with the Chinese in any case, and partly because racist considerations would never let them see that the Chinese were skilled fighters and a real threat. The result was a shocking military disaster. Though ultimately many more Chinese were to die than Americans, the US, just a few years after the triumph of the Second World War, were reduced to admitting they were in a battle they could not win.

Along the way the book paints a picture of how US politics were twisted by lobbyists for Chiang and how McCarthyism was born out of, not a sense of the need for the US to crusade against Communism in all corners of the world, but of isolationism and a tension as much inside the Republican party as between Republicans and Democrats. The parallels and lessons for today are everywhere to be seen: we still live in the Korean era in a very real sense.

Of course we are also invited to see how the Korean disaster led on to the yet greater folly in Vietnam (and we could add, even if the book does not, propping up the Shah in Iran, dishing out guns to Saddam in Iraq and regarding apartheid South Africa as an ally). The epilogue is a less than fully flattering, even if sympathetic, portrait of Kennedy and Johnson.

Reading the book takes effort – it is very long and the military passages in particular can be hard going (the book lacks photographs to humanise the commanders written of and also any formal description of the US order of battle – making it hard to follow which army, which corps, which division we are talking about at any one time), but in the end it is well worth it not just for the historical perspective but also because of what it tells us of today’s world.