The master journalist’s 21st and final book: a magisterial account of the Korean War.
Halberstam’s latest (The Education of a Coach, 2005, etc.) is a vivid chronicle packed with anecdotes and the stories of great men. North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung was a loyal Stalinist. America had installed Syngman Rhee in the South because he was Christian, spoke English and was the only Korean known in Washington. Halberstam describes both as thoroughly unpleasant autocrats but fierce nationalists, each equally anxious to unite Korea under his own leadership. Kim yearned to invade, but Stalin refused to provoke America until 1950, when he gave reluctant permission. Far East Commander Douglas MacArthur insisted North Korea would never attack; after being proven wrong, he remained mysteriously inactive for several days. Everyone feared Stalin was launching World War III and cheered Truman’s decision to intervene. At first, MacArthur handled the defense competently; his brilliant behind-the-lines landing at Inchon in September 1950 shattered North Korea’s army. Ignoring Washington’s suggestions to stop at the 38th parallel, MacArthur pushed north toward the Chinese border, despite good intelligence that Chinese units were pouring south. Once again, he dithered when disaster struck and did little to rally his defeated forces. A national icon but detested by his superiors, MacArthur finally overstepped by loudly advocating total war against China. Truman dismissed him, an act now considered courageous that at the time outraged the nation. MacArthur’s successor, WWII hero Matthew Ridgway, performed brilliantly in stopping the Chinese, but more than two years of bloody stalemate followed. As America’s first modern war without victory, Korea was the conflict everyone wanted to forget. It was a black hole of history, Halberstam writes, a war with China that never should have happened.
Another memorable slice of 20th-century history, measuring up to such earlier Halberstam classics as The Best and the Brightest (1972) and The Powers That Be (1979).