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Good War Gone Bad

On March 7, 1951, at a press conference, Douglas MacArthur, commander of all United States forces in the Pacific, spoke contemptuously of the way his commander in the field, Matthew B. Ridgway, was fighting the Korean War. Ridgway, MacArthur said, was following an ineffectual strategy, gaining a little here, losing a little there, aiming not at victory but at stalemate, and, MacArthur implied, it was unworthy of the United States to fight for anything but complete victory. The phrase MacArthur planted into the lexicon of military belittlement to characterize Ridgway’s strategy was “accordion war.”

MacArthur’s comment was all the more extraordinary since he was making it in violation of a gag order that President Truman had imposed on the military command four months earlier—one of several acts of insubordination that led Truman to relieve him of his command in April that year. Aside from that, the insult to Ridgway was astonishing in its misjudgment, or perhaps its wounded vanity. Ridgway had been appointed during one of the worst moments in American military history, after the Chinese army had, while MacArthur was in command, routed UN forces and pushed them from near the Chinese border to well below the 38th parallel, the demarcation line between North and South Korea. In a matter of just a few weeks, Ridgway had stopped the Chinese advance, and, using American firepower, was causing ten to fifteen times as many casualties among Chinese troops as the Chinese were inflicting on the UN’s forces.

But Ridgway wasn’t really the issue. MacArthur’s desire for a full-scale war with what was called “Red China” was the real issue, and beyond that was his defiance of the president he served. In those early months of 1951, MacArthur, who thought he might be the Republican candidate for president in 1952, complained that the political leadership in Washington was tying his hands, preventing him from carrying out the grand mission to which he believed he had been called by destiny. He had joined forces moreover with Truman’s bitterest political opponents: a coalition of right-wing Republicans, Henry Luce of Time and Life, and the entire China lobby, whose members were supporters of Chiang Kai-shek. All of these people agreed that an “accordion war” with China was a form of appeasement. As MacArthur himself told a joint session of Congress a few weeks after Truman sacked him, those who would “appease Red China” were “blind to history’s clear lesson, for history teaches with unmistakable emphasis that appeasement but begets new and bloodier war.”

MacArthur’s grand plan was to push the Chinese back across the Yalu River, which formed the border between Korea and China, thereby ensuring that the Korean War would result not in a stalemate but in an end to the aggressor North Korean regime. Part of the plan, and the part dearest to the hearts of Luce and the China lobbyists, was, as it was put in those days, “to unleash” the Chinese Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, and the 600,000 supposedly elite troops he had in Taiwan to tear the Chinese mainland out of the hands of the Communists, so that the loss of China itself to communism would be reversed.

As it turned out, of course, nobody was unleashed, and it’s a good thing too. Chiang Kai-shek’s 600,000 troops were the very ones who, a few years earlier, had for the most part retreated in the face of Mao Zedong’s peasant army, or who had deserted or sometimes even surrendered without firing a shot; so MacArthur’s claim about their ability to launch a successful invasion of China seemed more an act of faith than a sound military judgment. More important, an attempt to drive not just to the Yalu but across it into Manchuria might have brought the Soviet Union into the war.

MacArthur was confident that the Russians would stay out of it. But, then again, he had also been confident, as he pushed toward the Yalu in an earlier phase of the Korean War, that the Chinese would stay out of it, and he had been catastrophically wrong. If he were wrong about the Soviet Union too, the Korean War could have led to a new world war seven years after World War II ended. And even if the Soviets did stay out of the war in Asia, the United States, its main forces diverted to China, might well have been weakened in the face of possible Soviet intervention elsewhere, in Iran or in Europe. Shortly after MacArthur was relieved of his command, Omar Bradley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, famously told the Senate Armed Services Committee that to go to war with China would have involved the United States “in the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”

And yet, in one sense MacArthur was right. Korea was an accordion war. By late 1950, the conflict, as David Halberstam writes in his new book, “had reached the point where there were no more victories, only death.” The Korean War was the first time in history when the forces of the United States decided to fight for a draw rather than insist on victory, and, as MacArthur liked to put it, there’s no substitute for victory. In Korea in particular, the stalemate ultimately recorded in the armistice agreement that ended the fighting in 1953 left the aggressor, North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, in power unpunished and about to be celebrated as a living God in the half of the country he controlled. “A mutually unsatisfactory compromise,” Halberstam writes of the outcome. “Die for a tie” is the way American reporters more bluntly described it.

The unsatisfactory compromise continues to be observed in Korea, a place where history never ceases to circle back on itself. Instead of an accordion war, accordion diplomacy has been practiced in the past decade and a half as the United States has tried to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear development program. The policy has alternated between hard-line efforts to give nothing to North Korea, in the expectation that the regime will collapse as a result, and negotiations leading to a sort of stalemate, while one of the globe’s nastiest dictatorships continues in power.

In September this year, after a second round of direct, one-on-one talks with Pyongyang that it had refused to hold earlier, the Bush administration succeeded in getting a promise from the North Korean government to disable the nuclear power plant that had been producing plutonium for its weapons program and to make a full accounting of any other nuclear programs it has been pursuing. To be sure, the deal represented progress for the United States, though probably not more than it would have made had an earlier deal with Pyongyang, agreed to by Bill Clinton in 1994, not been abandoned by the Bush team shortly after it took office. (According to the 1994 accord, North Korea agreed to suspend its nuclear program in exchange for assistance in building civilian nuclear power plants and other aid from the US.)

This time, moreover, while the accordion has sprung back very close to the arrangement that was in force at the time George W. Bush took office, Pyongyang has made a significant advance, because during the years the Bush administration refused to have any direct contact with North Korea, it may have produced enough plutonium for between eight and a dozen atomic bombs, and indeed, it exploded such a bomb last fall. The goal now, as negotiations proceed, will be to get the North Koreans to give up nuclear weapons completely, but so far they have not agreed to do that.

Korea has always been like that: great effort and, in the war, immense sacrifice, leading to very little essential change, and certainly to no fatal weakening of the North Korean dictatorship. And it has always been like that for the same reason: because the task of resolving the Korean problem once and for all—which would mean a different regime in the North and possibly reunifying the country under the government in Seoul—has involved the sort of deadly risks that only somebody a bit unhinged from reality, like Douglas MacArthur in 1951, would be willing to assume.

David Halberstam, who died in a car accident in California in April this year, was one of the most productive American journalists. Over the years, he has had his critics who noted, correctly I believe, that some of his books—like The Reckoning, his study of Japan’s challenge to the American automobile industry, and The Powers That Be, his examination of four big news organizations—were overstuffed with incidental detail, and that other works—his book on the decade of the Fifties comes to mind—were in large part drawn from already existing books and articles and were not original works of research or analysis. But since his early reporting in Vietnam, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1964, and certainly since his most celebrated book, The Best and the Brightest of 1972, he has continued to take on new subjects. Halberstam produced twenty-one books altogether, including the one under review here. All this work has demonstrated two characteristics: an indefatigable capacity to explore large and complicated subjects; and a tendency to see the events he studied in fervent moral terms. His books, even the ones on sports, such as The Breaks of the Game (1981), identify heroes and villains, good guys and bad, the former to be celebrated, the latter (and the damage they have done) exposed.

The Coldest Winter continues in this vein. Halberstam gives strong accounts of the events on the battlefield, drawing on numerous interviews with combat infantrymen. He concentrates on the exceptional bravery of individual soldiers, underlining the contrast between them and those in the higher echelons whose ambition, or blundering, or self-absorption, or ideological blindness put the fighting enlisted men and officers in mortal danger.

Halberstam takes a panoramic approach to his subject, looking back to the outbreak of the cold war, the rise of Mao, the fall of China’s Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, the decision by China to enter the war, and the tumultuous domestic politics of the United States at the time. He also incorporates lengthy portraits of the main leaders both in Asia and on the American political scene—from South Korean leader Syngman Rhee to Truman administration figures like Dean Acheson and George C. Marshall, to Luce, Chiang, the China hands in the State Department, Chinese commander Peng Dehuai, and MacArthur himself. For both his portraits of the major leaders and his summaries of background events, he relies almost entirely on the standard books. To readers familiar with the literature of the period, some of the scenes he reproduces will have a familiar feel. He repeats, for example, the oft-told tale of the sign that Theodore White, Luce’s frustrated correspondent in China, posted outside his office to the effect that any resemblance between what he wrote and what appeared in Time magazine was purely coincidental.

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