The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War
by David Halberstam
Detroit: Thomson Gale, 2007, 1240 pp. large print
January 5 2008
Vice President Cheney is reading this book. Some neo-conservatives have said that George Bush is like Harry Truman and that the "War on Terror" is at the equivalent stage of the Korean War during the Cold War--an early stage of struggle.
Halberstam finished writing The Coldest Winter just before dying. He succeeds in drawing some links between the Korean War and the subsequent Vietnam War that Halberstam is more known for writing about. Patriots may appreciate some of the snippets from U.$. veterans of the Korean War, but the book fails in uncovering underlying economic and social forces relevant to the war while doing a better job with geopolitics.
The liberal Liberal intelligence approach
All Liberal approaches to military history emphasize individual merit, brilliance versus ineptitude, heroes and biography.
At the end of The Coldest Winter we have a contribution from Russell Baker explaining that Halberstam rejected the Tolstoyan appreciation of larger forces at work in history.(p. 1172) That explains Halberstam's approach to interviewing individual Amerikans and then telling individual and family heirloom stories of bravery.
Within the Liberal camp, Halberstam is taking the pro-CIA (pp. 106, 665) liberal Liberal line. The conservative Liberals have as their implicit baseline of larger forces at work in history the superiority of the white man, an overwhelming superiority that makes attention to other larger forces in history unnecessary. Throughout the book, we have Amerikkkan references to "laundrymen," (pp. 59, 781, 1148) "Indians," (pp. 38, 50, 87 ) "niggers" (p. 205) and "gooks," (pp. 68, 205 ) to point to just some of the references to Koreans and Chinese.
Halberstam's story is that these white conservative Liberals should have learned their lesson when the Chinese entered the war after the Korean communists faltered in dealing with the ever better supplied Amerikans gradually incrementing their forces in the summer and fall of 1950. The Chinese communists surprised the white supremacists by sending the Amerikans scurrying back southward down the peninsula--this despite having no artillery and no air cover.
So the liberal refrain is that General MacArthur fouled up the war by spinning intelligence in racist ways:
"MacArthur decided to control the decision-making by controlling the intelligence. Here again Brigadier General Charles Willoughby was the key player. He deliberately minimized both the number and intentions of Chinese troops." (p. 89)When there were already 300,000 Chinese troops in Korea, Willoughby said there were between 16,500 and 34,500. The underestimation of the enemy cost Amerikan lives on the battlefield, sometimes in stands reminiscent of Custer.
The most classic argument was over whether the Chinese even existed in Korea. It was not until after massive loss of life that Amerikans accepted that there were a quarter million Chinese troops in Korea. Halberstam explores MacArthur's political motivations for denial on the point. MIM would say we can surmise MacArthur's motivations, but a smart man like that could be difficult to divine and we certainly do not believe the question deserves the central focus of a massive book that traces back MacArthur's authoritarianism to his family upbringing.
Of course, part of the problem of why MacArthur would be in denial is that patrols that went out to find Chinese might not probe far enough or if they did probe far enough they ended up dead. That would be an example of difficulty not at all abnormal in a war. What Halberstam's pro-CIA account objects to is that once the Amerikans interviewed Chinese prisoners, Amerikan headquarters repeatedly went into denial (pp. 53, 107) regarding the number of the Chinese troops or their geographic origins-- intentionally confusing Koreans and Chinese for instance despite their separate languages and clothing. MacArthur believed the Chinese would not make good on their threats to fight the Amerikans and said that Amerikans would finish off the Korean communists and be back by Christmas, 1950.(p. 323) Instead the war went on into 1953 and ended with a stalemate.
For MIM, Halberstam's account of the "credibility" of intelligence officers who found massive numbers of Chinese is typical of pre- scientific failures connected to Liberalism.
"When the reports of Singlaub's agents were finally integrated into the larger intelligence yield, they came back from Willoughby's shop with an 'F- 6' label--agents not considered trustworthy, and reports unlikely to be true--the lowest possible rating. And thus when the In Min Gun advanced the morning of June 25, [1950--ed.] they caught the South Korean troops and thir American advisers completely unaware. It was not close to a fair fight."(p. 108)For Halberstam the whole point is to glorify those individuals who were correct, the officers who tried to tell MacArthur that the Chinese were on hand and fighting hard. Left out is that in any large scale phenomenon there is diversity. With so many intelligence officers going out to discover the situation in Korea, there was bound to be a range of analyses.
Against MacArthur there would be military subunits exaggerating the enemy they faced in order to be cautious and survive. Built-in motivations for such exaggeration include everything from a desire for medals to more importantly the power that higher-level commanders have in backing up lower level units caught in a fire fight. If lower level unit commanders are not persuasive, upper level commanders will not send in the necessary air cover and artillery support nor launch the requisite reinforcement and relief operations that can save a unit from oblivion. So we should not assume that all inaccurate motivations pushed from one side on the question of how many Chinese troops were in Korea. The only real question is which of the biases are overriding and what advantages does a proletarian-run military have in comparison.
If The Coldest Winter were a video game, it would be a role- playing game. With MacArthur's headquarters in Tokyo, the people there tended to play a different, more political role than the unit leaders further down in the U.$. military organization that actually operated in Korea.
So to get around Tolstoy, German philosophers or Karl Marx in their attention to the larger forces of history, Halberstam has larger forces in history appear only as something that role-players either competently tap into or do not but only in the process of carrying out their roles.
The only two interesting points that Halberstam makes regarded racism and the conflicts among U.$. commanders based on what level of unit they commanded ranging from platoon up to Tokyo headquarters. In the typical Liberal story- telling about tyrants, Tokyo became detached from reality and then it was up to lower level units to fight the upper command levels, a thankless task constantly bordering on insurbordination and career termination. Halberstam connected organizational conflict to career interests of individual officers seeking promotions and he admits racism as one systematic bias in the Amerikan military that weakened it.
Halberstam is interested in racism in order to save U.$. military lives and make the U.$. military a more effective killing machine. This is something that we communists have to learn--the difference between merit-oriented Liberals and communists. Today, globalization is putting together an imperial army recruited with green cards, but the imperialist country anti-war movement has yet to toss its misleaders pushing Martin Luther King and other forerunners of globalization. At the time of the Korean War, political correctness was not yet known: "They knew neither their ally [southern Koreans-- ed.] nor their enemy, and hated the country they were in."(p. 258)
For Halberstam it was especially inexplicable that the Amerikans suffered at the hands of the northern Koreans in battle and then still proceeded to bait the Chinese as if the Amerikans had not learned a thing about their own supposed invincibility:
"Poorly prepared troops poorly deployed slowed down the ferocious drive south of the North Koreans--at best by a few days. In the first week of combat, the North Koreans had virtually destroyed two American regiments; some three thousand men were either killed, wounded or missing in action, and enough weapons had been left behind to outfit one or two North Korean regiments."(p. 271)Today, a very similar argument to Halberstam's liberal intelligence approach came up with regard to the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The liberal intelligence approach was to say the conservative Liberals ineptly allowed spin on the topic that cost Amerikan lives. They argued there were no weapons of mass destruction. In contrast, we at MIM are interested in the profit motivations that cause arms races. We are not as much concerned with whether Amerikans accurately assessed the presence of weapons of mass destruction. In fact, the more ineptly the Amerikans do their job, the better, because in the larger scheme of historical forces, MIM has identified U.$. imperialism as the main drag on forward humyn advance. The argument between liberals and conservatives is hopelessly backward and if we communists get sucked into it, we will lose sight of our own goals.
Halberstam notes how the most accurate portrayal of Chinese presence in Korea received the lowest credibility score in the Amerikan intelligence community. To MIM, a scientist should know that such occurrences are inevitable in any large-scale phenomenon. Before the biographies of intelligence officers are assessed, the scientist can already know there will be a range of analyses and that their production are biased according to economic and sociological influences. This is the assumption underlying our opposition to who- oriented intelligence which is another way of saying "Liberally produced intelligence." The method of production of Liberal intelligence is fundamentally flawed for the same reason that what Marx called historical idealism is flawed.
Bourgeois intelligence benefits from an examination of proletarian intelligence only because there is an overlapping interest in the bourgeoisie's understanding its own intra-bourgeois conflicts. If we proceed as Marx to find the revolutionary vehicle in society, the overwhelming and undeniable force of change, then there is really nothing that the bourgeoisie can do with proletarian intelligence in its hand. The only thing that capitalists can do is pick which of various bourgeois special interests will rule.
Insights into the communist camp
Halberstam paints a negative picture of Kim Il Sung as the hothead revealed in a book by Vladislav Zubok titled, Inside the Cold War: From Stalin to Khruschev. Kim Il Sung convinced Stalin that Korean communists had to go to war to unify Korea and underestimated the chances of Amerikan intervention. Like Rumsfeld talking about "dead- enders" in Iraq, Kim said the Amerikans would not even show up partly because it was his nationalist interest to say so and thus convince Stalin it would be easy to reunify Korea.
In point of fact, Kim proved correct up through July, 1950. Then the Amerikans held at the perimeter of Pusan. Had the Koreans had slightly better communications equipment according to Halberstam, the Amerikans would have been wiped off the Korean peninsula. (Whether the politics of such a blow would have ended the war in 1950 or whether the Amerikans would have re-invaded we can only speculate.) The battle along the Pusan perimeter also signalled something else--a political and social change in the rest of the country that is to this day little evaluated by Amerikan policy-makers. The focus on U.$. troops tends to cause a blankness regarding social history, but according to the back of the book, even the Amerikan military history of Korea is a "black hole" that Amerikans prefer not to discuss. The Vietnam War and World War II get much more discussion.
Among the Koreans, Chinese and Russians, Halberstam gives the most credit to the Chinese. The Chinese knew that the Amerikans would come and even predicted MacArthur's Inchon landing,(p. 548) only to see Kim Il Sung ignore the warning. Like the typical Liberal analyst though, Halberstam does not tell us how many times Kim ignored the Chinese and turned out correct.
In this way, Halberstam is consistently Liberal. It's not just on the U.$. side that individual decisions on intelligence mattered according to Halberstam. The communist side also had individuals better at intelligence and its consumption than others. It makes for a slight element of even- handedness in the book despite the lack of Korean and Chinese sources.
Lest we accept Halberstam's claims too easily, he does not attempt an exhaustive survey of Chinese arguments with Kim, nor attempt to tally who was right how often. That is typical of the pre-scientific Liberal approach.
Likewise, we know that Halberstam's glowing portrait of Peng Dehuai (pp. 631- ) is colored by the need to tell a story of a hero who stood up to tyrant Mao later in the 1950s during the Great Leap Forward. What Halberstam idolizes about Peng--that he had a hard and simple way of life--would apply to countless Chinese communists at the time, not all of which had Peng's line. In fact, it would appear that most did not have Peng's line. Halberstam says that Peng was the equivalent of the Matt Ridgway hero of the Amerikan side (p. 900)--a realist who did not spin intelligence for political reasons. That is high praise, because Halberstam says that Ridgway single-handedly turned the tide of the war for the Amerikans.(p. 874)
More significant than Halberstam's Peng story-telling is his raising that Lin Biao excused himself in the Korea discussions. According to Halberstam, Lin was in fact already arguing against a conventional war approach in handling the Amerikans. He wanted a protracted war drawing the Amerikans in for guerrilla warfare.(p. 605) If Halberstam is correct, then Lin was not just on assignment from Mao when he came back in the early 1960s with essays supporting People's War instead of conventional strategies.
Mao's forces had fought a conventional war at the end of the Chinese Revolution that kicked Chiang Kai-shek off the mainland of China. The Chinese communist forces had built up to that level and then Stalin provided them with World War II weapons to use in Korea. Hence the use of conventional warfare was not out of line with Mao's own military teachings. When it came time for developing a leadership consensus for the war, Mao said he had one and a half votes, his own and half of Zhou Enlai's.(p. 609) The fact that the Chinese did indeed prove capable of driving back a full-scale U.$. invasion vindicated Mao. Halberstam says the war helped consolidate Mao politically and MacArthur's talk silenced pro-U.$. forces within China. China proved it could be a player like the united $tates.
Legend has it that the Chinese were better with mortars than Amerikans. The Chinese also managed to hide their big guns by hiding them on the backside of mountains with caves. They shot over the mountains and then retreated into caves. Likewise, the Chinese infantry hid in snow with white clothing. Legend has it that Amerikans were literally blind to the Chinese until they showed up in eyesight. In contrast, Halberstam says Amerikans increased their use of artillery to slaughter more Chinese and make up for the Amerikans' numerical disadvantage.
Like all bourgeois history, in The Coldest Winter there are only degrees of cynicism about communist leader claims to being communist. Stalin comes off as bourgeois nationalist in not providing air support despite earlier promises.(pp. 619-21) On the other hand, we would say Halberstam did not really assess systematically to what degree the Soviet Union and the united $tates exerted moderating influences on each other. What Halberstam does tell us is that Truman feared Stalin would strike in Iran and then go onward to the Middle East. We can imagine that with little support for sending millions of U.$. troops to Korea or China, the situation with Iran would be even weaker. In contrast, we might expect that a Soviet invasion of Europe would have provoked some consternation and the possibility of a larger Amerikan mobilization.
Halberstam's analysis is the first MIM has read that leaves Stalin looking more bourgeois nationalist than Mao in the post-World War II era. Of course, Trotsky had condemned Stalin's nationalism before but with little convincing evidence. Then Robert Tucker said that Stalin made too many nationalist and fascist arguments, but Tucker does not situate his argument among others who could be seen as more internationalist. Tucker only argues that other Soviet leaders may have opposed the Non-Aggression Pact with Hitler. In Halberstam's book, by contrast, we have Stalin, Kim and Mao to compare amongst, and then some additional variation within Chinese ranks.
Halberstam ignores that the Soviet Union gave up 25 million dead fighting Hitler and cleared the way for progressive advance in several countries. Nonetheless, Halberstam's point about air cover in Korea stands. Some of our more brain-dead followers of Stalin quote from Stalin's unpublished remarks from the late 1940s and 1950 against Mao. The white so-called communists have tended to argue that Mao was the nationalist, too much so after 1949. They never have anything to say about Mao's sacrifice of his son in the Korean War and the failure of the Soviets to provide air support at a time when they were not conducting any warfare themselves. After the Korean War, white chauvinists continued to quote Stalin's unofficial remarks from the 1940s as if nothing had happened, as if the Chinese had not just proven themselves in battle against the Amerikans. The supposed pro-Stalin communists ignoring what happened in the Korean War are wreckers of the Khruschev variety, hiding falsehood with a pro-Stalin mask.
Because of the difficulties they had in fighting the Chinese alone, Amerikans received a very clear message because of Stalin's choice not to fight. Nonetheless, there was no digestion, because Amerikans did the same thing again a decade later with Vietnam, a war in which Halberstam clearly blames Kennedy for doing a larger version of MacArthur-style intelligence squashing; although, Halberstam himself supported the war at the time.
We can wonder if Stalin had provided air cover in Korea whether Amerikans would have wised up and not got involved in Vietnam. Anti-Mao Stalin dogmatists can now ponder that--how imperialism would have prepared its next war. Truman saw Stalin as credible to the extent that he believed that if MacArthur bombed north of the Yalu River, Stalin would simply bomb Japan.
Korea was a perfect place for communists to strike, because in addition to semi- feudal and colonial conditions and despite U.$. talk about "appeasement" involved with northern Korean troops' crossing the 38th parallel, Korea did not have much value to the Amerikans. By comparison, Iraq today is obviously more important to U.$. economic interests. On the other hand, according to Halberstam, the Korean War triggered the Democratic Party's decline and the rise of State Department and Pentagon hawks in general. They were to seek the tripling of the military budget which had fallen back to a small fraction of World War II levels. It were as if the imperialists and their labor aristocracy reached an increased consciousness of their desire for U.$. empire. This drive to Amerikan militarism far outstripped the efforts of Korean war veterans who formed the "Never Again Club," to oppose future land wars in Asia.(p. 512)
One surprising insight
When we think of the Korean War, we remember Joe McCarthy and the fact that Joe McCarthy-endorsed senators won elections at that time. Halberstam goes into the details of the huge China Lobby influence in the united $tates that supported Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan as the real government of China.
Yet with all that reaction, it appears that no one wanted to send millions of U.$. troops to fight Mao in China.(p. 566) So Halberstam points to a source of moderation and the truth is that U.$. volunteering for the Korean War was not so overwhelming that it could make all-out war with China thinkable.
Rather the problem was once again feel-good politics. Missionaries came back from China complaining. This did not mean they had a solution. Anti-communists organized, but it did not make Chiang Kai- shek a more reliable ally. There was a complete failure to understand Chinese peasants as an historical force. It was not until the 1970s that the CIA forced an understanding on u.$. universities that they really must expand area studies for the good of empire.
McCarthyism was so emotional and unrealistic that Halberstam says that it actually tapped anti-war sentiment. The reasoning was that the Amerikans were fighting in Korea, only because subversives in the State Department handed over China to the communists. That was as much as Amerikans knew about international affairs. Such an approach went over well in the backwaters, today represented by Patrick Buchanan.
According to Halberstam, when Truman finally fired MacArthur for trying to drag the united $tates into further war with China, millions marched for MacArthur in demonstrations far dwarfing anything communists or anti-war activists have done since.(p. 1072) According to one United Press reporter, MacArthur could have asked the crowd to seize the White House by force and he would have succeeded at one DC demonstration.(p. 1073) Nonetheless, the reasons for the demonstrations were so diverse and emotional that a mere Congressional committee was able to pull apart MacArthur's myth in a few weeks. MacArthur's following became smaller and smaller and he never succeeded in his presidential ambitions.
Halberstam attempts to blame a five digit figure of Amerikan deaths and a seven digit figure of Korean and Chinese deaths on MacArthur and his taunting of the Chinese. Halberstam sided with Secretary of State Dean Acheson: "'We sat around,' Acheson noted in his memoir, 'like paralyzed rabbits while MacArthur carried out this nightmare.'"(p. 92) In July 1950, Indian diplomats went between China and the united $tates. The Indians proposed what the United $tates and China ended up settling on in 1953. It is good to know about that one diplomatic offer, because it proves that the sardonic humor of U.$. troops was correct from the beginning with their slogan of "die for a tie." U.$. diplomat Kennan noted the Amerikan failure in 1950 and held it up for future historical scrutiny which we can now give. Although the united $tates had airlifted Mao's opponents after World War II and had armed Chiang Kai-shek especially after 1945, nonetheless, the opportunity to cut the Korean War short did arise. Among other considerations, Truman could not handle the upcoming election and the influence of the pro- Chiang Kai-shek lobby in U.S. Congress. Chiang Kai-shek and Syngman Rhee did everything to keep the Amerikans fighting. They succeeded in what is considerable evidence that even in 1950 there was no Amerikan proletariat. Despite the powerful and publicly known rise of both China and the USSR, no Amerikan proletariat stirred to give Truman a political out from a war he was not too keen on.
The picture of MacArthur is borderline fascist. He consciously took a military role in crushing a U.$. demonstration during the Depression. (p. 231) Moreover, his right hand Willoughby was a big fan of Spanish fascist Franco (p. 666) and in regular contact with him. In passing, Halberstam says MacArthur took bribes from Filipino authoritarians.(p. 661) So with MacArthur, we are back to the typical Liberal argument against authoritarianism.
For his part, MacArthur said that "Orientals" needed authoritarian rule, and in fact, his crude analysis was still more than many others at the time attempted to make. The prevailing Amerikan view of $outhern Koreans was that they were worthless and never showed up in a fight. (pp. 60, 256) At most they carried bags sometimes. Halberstam said at that time the $outhern Korean government "in those first few years, it was a less organized, more chaotic one, and the Army reflected the government. The officer ranks at the top were riddled with corruption. The ROK soldiers lacked motivation."(p. 157) The $outhern Koreans did not appropriate enough global labor to motivate themselves in an Amerikan style. Instead what little money flowed in became the object of corruption. In the early phases of battle against the northern Koreans, the $outhern Koreans ended up quickly wiped out.(p. 163) Even the Republic of Korea chief of staff wanted to throw in the towel completely,(p. 184) so the Koreans came very close to unification in 1950. The $outhern Koreans did not have a social model connecting their people to politics and military matters. They imported a foreign model which ended up needing Amerikans to save it, only to end up provoking the entrance of Chinese troops. Critics of Marxism said it was foreign too, but the existence of peasants under feudalism applied to both French history and Korean history. The conditions that Amerikans enjoyed economically at the time of the Korean War were in no way relevant while things that Marx discussed about earlier European history were relevant to Korea.
Completely unexplained by Halberstam is how the southern Koreans died since he says despite not fighting very hard they suffered 415,000 deaths to the Amerikans' 33,000.(p. 24) We wonder what proportion was winter, starvation, friendly fire or enemy bullets that killed these 415,000. The Wikipedia does not mention such a high death toll, but that is typical of many wars, that it is difficult to assess the deaths from a variety of conditions. Regardless, thanks to the U.$. war and Syngman Rhee's executions, MIM would say that $outhern Korean appreciation of the united $tates is built on a repressive basis, not so- called freedom which was no where to be found in the Korean War.
The northern Koreans were more fierce according to the Amerikans but again part of a so-called totalitarian machine. Likewise in continuing the authoritarian Asian theme, in Japan, MacArthur worked with the emperor during his Occupation government. Halberstam's book still reflects such a view of Koreans, because it fails to interview them or review works about them. Instead we have a history of heroes and dupes with attention to Amerikan politics, so how far beyond MacArthur Halberstam managed to get is open to question.
Within Japanese Marxist thought, the MacArthur occupation of Japan was a mixed bag. Some argued that the U.$. Occupation did in fact finish Japan's capitalist modernization, through land reform and rights for wimmin and unions. Halberstam says that MacArthur was leftist when it came to Japan, only because that was his way to leave an even bigger persynal stamp on Japan, (pp. 228) according to Halberstam. That would be a way of saying that MacArthur did not choose his historical circumstances and that his persynality did not make a mark on Japan in the vein of Franco. We are sure that if MacArthur had imposed a new authoritarian dictator, Halberstam would have said that was also imposing MacArthur's persynality, so this is a frequent problem of trying to go from individual intentions toward historical products-- having it both ways. From our perspective, the role MacArthur played fronting with the Japanese emperor for social change only leaves us more assured that no number of pages dedicated to childhood development or other details of biography are really useful. There is at least a half-way serious argument that the Occupation of Japan improved the lives of millions. Even Halberstam says that MacArthur did an excellent job there.(p. 118) We also have yet to see Japan go on a repeat rampage.
Since MacArthur was one of West Point's top students ever, there is the additional suspicion that MacArthur belonged in the quirky intellectual category. He was so evidently a showman that the evaluation of MacArthur is compounded with more difficulties than for people with more modest goals.
Perhaps MacArthur's approach worked somewhat with Taiwanese and $outhern Koreans for reasons he did not understand. When it came time to play emperor-showman with Mao and the northern Koreans, MacArthur did not realize what he was up against, that in fact, the communist element was the more modern element of Korea and China. Halberstam admits that $outhern Korea did not look too promising at first and that it was only over 30 years later that it took up so-called democracy. Hence, no one would claim that $outhern Koreans during the Korean War were fighting the communists for something even more modern than communism. MIM would say that the $outhern Koreans scattered in battle, because like Chiang Kai-shek's troops, they had no class interest in what the Amerikans were bringing. Halberstam's discussion of these issues is too light to mention. The interesting question for MIM is why the northern Koreans fought harder than the $outhern Koreans. What was the reason that Amerikans also fought harder than the "Republic of Korea" troops is the question we should ask in reviewing Halberstam's book. It would seem that in a fight against communism, it is not surprising that more bourgeois troops had more motivation than Asians appropriating less labor per individual. Peasants stood to gain little from the war.
Within Korea, Amerikans fought for motivations that stemmed from their own life back in the United $tates. The fact that ROK troops were for political show should have told Amerikans something. Apparently what MacArthur believed is that a Stalin emperor on one side had to be opposed by a MacArthur emperor on the other side. That still left the question why Koreans fought harder for one side than the other. Especially since Russians did not fight and provided no air cover, MacArthur should have wondered why his racial superiority schtick did not work even among Koreans.
The real issues of nation and class
Halberstam explains why MacArthur never set foot in Korea until after disaster struck. The reason was that he saw Japan as important and only cared about Korea as it affected the psychology of the Japanese. The Koreans were people of a backward colony not considered much of any prize except via its proximity to major powers Japan, China and Russia. In fact, despite being in military charge of Korea, MacArthur ceded it entirely to the State Department as their turf in the 1945 to 1950 period.(p. 120)
There are more pages in The Coldest Winter dedicated to the biography of General MacArthur's mother (pp. 213-222) than the land reform goals of the millions of Koreans at the time. By coincidence, we learn that Douglas MacArthur's father Arthur MacArthur had pushed for land reform in the Philippines.(p. 218) If not for that biographical detail there would be that much less attention to the issues that really motivate peasants in Halberstam's book. As it turns out, despite his denunciations of communism, MacArthur made sure to conduct land reform in Japan. When Cuba reimbursed landowners with bonds paying 4.5 interest, here is what Che Guevara said about MacArthur:
"'A certain general of the Army of the United States . . . has been more of a Communist than any of us.'"(1)For MacArthur, Korea was a staging ground where there was a chance to cause the collapse of Mao's government. By touching off hostilities, MacArthur hoped that Mao would send troops down south of the Yalu River for "'the greatest slaughter in the history of mankind'" via Amerikan air power.(p. 652) MacArthur also hoped Mao would take the opportunity to attack Taiwan so that the Amerikan Navy and Air Force could destroy Mao there too and "'turn back communism.'"(p. 655) It was only that MacArthur did not believe Mao was stupid enough to enter MacArthur's dream scenarios. MacArthur did not understand the roots of Mao's support and saw as it as closer to collapse than it was.
U.$.-puppet and Princeton-educated Syngman Rhee was known as "Little Chiang" (p. 133) after Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Chinese landlord class and claimant to leadership of China as a republic after the last Chinese dynasty fell and did not recover. Rhee spent decades cultivating U.$. presidents and other elements of the Amerikan ruling class. An exceptional figure of Korea, Rhee was nonetheless isolated and unable to rally much of a Korean force to influence politics on Korea's behalf. His power stemmed from the colonial needs of Amerikan imperialism. Another major contender for leader of Korean non-communists was Kim Ku, who was literally dependent on Chiang Kai-shek prior to 1945.
According to Kim Ku's translator, Rhee was in an anti-communist organization that posed as the government of Korea during the Japanese occupation and yet Rhee himself had ties to Koreans who collaborated with the Japanese occupation. Much later, not Rhee, but Kim Ku came in second as a most respected historical figure of $outhern Korean republican history.(2)
The man that the united $tates caused a seven digit figure of killing for ended up overthrown by $outhern Koreans themselves, seven years after the Korean War ended. The description of this sort of backward comprador was typical of the time and is still typical of someone like Marcos or Arroyo of more recent times in the Philippines: "intense, egocentric, volatile, fiercely nationalistic, patriotic, virulently anti-Communist, and no less authoritarian; he was very much a democrat, so long as he had complete conrol of all the country's democratic institutions and no one else was allowed to challenge his will."(p. 132) Like Chiang Kai-shek, Rhee had managed to collaborate with both U.$. and Japanese imperialism while ending up reviled by Koreans.
With 90% of The Coldest Winter focussed on intra-Amerikan politics with the rest dedicated to intra-Chinese politics and a smattering of observations on Koreans, Halberstam did not follow the changes going on among Korean people themselves. Less than a sentence alludes to a situation of immense political importance created by the war itself: "When the Red Army swept in, institutions were imposed instantly."(p. 132) Halberstam was aware of the see-saw nature of the war. What happened to the people other than fleeing from battles was a question he left out. There was and remains today a social and political blindness in U.$. imperialism. Halberstam said little on the topic but he did get the overall picture correct by quoting British diplomat Roger Makins: "'Americans have always liked the idea of dealing with a foreign leader who can be identified and perceived as 'their man.' They are much less comfortable with movements." (p. 134) So Amerikan foreign policy has that classic historical idealist feel to it as identified by Marx, as if individuals and not classes made history.
Mao's concept of "comprador" applies to puppet rulers of imperialism with ties to the landlord class. Typically the combination is bureaucratic capitalism combined with a stifling agrarian landlord class (not landlord in the Amerikan sense of real estate but as in the feudal sense). The reason there is state-run capitalism is that there is not a strong enough bourgeoisie in a country to run affairs for itself. The would-be capitalist class finds it easier to seek favors and payroll positions from imperialism than to overcome the old means of running the economy that the landlord class has historically imposed. Ruling elites can satisfy themselves with regulating business from the position of state power--a classic Confucian gig in Korean and Chinese history. With the great success of multinational corporations, it takes almost unnatural gumption for native capitalists to take on foreign competitors instead of seeking to skim off the top in a partnership with them. Thus indigenous roots of capitalism become limited.
The advantage of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism over Amerikan politics and the ultimate reason that without air cover or artillery the Chinese could drive the Amerikans back down the peninsula is that Maoism connects the social situation to the political situation and thus the military situation in one coherent package. Socially Maoism nailed the phenomenon of a Chiang Kai-shek or Syngman Rhee or Marcos exactly. Maoism also nailed why peasants in semi-colonized semi-feudal countries are not capable of acting like Amerikans in the fantasy republics of these compradors. On the battlefield, these peasants do not support their governments that strongly and so we see what happens in China, Korea, Vietnam, Kampuchea and the Philippines.
It is only after thorough uprooting of semi-feudalism that a Taiwan or $outhern Korea prospers. It has nothing to do with U.$. troops showing up with a U.$. president proclaiming "democracy." After de-feudalizing, subsequent generations can have an improved aspiration to appropriate labor--richness. Taiwan and $outhern Korea also had favorable trade terms arranged as part of the war against communism. Without the leverage from the communist movements, the Koreans and Taiwanese would not have been able to join in in the capitalist competition on strong enough terms to succeed.
At the end of the book, Halberstam tries to justify the war and veterans' sacrifices by the economic progress of southern Korea.(p. 1132) He even has a sentence reminiscent of Rumsfeld about a satellite photo of southern Korean prosperity.(p. 1125) Nonetheless, by the end of the 1950s, there was no basis for saying southern Korea was any kind of winner. The Wikipedia says that southern Korea in fact "stagnated" in the decade after the war.(3) "In the 1950s, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in Asia." (4) It was southern Korea suffering hunger, not northern Korea. Southern Korean economic growth did not start till after the fall of Rhee in 1960, no thanks to the Korean War from 1950 to 1953.
That's not to mention the $outhern Koreans' fighting in the war itself which showed no signs of involving more democracy or any other advanced idea than the northern Koreans had. MacArthur was not better at inspiring uneducated peasants than Kim was. Rhee was good at schmoozing with Amerikan leaders and killing his own people, but he should have spent more time figuring out how to mobilize his own people. Whenever we have so much politics dependent on one Ph.D., we can be rather suspicious about subsequent claims regarding political mobilization for democracy. In China and Korea by contrast, communism had popular appeal at the time. Rhee ended up chased out of Korea by students in 1960, but countless massacres of communists did not kill the ideal.
While MIM in fact believes the communist challenge was essential to providing the United $tates motivation to trade with $outhern Korea, one could argue that with the fall of Rhee, the $outhern Koreans left behind the Korean War and provided additional basis for their own subsequent modernization. Had the Amerikans just decided to trade with alacrity from the beginning, they could have had the same economic achievement in Korea without the war.
1. Alan McPherson, Yankee No! Anti-Americanism in U.S.-Latin American Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), p. 55.
2. Jongsoo Lee trans., The Autobiography of Kim Ku (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2000).