No Cakewalk in Korea

Why Halberstam lets the establishment off the hook.

It will be the rare reader of David Halberstam’s history of the Korean War who picks it up not knowing that long ago, the author wrote about another war in Asia that went badly for the United States. His new book gently reminds us that we’re in such a war again, and the inevitable question—why do these things keep happening?—hovers over the entire story. Back in 1972, in The Best and the Brightest, Halberstam had a clear answer: The military and moral disaster of Vietnam was no accident, but the product of the geopolitical groupthink that had shaped U.S foreign policy throughout the Cold War. John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Robert McNamara didn’t get us into Vietnam on their own. Dean Acheson and Harry Truman were also to blame.

The reader who remembers Halberstam’s earlier polemic might expect The Coldest Winter to be a renewed attack on the American establishment, an account of how big ideas like “containment” got us into pointless losing wars almost from the start. It isn’t. This time, Halberstam (who died in a car crash last spring) has a more exciting story to tell than one about mere national security groupthink. His protagonist is a real-live villain—one of the most bizarre and colorful figures in recent American history, the general whom Harry Truman once peevishly referred to as “Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat, Five Star MacArthur.”

Anyone who doubts that great events pivot on quirks of personality has only to compare Douglas MacArthur with the cast of The Best and the Brightest. He was more of a martinet than McNamara, more of a bully than Johnson, a more mesmerizing speaker than Kennedy. He considered Washington and Lincoln his intimate personal advisers and surrounded himself with flunkies who called him “the greatest man in history.” (Others called him, for his foppish scarves, “the fighting dude.”) Most important, MacArthur was the general in a million who could turn the war in Korea around with one victorious stroke—the super-risky landing at Inchon—only to overreach, suffering a stunning and totally unnecessary defeat at the hands of the Chinese less than three months later.

Yet, by personalizing the march to disaster, The Coldest Winter does what The Best and the Brightest was too angry to do: It lets everyone else off the hook. A big defeat happens—does this sound familiar?—when a few unscrupulous policy-makers seize the reins from the more level-headed many. Halberstam has the occasional cutting comment about Acheson (too much of an elitist for the age of nationalism), but all in all, his version of the Korean War is one that the Truman administration would have no trouble accepting.

As he tells it, MacArthur blindly ordered his men into the Chinese meat grinder to indulge his dreams of late-career glory, while the president and his advisers looked helplessly on. “Paralyzed rabbits,” Acheson called them, regretfully including himself. Halberstam further spices up the account for contemporary readers by describing how MacArthur’s minions discarded intelligence that undercut their own preferences. And to give the entire story a wistful, greatest-generation glow, he recounts in detail the heroism of ordinary American foot soldiers, who paid heavily on the battlefield for the mindlessness at headquarters.

What Halberstam is not so good at is explaining why the rest of the U.S. government was overwhelmed by the great man’s madness. Explanations flit through the book, but they don’t tell the whole story. Yes, MacArthur could charm any audience, large or small. (If he had gone on the stage, said a colleague, “you would never have heard of John Barrymore.”) And the growing McCarthyism of politics back home did make it dangerous to seem insufficiently anti-Communist. MacArthur was also a master at keeping Washington higher-ups from knowing exactly what he was doing. And once he became “the sorcerer of Inchon” (another Acheson phrase), it was all but impossible to second-guess him.

Any foreign-policy disaster can be explained away by finger-pointing of this kind, but doing so usually leaves out something fundamental. In Korea, it’s this: Even those who were most fearful of what MacArthur might do largely shared his goals, and they came to want a big victory just as much as he did. Halberstam believes that the anti-Communist hysteria of the war limited the administration’s choices. Acheson saw it a little differently. For him, the North Korean attack had punctured national complacency—”inertia of thought,” he called it—and that was good. It created an opportunity to push through long-blocked, but necessary, policies. The president, he told the rest of the Cabinet, needed new authority and new resources: “If it is a question of asking for too little or too much, he should ask for too much.”

Moreover, the fateful decision to unite Korea was basically made before Inchon, and Acheson himself was one of the believers. Today, we would call this policy “regime change,” and the justifications that State Department officials offered for wanting to overthrow the North Korean “puppet” state have a surprisingly contemporary ring. They saw the war as America’s first real chance to “displace part of the Soviet orbit.” Throughout Asia, others were expected to “take hope” from seeing a Communist dictator dethroned. As American troops prepared to cross the 38th parallel, Acheson crowed that the United States was about to demonstrate “what Western Democracy could do to help the underprivileged countries of the world.” To this end, MacArthur was supposed to prepare for the occupation of the whole country and—because no one wanted to occupy Korea too long—for early elections.

One challenge that any great-man reading of history faces is to explain why other equally great men are pushed aside, and Halberstam does wonder why George Marshall wasn’t able to restrain MacArthur. As secretary of defense, he had the authority; as national hero and military genius in his own right, he had the stature. The Coldest War’s doleful answer: The old guy was simply past his prime. Yet this, too, is incomplete. Old or not, Marshall and his Pentagon colleagues wanted to win the war, and they were far more involved in overseeing it than Halberstam lets on. It was Marshall who privately cabled MacArthur as he prepared to cross the 38th parallel into North Korea, saying that the president wanted him to feel “largely unhampered” in the coming campaign.

A month later, with evidence mounting that American forces were vulnerable to a Chinese attack, Gen. Omar Bradley and the other service chiefs did exactly what they should have done: They conducted a round-the-clock review of MacArthur’s plans and actually decided to order him to pull back from the border. But the next day, Bradley changed his mind, and his reason showed how strong the Truman administration consensus was. The United States had made the unity of Korea its goal, he thought, and should stick to it. Pulling back would be “an admission of failure,” with “dire long-term consequences.” No surprise, then, that a few weeks later Marshall, Acheson, and the chiefs met again, on the eve of MacArthur’s “final offensive”—and unanimously agreed that he should proceed.

The Korean War that David Halberstam describes offers echo after echo of our contemporary predicament, or at least of one reading of it. His story is all about the hijacking of American policy, the fomenting of national hysteria, and the disaster that follows. But he would have written a truer—and, for that matter, a more useful—book if he had admitted how many people in high positions thought the policy was both necessary and right. For an understanding of the insidious workings of consensus, rather than of conspiracy, The Best and the Brightest would have been an excellent place to start.