History’s standards raised

Times Staff Writer

In a conversation the day before he was killed in an auto accident last spring, David Halberstam told me that the book manuscript he had delivered to his publisher four days earlier was “the best work of my life.”

Given the 20 books that preceded it, his claim struck me as touchingly audacious, even for a writer as preternaturally enthusiastic as David always was. Now, after spending hours enthralled with “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War,” it’s easy to see why he felt as he did. In his final book, Halberstam took a method of historical storytelling he virtually invented and brought it to a masterful level. In the process, he gave the whole category called “popular history” a new standard against which all who practice it now must measure themselves.

As perfected over half a century, Halberstam’s method was to set the authentic voices of a great event’s individual witnesses in tension with the kind of grand strategic overview beloved of synoptic historians. It was a technique that melded the best of traditional journalism’s immediacy with the academy’s reflective perspective. All that was required was a truly great reporter’s skill at one-on-one interviews and the intellectual depth of a first-rate historian, bound together by profound seriousness, endless energy and insatiable curiosity -- and, most of all, an unquenchable love for a good story well told.

“The Coldest Winter” incorporates all of that and seems certain to become the standard one-volume history of the Korean War, superseding even Clay Blair’s “The Forgotten War” and Stanley Weintraub’s “MacArthur’s War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero.” What sets Halberstam’s history apart is its stunning array of first-person interviews with Korean War veterans, its lucid evocation of battlefield maneuvers, its crystalline portraits of major figures such as Mao and Kim Il Sung and its description of how Douglas MacArthur’s whole willful -- indeed, deceitful -- prosecution of the war proved so costly. (Was there ever an American hero of MacArthur’s stature whose image has been so ravaged by history? His deliberate distortion of intelligence to justify his horrifically wrongheaded push to the Yalu River is bound to set contemporary readers’ heads shaking.)

One of the most rewarding aspects of “The Coldest Winter” is the way in which the author integrates sharply drawn portraits not only of leading individuals but also of the histories and societies at play in the conduct. They’re wonderfully incisive, fair-minded and utterly unsentimental. Consider this, for example, on the society the war created north of the 38th Parallel:


“By the beginning of the 21st century, no society seemed more different from the South than North Korea. To the degree that there were successes in North Korea, they had been the very early ones, because it was from the start a completely totalitarian structure, imposed always from the top down, all done with a ruthless efficiency, enforced by a brutal security system imported from Moscow. That was a specialty of the Russians in those years; they might not do housing or agriculture or industrial development well, but they did state security extremely well; they were masters at creating authoritarian societies.”

Or this on midcentury American attitudes toward China: “The China that existed in the minds of millions of Americans was the most illusory of countries, filled as it was with dutiful obedient peasants who liked America and loved Americans.”

Or this on the origins of the war itself: “Korea was a place where almost every key decision on both sides turned on miscalculation.” The consequences of those miscalculations would be 33,000 dead U.S. servicemen, 415,000 South Korean soldiers killed, 1.5 million North Korean and Chinese troops. Various estimates put civilian casualties in the south at 1 million and as high as 2 million in the north.

As a deep student of military history, Halberstam knew that it’s been a martial truism since Xenophon that the fighting retreat is the hardest of all maneuvers to accomplish successfully. His remarkable reconstruction of the 1st Marines’ withdrawal from Chosin and the November retreat of the Army’s 2nd Division through “the Gauntlet” are small masterpieces on their own.

As with any of Halberstam’s longer works, there are bound to be those who find the detail he brought to his reconstruction of “The Coldest Winter” more exhausting than exhaustive. At 73, he retained an energetic reporter’s tendency to select the best two or three interviews from his notebook rather than the single best. Similarly, though the clarity of his prose improved strikingly through the years, Halberstam remained a writer who saw no reason to let a single sentence carry the expository weight that could be spread over two or three more.

To note those qualities other than in passing, however, is to miss the significance of what now can be assessed as Halberstam’s 21-book project. It helps to distinguish between two types of people who work at book length. On the one hand, there are those working as “writers” in the 20th century American tradition. For them and their readers, style and formal expression always will claim pride of place -- form coequal with substance. On the other hand, there are those working as “authors” in the European sense. For them, style always will play a subsidiary -- even incidental -- role in a project of exploration and instruction, fact and observation marshaled in the service of some larger purpose.

David Halberstam belonged firmly to this latter tradition. Beginning with his earliest newspaper and magazine journalism concerning the civil rights movement in the U.S. South, through the magisterial account of Vietnam in “The Best and the Brightest,” through his explorations of the media and auto industry and, particularly, in the sports books, Halberstam set himself the unspoken task of delineating the American character in the second half of the 20th century. He thought that character best revealed itself in the terrors and heroism of conflict -- in the streets or courtrooms of the Jim Crow South, on the battlefields of Vietnam and Korea, on basketball courts and baseball diamonds, in the very American struggle between conscience and commerce.

He thought, moreover, that the glories and tragedies of that national character were inseparable from the follies and betrayals of the country’s leaders. Halberstam’s Americans were a great people too often let down by those who should have known better and done better by their ordinary countrymen.

“The Coldest Winter” cements Halberstam’s reputation as the preeminent popular historian of his generation, though in this case “popular” connotes the profoundly democratic impulse at the center of all his work. He remained an idealist to the end.