Category: David Halberstam

Alternative factsAlternative facts

“In the late fall of 1961, [President] Kennedy decided to up the ante in the ongoing but still relatively low-key guerilla war in Vietnam. At the time there were only six hundred American advisers in South Vietnam. His was the most dangerous of moves geopolitically. even if at first it was a limited commitment of advisory and support troops, totaling perhaps some seventeen thousand additional Americans by early 1963. The Kennedy escalation meant that even if the commitment was in the beginning relatively small, nonetheless the flag had been planted ever more deeply and planted in a country and a war where the United States did not by itself control the dynamic and where the forces gathering against the American proxy were driven by a deep historic dynamic. . . . In addition, the Kennedy administration had done something extremely dangerous when it increased the larger mission to Vietnam; it corrupted the truth to suit its political needs . . .  it needed ever greater results, for appearances were everything, and it needed them faster. But those results were not forthcoming, because the policy never worked. Never. Therefore, to compensate for the failure to produce the desired results in the field, the Kennedy administration soon created something quite extraordinary—a giant lying machine . . . that not only systematically rejected all pessimistic reports from the field, and punished those who tried to tell the truth, but created its own illusion of victories and successes, victories and successes that never existed.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

Just wait until the next oneJust wait until the next one

“Perhaps all wars are in some way or another the product of miscalculations. But Korea was a place where almost every key decision on both sides turned on a miscalculation . . . . in the single greatest miscalculation of the war, MacArthur decided to go all the way to the Yalu because he was sure the Chinese would not come in . . . . Mao believed that the political purity and revolutionary spirit of his men greatly outweighed America’s superior weaponry (and its corrupt capitalist soul) and so, after an initial great triumph in the far North, had pushed his troops too far south, taking horrendous losses in the process. . . . Chinese entry into the war had a profound and long-lasting effect on how Americans looked at the issue of national security. It gave the utmost push forward to the vision embodied in NSC 68. It greatly increased the Pentagon’s influence and helped convert the country toward far more of a national security state than it had previously been, so increasing the forces driving that dynamic that in ten years Dwight Eisenhower, in his farewell speech as president, would warn of a ‘military-industrial complex.’ ” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

The blood is always redThe blood is always red

“At the most forward edge of Love Company was the Second Platoon, commanded by Lieutenant Gene Takahashi of Cleveland, Ohio. Takahashi—Tak, not Gene, to his men— had, as a Japanese-American, spent part of his World War II boyhood in an internment camp in California. Impressed by the exploits of the famed, highly-decorated all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe—many of whom had come out of the internment camps—and, like them, eager to prove his devotion to his country, he had in 1945 at seventeen volunteered for the United States Army. The only rule given him by his parents when he asked their permission was that he was to do nothing that might disgrace the Takahashi name. He was an unusual officer in an unusual unit—a Japanese-American commanding a platoon of all-black troops. For though the Army was technically desegregated, there were still some all-black units in the early months of the Korean War. The performance of all-black units at that moment, as the Army was changing so quickly, was often uneven, based on who their officers were, whether they were white, and whether they tried to hardass their troops. Takahashi thought his troops were good men and good soldiers. A few were resistant to direct orders, and tone was always important, but if anything, commanding them made him aware of the nuances involved, a sense on occasion that some orders needed to be explained, and he was sure that this had made him a better officer.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

They’d’ve seen it coming if they’d’ve lookedThey’d’ve seen it coming if they’d’ve looked

“It was on the night of November 25 [1950] that the Chinese finally struck. Rarely has so large an army had such an element of surprise against its adversary. The Chinese had precise intelligence on the Americans, and the Americans on the [Korean] west coast—the Marines on the east were shrewder and better led—were essentially blind to the trap they had walked into. When the Chinese hit, it became clear that what had driven MacArthur’s forces was not so much a strategy as a bet—that the Chinese would not come in. The bet had been called, and other men would now have to pay for that terrible arrogance and vainglory.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

They warned us but we wouldn’t listenThey warned us but we wouldn’t listen

“Of the American military miscalculations of the twentieth century, Douglas MacArthur’s decision to send his troops all the way to the Yalu stands alone. (Vietnam was a political miscalculation and the chief architects of it were civilians.) All sorts of red flags were there for him, flags that he chose not to see. So it was that his troops, their command split, their communications often dangerously weak, the weather worsening by the day, pushed north, while the Chinese watched and patiently waited for them on the high hills, already preparing to block the narrow arteries of retreat or escape. . . . Of the many professional sins of which Douglas MacArthur was guilty at that moment, including hubris and vanity, none was greater than his complete underestimation of his enemy.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter (emphasis in original)

Nobody’s foolNobody’s fool

“In 1949, Josef Stalin was the dominant figure in the entire Communist world. He had controlled Russia for more than a quarter of a century. Of the leading architects of the Russian Revolution, he was the last one standing. Others might have been more brilliant, more charismatic, better speakers, more original strategists, but he was the greatest apparatchik of them all, the man who seemed to understand best the single enduring truth of that particular revolution: that when it came to the consolidation of power—sustaining it, and making sure that no one did to you what you had just done to your enemies—ideas did not matter much, but police power did. In the world as Stalin knew it, you were either the hunter or the hunted. He survived and succeeded because he was the one with the fewest illusions (and perhaps the greatest paranoia), the man who understood best when stage one of the revolution was over and stage two—the consolidation of power—had begun. He was the one who broke the system down to its most elemental truth: there were enemies everywhere, and you removed them not only before they struck at you, but before they even grasped that they were your enemy. It was his greatest strength, the sheer darkness of his soul, that he understood this more quickly than others, and pursued it more cold-bloodedly, with fewer restraints.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

One of a kind love affairOne of a kind love affair

“In World War I [General Douglas MacArthur] had worn riding breeches, a turtleneck sweater, and a four-foot scarf—‘the fighting dude,’ his men called him. He did not merely seek the limelight, he had an addiction to it. He was aware of camera positioning, always making sure that his famous jaw jutted at just the right angle for photographs. Indeed, as he grew older, not only did his staff censor all news photos, ensuring that nothing insufficiently heroic went out, but they tried to impose certain ground rules for camera angles. Not only was he to be shot, if at all possible, from the right side, but one Stars and Stripes photographer had been under orders to shoot the general while kneeling himself, in order to make him look more majestic. He always wore his battered old campaign hat. It was his trademark, and no photographer was ever allowed to show that he was partially bald, and working on what would be known eventually as a major comb-over.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

The one right thingThe one right thing

“Inchon was to be Douglas MacArthur’s last great success, and his alone. It was a brilliant, daring gamble. It surely saved thousands of America lives just as he predicted. He had fought for it almost alone against the doubts of the principal Navy planners and very much against the wishes of the Joint Chiefs. Inchon was Douglas MacArthur at his best: audacious, original, unpredictable, thinking outside the conventional mode, and of course, it would turn out, very lucky as well. It was why two presidents, who had grave personal and professional reservations about him, had held on to him nonetheless. ‘There was one day in MacArthur’s life when he was a military genius: September 15, 1950,’ wrote his biographer Geoffrey Perret. ‘In the life of every great Commander there is one battle that stands out above all the rest, the supreme test of generalship that places him among the other military immortals. For MacArthur that battle was Inchon.’ ” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

The power of persuasionThe power of persuasion

“The battle had been hard on his platoon, and [Sergeant] Piazza had fought in a rage . . . . There had been a young man named Ronnie Taylor, barely eighteen, an enlistee from Oakland, Mississippi, whom Piazza felt it was his sacred duty to protect because he was so young, and here he was with a gaping wound in his chest, pleading with Piazza, ‘Don’t let me die! Don’t let me die! You’ve got to get me out of here!’ Piazza had assured him they were trying, but he knew that no one was going to make it off the hill during that fight, and so Piazza had fired and fired while cradling Taylor in his arms, listening to his last gasps of life. In his own words, he snapped at that point, grabbed his M-1 and charged down at some advancing North Koreans, screaming out the name of one of the men in his squad who had died with each burst of fire. How men—himself included—reacted to combat like this, how some were overwhelmed by it and some could handle it, fascinated him. One of his men had received what to Piazza’s eye seemed like a rather minor wound, only a flesh wound really, but he had unraveled and kept insisting, ‘I’m going to die’—and he did. Such was the strange psychology of war, Piazza thought. The soldier had talked himself into dying.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

Small and determined to stay that waySmall and determined to stay that way

“Theirs was the America of the turn of the century, an America of sound business practices and old-fashioned virtues, of which they were exemplars. They did not owe money and did not depend on the government to employ them. They were the town leaders in an era when that leadership was almost exclusively white, male, and Protestant, and they were largely professional men, in an age when the middle class was still narrow. They belonged to civic clubs where almost everyone they knew felt much as they did about the drift of the country away from what they considered Americanism. The New Deal—and the forces that it had opened the door to—was the enemy. Or, as Senator Hugh Butler of Nebraska had said before the 1946 election: ‘If the New Deal is still in control of the Congress after the election, it will owe that control to the Communist Party in this country.’ These men were instinctively nativist, believing it a strength, not a weakness. They neither liked nor trusted the America that had elected Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, the big-city America of Catholics, Jews, Negroes, and unions. They distrusted anything or anyone that was different.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

Same as it ever isSame as it ever is

“Probably as good a date as any for the beginning of World War II is July 1937, when Chinese troops clashed with Japanese invaders near Beijing, close to the Chinese-Manchurian border. If nothing else, it surely ended any hope of the rise of a modern, semi-democratic China under Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist or Guomindang Party, the kind of China many Americans had hoped for, and dreamed of long after it became the most hopeless of causes. What then took place in China, under the dual force of the Japanese invasion and the constant undercurrent of the civil war, was as powerful and complete a transformation of a social, economic, and political order as the modern world had witnessed. It was a cataclysmic event, driven at first by forces from without, but in no way purely an external challenge. It was, at the same time, a challenge of one China, as yet unborn and potentially lethal in its norms and residual hatreds, to another China, at once weak, cruel, and barbaric in its own way: a challenge by one set of violent, autocratic men to another set of autocratic and ruthless men who had ruled so poorly and with such elemental brutality for too long. It was a system of oppression rather than authority that had been imposed with unparalleled harshness and greed upon ordinary Chinese. The few who benefitted were rich, powerful, and lived above the laws, which, in any case, were set by force of arms. The many who were poor existed that way in what seemed like hopeless perpetuity. Every unbearable aspect of their daily lives was marked by some kind on injustice, and the absence of elemental dignity. This China was probably dying even before the first Japanese troops marched into Manchuria.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

Pissing with the big dogs nowPissing with the big dogs now

“Truman and his administration had spanned a critical moment in American history. America was changing, like it or not, from the America that had been, that is, the America that was powerful but did not yet know it and was hesitant to use its industrial muscularity internationally, to the America that would be America the superpower. . . . Truman was the first president who had to deal with the consequences and contradictions of the great victory in World War II, and the power (and responsibility) it bequeathed to his country. He not only had to marshal the government behind a new kind of internationalism but had to deal with a volatile, sometimes hostile, domestic political reaction as the nation slowly began to accept its new responsibilities. The choice was a basic one, between greater internationalism or continued isolation—and, perhaps equally important, how much the country was willing to pay.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

Garret troopersGarret troopers

“The United States would go to war [in Korea] totally unprepared. The first American units thrown into battle were poorly armed, in terrible shape physically, and, more often than not, poorly led. The mighty army that had stood victorious in two great theaters of war, Europe and Asia, just five years earlier was a mere shell of itself. Militarily, America was a country trying to get by on the cheap, and in Korea it showed immediately. The blame for the poor condition of the Army belonged to everyone—the president, who wanted to keep taxes down, pay off the debt from the last war, and keep the defense budget down to a bare-bones level; the Congress, which if anything wanted to cut the budget even more; and the theater commander, MacArthur, under whose aegis the troops had been so poorly trained, and who had only five years earlier said that he did not really need all the troops Washington had assigned him. But mostly it was Truman—the president has to take full responsibility in a matter like this: the Army of this immensely prosperous country, rich now in a world that was still poor and war-ravaged, was threadbare. It had been on such short rations, so desperately underfinanced, that artillery units had not been able to practice adequately because there was no ammo; armored groups had done a kind of faux training because they lacked gas for real maneuvers; and troops at famed bases like Fort Lewis were being told to use only two sheets of toilet paper each time they visited the latrine.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

Viceroy of the Eastern MarchesViceroy of the Eastern Marches

“In 1950 [General Douglas] MacArthur was so grand a figure that everyone had to play by his rules. In effect he had created not only his own little army within a larger army, which he alone was allowed to command, but his own little world where he alone could govern. Any instructions or orders or even suggestions from Washington were more often than not ignored, even if they came from the general’s nominal superiors, men who, is his own view of the hierarchy, were not superior to him, and therefore had no right to question him or give him orders. He had created a dangerously self-isolating little world, one of total social, political, and military separation from everyone and everything else, where no one dared dissent. The men around him were all in awe of him; those who were not in awe of him tended not to last very long in his headquarters. Visitors who arrived at his headquarters and were deemed worthy of a meeting with him always got The Performance. In the performance—he often practiced that morning in front of a mirror, clad in his bathrobe—he spoke with great confidence and certainty about future events that most men, no matter how knowledgeable, approached with a degree of caution, aware of the tricks that history played. The performances were often quite dazzling, well rehearsed but delivered as if they were impromptu. He was the most gifted of monolinguists. . . . Harry Truman was the accidental president, but Douglas MacArthur was in no way the accidental general.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

Adding up to an unexpected sumAdding up to an unexpected sum

“Of the many miscalculations made by both sides during the Korean War, perhaps the most egregious on the Communist side was the misunderstanding of how Western democracies, principally the United States, would respond to a North Korean invasion of the South, that it would be viewed through the prism of Munich. [President] Truman’s thoughts were, as he recalled, of how the democracies had failed the last time to stop Mussolini in Ethiopia and the Japanese in Manchuria, and of how easily the French and British might have blocked Hitler’s moves in Austria and Czechoslovakia. In his mind, the Soviets had pushed—perhaps even ordered—the North Koreans to cross the [38th] parallel, and he believed that the only language the Russians understood was force. ‘We had to meet them on that basis,’ he later wrote.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

Men of steelMen of steel

“Stalin was a new kind of tsar, a people’s tsar, driven as much by an age-old paranoia—in his case both national and personal—in dealing with the West, a man with little interest or belief in the possibilities of a postwar alliance. By 1950, the Harry Truman who had made the first rather sympathetic run at Stalin was long gone. He had been replaced by a blunt, considerably more suspicious president who felt that the earlier Truman, the one who had ventured to Potsdam, had been ‘an innocent idealist.’ Stalin for his part had gotten Truman as wrong as Truman had gotten him. After they met at Potsdam, Stalin, like various conservative American politicians, had significantly, perhaps dangerously, underestimated the new American president, telling Nikita Khrushchev, then a rising star in the Soviet bureaucracy, that Truman was worthless. A great power chess game had followed the end of the war, inevitably so, given the power vacuum in the world with the collapse of Britain, France, Germany, and Japan, and the disintegration of their empires. By the time of the North Korean invasion [of South Korea], the Cold War had reached its most intense level save for the nuclear abyss the two powers faced during the Cuban Missile Crisis a dozen years later.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

Would you like another cup of tea, dearWould you like another cup of tea, dear

“The Japanese, sure of their imperial mission and their superiority as a race, had set out to destroy almost all vestiges of Korean independence. What they wanted was nothing less than to obliterate Korean culture, starting with the language. The official language of Korea was proclaimed to be Japanese; in school, lessons were to be taught in Japanese. The Japanese language text book was called The Mother-Tongue Reader. Koreans were to take Japanese names. The Korean language was to become a regional dialect, nothing more. What the Japanese, like so many would-be colonialists, were to learn, of course, was that if you want to make something valuable to a conquered people, you need but suppress it. Only then did such ordinary things—history, language, local religions, things so easy to take for granted—gain real meaning.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

One damn thing after anotherOne damn thing after another

“To the Koreans the end of World War II and Japanese colonialism had not brought, as so many had hoped, a great new breath of freedom and a chance to reconstruct their country to their own political contours. That where there had been only one Korea there were now two was a grievous injustice by itself in their eyes; rather than being able to shape their own destiny on their own terms, they had fallen once again under the control of others. The first thing that the people in the South realized was that their country, or more accurately their half country, was controlled by people who lived thousands of miles away across a vast ocean, and had almost no interest or knowledge of the country whose future they would now determine. It was in the beginning a relationship filled with tensions and misunderstandings. Only as the Cold War intensified did the relationship become one of genuine mutual value and interest. Without the threat of global Communism, America cared nothing about Korea; with that threat Americans were willing to fight and die for it.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

The unforgivenThe unforgiven

“For [Sergeant First Class] Bill Richardson, the decisions they made after he returned to the perimeter proved the most painful he ever experienced. Nothing that happened in the next few days, or far that matter in the rest of his life, measured up to it. There were perhaps 150 wounded men there by then, and there was no way any of them could take the dangerous trip out at night under enemy fire in mountainous terrain, at least not without compromising the able-bodied men. All of the wounded in the perimeter knew what was up. None of them wanted to be left behind for the Chinese. Soon after his return, some of them who were still partially ambulatory started coming up to Richardson, crying, telling him not to leave them, please, dear God, not to leave them, not for the Chinese, please dear God take them, don’t leave them there to die. Was it possible, he wondered, to do your duty, to follow the orders of your superiors, orders you agreed with in the end, and get as many men out as best you could, and yet feel worse about yourself as a human being? Do you ever forgive yourself for some of the things you do in life? It was a question he would still be asking himself a half century later.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter

No parades upon returnNo parades upon return

“The Americans who fought in Korea often felt cut off from their countrymen, their sacrifices unappreciated, their faraway war of little importance in the eyes of contemporaries. It had none of the glory and legitimacy of World War II, so recently concluded, in which the entire country had seemed to share in one great purpose and every serviceman was seen to be an extension of the country’s democratic spirit and the best of its values, and was so honored. Korea was a grinding, limited war. Nothing very good, the nation quickly decided, was going to come out of it. When servicemen returned from their tours, they found their neighbors generally not very interested in what they had seen and done. The subject of the war was quickly dispensed with in conversation. Events on the home front, promotions at the office, the purchase of a new house or a new car were more compelling subjects. In part this was because the news from Korea was almost always so grim. Even when the war went well, it did not really go very well; the possibility of a larger breakthrough seldom seemed near, much less anything approaching victory, especially once the Chinese entered the war in force in late November 1950. Soon after, the sardonic phrase for a stalemate, ‘die for a tie,’ became a favorite among the troops. This vast disconnect between those who fought and the people at home, the sense that no matter the bravery they showed, or the validity of their cause, the soldier of Korea had been granted a kind of second-class status compared to that of the men who had fought in previous wars, led to a great deal of quiet—and enduring—bitterness.” – David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter (emphasis in original)