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David Halberstam: Slate says he succumbs to the great man theory of history in his book about Korea

Historians in the News




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....
Read entire article at Stephen Sestanovich in Slate

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Arnold A Offner - 9/26/2007

NacArthur was all the things charged by Truman and others....and he was highly careless in the way he ahd U.S./U.N. forces advace into North Korea towared China's border.

But truth to be told, the decision to go north of the 38th parallel and to attempt to destroy the North Korean regime came from the State Department and the NSC and was approved by President Harry Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. They were responsible for the failed effort at "liberation," whatever MacArthur's sins.