Reporter traces years of bad choices

David Halberstam's latest book "The Coldest Winter" -- and sadly, with his death in an April car accident, his final one -- is not just a history of the Korean War.

This is a foreign policy textbook. It should be required reading at places where future generals and diplomats are schooled. It should be required reading for politicians who make decisions on timetables and surges. It should absolutely be required reading for anyone who aspires to the Oval Office.

Halberstam's 700-page book is a study of miscalculations and the consequences of bad decisions. Start with the decision by the U.S. to demobilize rapidly after World War II. The United States went from 12 million men and women in uniform at the end of the war to an armed forces of 1.5 million in 1947. The defense budget went from $90.9 billion at the height of the war to $10.3 billion. The military machine that defeated Germany and Japan became a hollow force. That mistake was compounded, in Halberstam's view, by another one: The notion that the same nuclear arsenal that brought Japan's surrender could be used on the cheap instead of conventional weapons and forces. When North Korean troops invaded South Korea in June 1950, it became clear that this was a fantasy, in Halberstam's view.

But North Korea's dictator and Soviet puppet Kim Il Sung also believed that the United States would not commit to the defense of the South, that it would stay out of a civil war. Helping him to make this misjudgment was Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who seemed to suggest in a January 1950 speech that Korea was not part of the U.S. defense perimeter. (Recall that four decades later, another U.S. diplomat gave Saddam Hussein the impression that we would not respond militarily to his invasion of Kuwait. In geopolitics, words matter). Also, the United States had pretty much stayed on the sidelines when Mao drove Chiang Kaishek's forces off the mainland in 1949.

In typical Halberstam fashion, this book takes a lot of unexpected turns. He has always been, at heart, a reporter who can't resist emptying all his notebooks to show how all the characters, major and minor, were shaped in their public lives by their private narratives.

To help us understand what happened in Korea from 1950 to 1953, for example, he wants us to get to know a woman named Pinky.

Yes, it is important for us to know Acheson, a forbidding and polarizing figure, and George Kennan, the brilliant Cold War theorist who didn't think Korea was worth that much. But knowing Pinky MacArthur, the ambitious, controlling mother of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, is one important key -- Halberstam argues -- to understanding why this hero of World War II single-mindedly pursued a disastrous strategy that brought the Chinese streaming across the Yalu River. Raised by his mother to be both supremely confident of his own judgment and contemptuous of politicians such as Harry Truman, MacArthur was constitutionally incapable of heeding the judgment of others.

Halberstam gives MacArthur his due. The incredibly gutsy Inchon landing behind the North Korean lines turned the early, terrible tide of the war and sent Kim Il Sung's forces in full retreat northward. And only MacArthur would have attempted such a dangerous enterprise in the face of opposition from Washington. But this victory sowed the seeds for catastrophe. Washington was unable to restrain a triumphant MacArthur from ordering a dash up to the Chinese border.

Mao Zedong saw in Korea an opportunity to cement his standing with his own people and to burnish his credentials as a rival to Stalin in the Marxist pantheon. No longer would China be at the mercy of foreign powers. It's arguable that MacArthur was simply delusional and truly believed that Mao would not send hundreds of thousands of "volunteers" into North Korea, with horrific results for overextended U.S. troops. But Halberstam suggests that MacArthur was hoping for a wider conflict that would commit the United States to an all-out drive to regain China for an unleashed Chiang.

Halberstam cites a news dispatch coming out of MacArthur's headquarters "quoting a reliable source that MacArthur intended to tell Harriman that the war in Korea would prove useless unless the United States fought communism everywhere it showed its head in Asia." In fact, as Halberstam documents, nothing came out of MacArthur's headquarters unless it was exactly what MacArthur wanted to appear in the stateside newspapers.

While this book is nominally about the brutal war on the Korean peninsula, it is really a penetrating look at the poisonous postwar politics in the United States shaped by the Chinese revolution and by the desperation of the Republican Party to regain its footing after a dozen years of Roosevelt and Truman's stunning upset win in the 1948 election. "Twenty years of treason" became the slogan of right-wing Republicans, who blamed the Democrats for "losing China" and for harboring highly placed subversives who let the Soviets engulf half of Europe. In this toxic environment, Halberstam argues, it became impossible for the United States to carry out a nuanced policy that differentiated nationalist anti-colonial leaders such as Ho Chi Minh from Stalinist thugs such as Kim Il Sung. An effective China Lobby working hand-in-glove with the Republicans made it impossible for the United States to make any overtures to Mao until the 1970s.

China's revolution (or "loss," depending on your politics) not only emboldened Kim Il Sung and led to the Korean War, but it also forced the hands of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s, two Democrats who didn't want to be accused of "losing" Vietnam. That was one of the central themes of Halberstam's 1972 classic on the Vietnam War. The current soul-searching among congressional Democrats can be viewed through the lens of Halberstam's books, the latest essentially a "prequel" to "The Best and The Brightest." When President Bush -- fighting for his Iraq strategy -- recently recalled the fall of South Vietnam and its consequences after U.S. aid was cut off by a Democratic Congress, you could hear echoes of a nearly 60-year-old debate.