Stanley Weintraub, Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Arts and Humanities at Penn State University, has authored a number of books about celebrating Christmas while at war. His latest, about a war he served in, is A Christmas Far from Home: An Epic Tale of Courage and Survival during the Korean War. He talks about the book, war, and writing history with National Review Online. – KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What turned your attention to Korea for your latest book?
Stanley Weintraub: I was a young Army officer in wartime Korea for 17 months, over two Christmases.
Lopez: How is A Christmas Far from Home “a narrative of two fantasies”?
Weintraub: MacArthur’s fantasy, fed by poor intelligence and personal hubris, was that he could unify all of Korea by Christmas without Red Chinese intervention. He fed the unrealistic hopes of his troops that they would be on the way home by Christmas 1950.
Lopez: Why is the Korean War considered “the Forgotten War”?
Weintraub: The Korean War, only five years after the close of World War II, was almost a continuation of that war. Further, memories of it were overwhelmed by the catastrophe of Vietnam.
Lopez: Was this an especially personal book for you to have written, having served in Korea?
Weintraub: Yes, the pungent fecal aroma of Korea, farmed with human dung, and the horrible odor of the decaying dead will never leave me. Only the below-zero winter eased both, but created other miseries.
Lopez: What were your two Christmases at war like?
Weintraub: Troops often thought in Christmas terms, fed by Armed Forces Radio from Tokyo, which incessantly played Christmas music that did little for morale when 8,000 miles from home and family. “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” was the most unhelpful of holiday songs.
Lopez: What is the greatest example of courage in the book?
Weintraub: The construction of the air-dropped Treadway bridge over the 4,000-foot Funchilin chasm in below-zero wind, cold, darkness, and enemy fire — and crossing its icy surface at two miles an hour. There are no guardrails in war.
Lopez: What does it do to a man to “see Christmas in metaphors, forests, flares, and shellfire”?
Weintraub: Such Christmas metaphors emphasize the stark reality of the impossible distance from one’s dreams.
Lopez: What might the portrait of Chinese Christmas Eve indoctrination of POWs teach us?
Weintraub: Desperation, pain, and the possibility of imminent death can bleed the heroism of prisoners, who at best must learn to lie persuasively or suffer the results of silence.
Lopez: What would you have everyone who might ever have a role in sending Americans to war know about Chosin Reservoir?
Weintraub: The goal of Chosin in a Siberian winter with the prospect of massive Chinese intervention was gross overreach.
Lopez: Did Douglas MacArthur lie about men being home for Christmas in 1950 or was he just too reckless to make it possible?
Weintraub: MacArthur’s knowledge of Korea was largely brief photo-ops and the intelligence he wanted to hear. He believed his fantasies. When he looked down at the snowy mountains of North Korea from an airliner at 9,000 feet and could not see a single enemy soldier he imagined a nonexistent reality.
Lopez: What are the odds most Americans know the irony behind the coinage of the ever-popular “Home for Christmas” sentiments of the season?
Weintraub: Very little. We had a diet of wartime films with music from Pearl Harbor to 1945, like “White Christmas” which fed nostalgia rather than the real thing. The white Christmas of North Korea in 1950 was neither gushy nor glitzy.
Lopez: What’s the most important lesson of the book?
Weintraub: Readiness and caution. This is why I quoted as epigraph to the book the Second Law of Thermodynamics — “that every physical system tends toward maximum disorder.”
Lopez: What has drawn you to do so much writing about Christmas?
Weintraub: Basically . . . accident. I discovered the reality of the 1914 Christmas Truce while writing about the Armistice in 1918. I wrote (in Iron Tears) about Washington’s retaking of New York, and found that he went home from there and reached Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve. Each Christmas-themed narrative came from another such writing project. Korea is the last of six. I have run out of appropriate wars.
Lopez: In the wake of religious-liberty controversies in the United States — and religious persecution around the world, is there anything you’d point Americans to from your book on Washington’s Christmas farewell in 1783.
Weintraub: Washington’s innate generosity is a model for our time.
Lopez: Why does the 1914 “Christmas truce” seem to always attract attention even in our short-attention-span times? Why do people often seem to think it’s a myth?
Weintraub: Lazy historians, rather than do their homework, dismiss the reality of the truce. It was so remarkable as to be unforgettable.
Lopez: Was your own wartime service somewhat essential in writing about war?
Weintraub: Yes. My first biography was about Lawrence of Arabia. I have written much about war.
Lopez: There is a Center for the Study of the Arts and Humanities in the name of you and your wife at your alma mater, West Chester University. What is that like?
Weintraub: It holds all our books and papers and is a resource for others. John Eisenhower, for example, used it.
Lopez: Do you still enjoy writing about history? What’s your best advice to a young historian starting out?
Weintraub: I’m running out of time. At nearly 86 I still enjoy history. My key advice in three words: follow your curiosity.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.