May 20, 2013
Chalmers Johnson on America’s Forgotten War
Posted on Oct 25, 2007
Halberstam is completely conventional on Inchon. It “was to be Douglas MacArthur’s last great success, and his alone. ... 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, unpredictable, thinking outside the conventional mode, and of course, it would turn out, very lucky as well.”
I would emphasize the element of good luck over all others. MacArthur was fortunate at Inchon that Kim Il Sung was an incompetent military commander and had failed to garrison Wolmi-do Island, right in the middle of Inchon harbor. Had he done so, or had he mined the harbor and otherwise prepared to defend it, the American landing would have been a bloodbath. Surprise was also lacking. Japanese communist dock workers had warned the Chinese for weeks that huge preparations of ships and supplies were being made. The date of Sept. 15 was also inevitable. Inchon has no beaches, and only on that date would the morning high tide crest at 31.2 feet, high enough to permit landing craft access over the seawalls and piers. Adding to these risks, MacArthur had chosen as commander at Inchon Gen. Ned Almond, a sycophant who had never participated in, much less led, an amphibious assault and who was contemptuous of the warnings of Adm. James Doyle, responsible for most of the planning. The Joint Chiefs had pleaded with MacArthur to move the landing site south to Kunsan, where at least the bay was larger and there were beaches, but he refused even to consider it.
I have some personal knowledge of this terrain because in the months immediately following the Korean truce agreement of July 27, 1953, I was serving as the operations officer on a U.S. Navy amphibious vessel, the USS LST-883. We once landed at Kunsan, where the tides were also extraordinarily high, and after we had moored the ship all the water went out from under it and we settled into a flat, sticky mud field until the next high tide. MacArthur was indeed lucky at Inchon that none of the landing ships crashed into the seawalls and that they met little opposition.
This spectacular victory should have ended the Korean War. The North Korean troops retreated from South Korea in disarray. However, MacArthur then proceeded to ruin his own reputation, not to mention Truman’s presidency, by starting an entirely new war. Contrary to everything that the president and his military and civilian advisers stood for, MacArthur decided to unify Korea by force. He ordered his armies to advance north of the 38th parallel to the Yalu River, which is also the Chinese border. Even though Premier Zhou En-lai of the People’s Republic of China had warned the United States through the Indian ambassador to Beijing, K. M. Panikkar, that if this happened China would go to the aid of its North Korean allies, MacArthur welcomed a wider war as part of his crusade against communism. In an interview with Halberstam, Frank Gibney, who had been a combat correspondent during the Korean War, commented, “Inchon was the most expensive victory we ever won because it led to the complete deification of MacArthur and the terrible, terrible defeats that happened next.”
On the night of Nov. 25, 1950, having laid a carefully prepared trap, 250,000 to 300,000 Chinese troops struck. The South Korean troops broke and ran and the American units were decimated. Secretary of State Dean Acheson called the smashing of the U.S. Second Infantry Division “the greatest defeat suffered by the American military since the battle of Bull Run in the Civil War.” Halberstam compares the disaster to that of the French in 1940 and the British at Singapore in 1942. He echoes the judgment of history: “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.”
Halberstam’s treatment of the Chinese revolution leading up to China’s intervention is a tour de force—accurate, concise and important to understanding the course of the Korean War. He makes very few errors. He does not read Chinese and therefore does not recognize the difference between a Chinese given name and a family name. For example, on Page 515, Chinese commander Peng Dehuai’s aide should not be “Major Liquin,” which sounds like “Major Charlie,” but rather Major Han Liquin.
Halberstam goes into detail on China for one overarching reason: “Of the many professional sins of which Douglas MacArthur was guilty, ... including hubris and vanity, none was greater than his complete underestimation of his enemy.” He did not even know who was the Chinese commander in Korea (he thought it was Lin Biao instead of Peng Dehuai). From 1945 to 1951, MacArthur never spent a night in Korea, always flying back to his bed, hot meal and wife in Tokyo. He was totally innocent of the Siberian temperatures that the troops he sent north had to endure as they got close to the Yalu, and he did not know that at 30 degrees below zero tank treads often freeze to the ground and engines refuse to start.
“The China that existed in MacArthur’s mind was one that had not been touched by revolution. He seemed not to care how and why Mao had come to power and seemed to have little interest in the forces the revolution had unleashed. ... He had not been on the Asian mainland since 1905.” He thought that American artillery and airpower combined with atomic weapons made us invincible. MacArthur never learned anything about why he had been defeated. But Halberstam is very perceptive on the lessons that the Korean War should have taught subsequent American military planners, even though he is the first to acknowledge that virtually all of MacArthur’s errors were repeated in Vietnam.
Halberstam quotes one of his informants, Hal Moore, a rifle company commander, on why the Chinese defenses were so good. Their defensive positions were exceptional, “very tough to crack—they were hard-core, heavy duty, professional diggers. Their lines were built around deep caves, catacombs with large underground rooms sometimes twelve or fifteen miles behind the front lines. Because of that our artillery, bombers, and close air support had little or no effect on them.” An author with Halberstam’s experience is quick to recognize that another East Asian revolutionary army, that of North Vietnam, at first copied and then exceeded this aspect of Chinese military science, first in its 1954 assault on the French at Dien Bien Phu and then in its war against the Americans. MacArthur and his incompetent intelligence officers were even surprised that the Chinese wore white uniforms in winter so that they blended with the snow and that they moved only at night. American bombers laid waste to most of North Korea during the war but had no appreciable effect on its outcome.
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