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Chalmers Johnson on America’s Forgotten War
Posted on Oct 25, 2007
The so-called Chinese People’s Volunteers drove the American armies out of North Korea and back down the peninsula well below Seoul, the South Korean capital. MacArthur was still too sanctified for Washington to touch and he retained his command in Japan, but he had lost all control of the Korean front. On Dec. 13, 1950, the commander of the U.S. Eighth Army in Korea, Gen. Walton Walker, whom MacArthur had long treated as a mere hireling, was killed in a jeep accident. Truman and the Joint Chiefs immediately replaced him with Gen. Matthew Ridgway, whom they had all along preferred to MacArthur. A masterful and quick student of the Chinese style of warfare, Ridgway restored order and discipline to the American forces and gave them new tactics for fighting the Chinese. They ultimately stopped the Chinese advance in the middle of South Korea, and the Korean War settled into a war of attrition—so-called accordion warfare in which one side advanced and was repulsed, and the other side then repeated the same operation, except that Ridgway had learned how to impose much greater casualties on the Chinese than he himself suffered. The American public detested the war, but Ridgway had ensured that the United States was not going to be driven off the Korean peninsula.
Meanwhile, MacArthur brooded in Tokyo, still lionized by the Republican Party and the McCarthyites back home and by his personal military staff in Japan. He believed that the only way to reverse his declining fortunes was via a wider war with China or even a world war, one that he wanted to fight with atomic weapons and by “unleashing” the forces of Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek. MacArthur’s plan was to upstage his defeat at Chinese hands and Ridgway’s successful stalemating of the Chinese forces.
The political situation in the United States favored MacArthur. A combination of developments, including the Soviet testing of an atomic bomb, the fall of China to communism, the Alger Hiss case and Republican allegations that communists in the State Department had betrayed the Chinese Nationalists, and the Korean War itself, had fed growing demands that after 20 years in power the Democrats should relinquish the White House. “MacArthur now embarked on a course of his own, as openly disobedient as a commander in the field could be in dealing with civilian policies, while pushing solutions viewed by senior officials in Washington, London, and other allied capitals as catastrophic.”
Truman was fed up, even though he knew that he personally was much more unpopular than MacArthur. In his own mind, he began to compare MacArthur to the egotistical Civil War Gen. George McClellan, who believed that he was destined to become dictator of the United States and who, in November 1862, was sacked by President Lincoln. On April 11, 1951, Truman fired MacArthur, named Gen. Ridgway as his successor and gave Gen. James van Fleet command of the Eighth Army in Korea. Some of the president’s aides tried to get him to include in his statement that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his most senior Cabinet members, especially Gen. George C. Marshall, unanimously agreed with him, but Truman cut them off. “This, he told them, was about elemental Constitutional processes, not about politics. ... Tonight I am taking this decision on my own responsibility as President of the United States and I want no one to think I’m trying to share it with anyone else.”
Truman and his advisers had expected a serious political explosion, but it was much worse than any of them had imagined. Huge crowds turned out for MacArthur everywhere. It began in Tokyo, where, as he departed, some 250,000 Japanese, many of them weeping and waving small Japanese and American flags, lined the streets. Arthur Schlesinger and Richard Rovere wrote, “It is doubtful that there has ever been in this country so violent and spontaneous a discharge of political passion as that provoked by the president’s dismissal of the general.”
But it was short-lived. It soon became clear that the passions his return had triggered did not actually represent an endorsement of his policies, most especially of a wider war in Asia. The Senate’s Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees held hearings into his dismissal, which turned out to be a disaster for MacArthur. He told the senators that he had never said that the Chinese would not enter the war, but the administration countered with a stenographic record of the meeting between Truman and MacArthur at Wake Island on Oct. 15, 1950, at which MacArthur had said precisely that. Perhaps most devastating was the testimony of Marshall, the most prestigious American military officer alive at the time. As the former head of the Marshall Mission to China, he told Congress that Chiang Kai-shek’s forces on Taiwan were worthless and that instead of preventing them from recapturing their homeland, we were protecting them from being overrun in their island redoubt.
From 1951 to the present, President Truman’s reputation has continued to grow and MacArthur’s to diminish. Much to the fury of the right wing of the Republican Party, in 1952 the American people elected the much more internationalist Gen. Dwight Eisenhower president and turned their backs on MacArthur. In March 1953, Stalin died, opening the way for Sino-American negotiations on a Korean cease-fire. The last battle was fought in July 1953 at the notorious Pork Chop Hill (or Hill 255) right in the middle of the soon-to-be-proclaimed Demilitarized Zone. On the morning of July 11, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, the new commander of the Eighth Army, drove up to the headquarters of the Seventh Division and told its commander that Pork Chop Hill was not worth the investment of any more American lives, that the battle was over. The ensuing truce has held to the present day.
Halberstam’s account of the Korean War is pivotal to an understanding of the Cold War and its development in the years to come. His is a modern, unsentimental treatment that will stand the test of time. He combines fact and wisdom in a rare feat of historical synthesis and narrative. As he notes: “The larger question that arose from ... the Korean War was soon ignored: whether or not America could separate serious and genuine national security concerns from the increasing power of simplistic anti-Communist rhetoric expressed in domestic political campaigns. ... And that quandary, because of the vulnerability of the Democratic Party, helped lead America into Vietnam.” He might well have added other, more recent wars to the list.
Chalmers Johnson is author of the Blowback Trilogy—“Blowback” (2000), “The Sorrows of Empire” (2004) and “Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic” (2007).
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