war on the rocks

The Korean War and History’s Rhymes

September 2, 2014

Bevin Alexander, MacArthur’s War: The Flawed Genius Who Challenged the American Political System (New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, 2013)

 

Mark Twain supposedly said that while history does not repeat itself, it sometimes rhymes. Bevin Alexander’s book on the Korean War and its wider context is a good reminder that even the wisest statesmen and soldiers may base their decisions on false assumptions and wishful thinking – and that this is not a new thing. The greatest error of decision-makers in the Korean War was failing to understand that China was an actor in its own right and not simply a puppet of Russia or “world communism,” and that it had both the will and the ability to defend its national interests when threatened.

Alexander is a well-known popular military historian with a workmanlike writing style and a good eye for the telling detail or anecdote. In this latest book he turns his attention to the historical context and course of the Korean War, with an appropriate emphasis on General. Douglas MacArthur. It is a book he was uniquely prepared to write, having been an active duty Army combat historian during that war.

The title of the book is somewhat misleading, as it is not primarily about MacArthur. Readers looking for additional insights about the general (if there could still be any) will be disappointed, but they will finish the book with a clearer understanding of his role in a conflict marked by misunderstandings and lost opportunities.

MacArthur’s insubordination (the author called it treachery, but that goes too far) is better understood in the wider political context the author provides. Domestic politics were, if anything, even more toxic than they are today. Sen. Joseph McCarthy was leading the charge on “who lost China?” and anyone saying something sensible would be shouted down. Domestic pressures greatly limited the range of policies open to President Truman, not least because his assumption that China should be understood primarily as an agent of a world communist conspiracy headed by the Soviet Union was widely shared – even among senior advisors who should have known better.

There was plenty of foolishness and shortsightedness to go around, but not all of it originated with General MacArthur. It is true that his stratospheric reputation after the successful Inchon landing – against the advice of the JCS – made him more difficult to oppose, but policy was already moving toward uniting Korea by force when the opportunity presented itself. It’s difficult to give President Truman a pass on this one, having failed to assert himself before disaster struck when the approach of U.S. troops to the Yalu River prompted China’s involvement in the war. Truman’s advisors, with the notable exception of U. Alexis Johnson, did not understand how this would be interpreted in Beijing and underestimated the severity of a likely response. He comes out better once the decision was made to settle for containment rather than rollback of the North Korean forces, and he clearly understood the priority of avoiding a wider war that would almost certainly have escalated out of control.

Readers who have not immersed themselves in the details of the Korean War will find the discussion very interesting, and even those who have studied this history will likely pick up something new. The author is knowledgeable about how the Chinese “volunteers” managed to insert themselves into North Korea invisibly and what tactics they used to cut off and attack American/UN forces. One is also struck by the purely military errors made by MacArthur in addition to being woefully unprepared for a counterattack. Alexander suggests that MacArthur did not move aggressively beyond Seoul after the Inchon landing to cut off the lines of escape for North Korean soldiers fleeing home, and faults him even more for the disposition of UN forces when they moved north of the 38th parallel.

Those who enjoy counterfactual history will be intrigued by several “what ifs” about the conflict: What if the South Koreans had been better prepared for an invasion and stopped it before their country was almost overrun? What if the U.S. had a better appreciation for Chinese sensitivities about a hostile army nearing their border? How might U.S.-Chinese relations have developed in the absence of this war (after all, North Korean leader Kim Il-sung was encouraged to begin the war by the Russians, not the Chinese)? What if U.S./UN forces had gone only so far north of the 38th parallel as necessary to destroy the North Korean army and capture Pyongyang – perhaps to the narrow “waist” of North Korea at Wonsan?

Perhaps the greatest strengths of the book are its history of the Chinese Civil War and its placement of the Korean War in the broader context of U.S.-China relations in the immediate aftermath of the communist victory over the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek. The Korean War cemented the enmity between the PRC and the United States at a time in which U.S. policies toward the PRC and Taiwan were still fluid. Misunderstandings and miscalculations on both sides ensured that U.S.-Chinese relations would get off to a very rocky start after the communist victory on the mainland.

Much has happened since the incidents Alexander recounts, but the rhyme is clearly apparent. If anyone wonders whether the American political system has learned the lesson of civilian control presented by MacArthur’s insubordination and subsequent dismissal, he or she need only reflect on how articles in Rolling Stone and Esquire put two four-star flag officers into early retirement. With that mindset firmly established today, it is astonishing to a contemporary reader how much General MacArthur got away with before his own not-so-early retirement.

 

John Allen (Jay) Williams is Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Chicago and member of the board of the Pritzker Military Museum and Library.  He is a retired Captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve with Navy, Joint, and DoD staff service as a strategic plans officer. He is a contributing editor of War on the Rocks.

 

Photo credit: Expert Infantry