In his new book, The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War, a UT professor explores the contentious relationship between two of America’s most powerful leaders in the years following World War II.
From the Book:
THE GENERAL VS. THE PRESIDENT by H.W. Brands
Copyright 2016 by H.W. Brands
Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC
President Harry S. Truman and General Douglas MacArthur stand as two of the most important figures in 20th-century American history. While the two shared the world stage on several occasions, each suffered the other’s time in the spotlight begrudgingly. The following excerpt finds MacArthur laying out his plan to attack Korea—and waiting to hear back from Truman and his joint chiefs whether the bold stroke would be approved.
MacArthur probably never read NSC 81, and if he did he doubtless would have taken its admonition to avoid a general war with China as mere advice. MacArthur had his own ideas of how war should be waged, and he was sure they were better than those of armchair strategists who had never commanded armies and perhaps never even experienced combat.
He knew that Korea was his final campaign. At 70 he was already far past the age when most soldiers had entered retirement or Valhalla. He intended to crown his career with his most brilliant operation. The plan had been forming in his mind since the retreat from the Han River in the war’s first weeks. His ships controlled the seas around Korea, his planes in the air above the peninsula. Johnny Walker’s Eighth Army had stabilized the front outside Pusan. “I was now finally ready for the last great stroke to bring my plan into fruition,” he recalled later. “My Han River dream as a possibility had begun to assume the certainties of reality—a turning movement deep into the flank and rear of the enemy that would sever his supply lines and encircle all his forces south of Seoul.” MacArthur conceived of military command as a genre of art; this would be his pièce de résistance. “I had made similar decisions in past campaigns, but none more fraught with danger, none that promised to be more vitally conclusive if successful.”
He selected Inchon, the port city west of Seoul, as his target. Few enemy forces defended Inchon, for nature had done so herself. Tides that were among the highest in the world drained the harbor twice a day, exposing broad mud flats that mired hapless vessels. Only on the highest tides would a landing by a large military force be even conceivable. The next such tide would occur in the middle of September. MacArthur cabled the joint chiefs what he had in mind. “Operation planned mid-September is amphibious landing of two division corps in rear of enemy lines for purpose of enveloping and destroying enemy forces in conjunction with attack from south by Eighth Army,” he said. “I am firmly convinced that early and strong effort behind his front will sever his main lines of communication and enable us to deliver a decisive and crushing blow.”
The chiefs were skeptical. Omar Bradley was on record as saying advances in weaponry had rendered amphibious operations obsolete. MacArthur’s operation would be spearheaded by Marines, and the chiefs knew that Truman, an old Army man, didn’t like Marines. In response to a recommendation by a member of Congress that the marines be granted recognition as a full-fledged service and represented on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Truman had replied, “For your information the Marine Corps is the Navy’s police force and as long as I am president that is what it will remain. They have a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin’s.”
The chiefs, with Truman’s approval, tried to talk MacArthur out of his Inchon plan. Joe Collins and Forrest Sherman flew to Tokyo. MacArthur summoned the officers who had been assigned to formulate the several aspects of the plan. They briefed him and Collins and Sherman, and displayed varying degrees of confidence. Admiral James Doyle had examined the amphibious part of the attack; he declared to MacArthur and the others: “General, I have not been asked nor have I volunteered my opinion about this landing. If I were asked, however, the best I can say is that Inchon is not impossible.”
MacArthur listened, smoking his pipe. When the briefers finished, Collins and Sherman expected him to respond. He took his time, apparently weighing the remarks just made. In fact he was preparing the stage for his entrance. “I could feel the tension rising in the room,” he recounted afterward. “If ever a silence was pregnant, this one was.” He felt a comforting presence from his past. “I could almost hear my father’s voice telling me as he had so many years ago, ‘Doug, councils of war breed timidity and defeatism.’”
He stood and started pacing. After several steps he began speaking. “The bulk of the Reds are committed around Walker’s defense perimeter,” he said. “The enemy, I am convinced, has failed to prepare Inchon properly for defense. The very arguments you have made as to the impracticalities involved will tend to ensure for me the element of surprise, for the enemy commander will reason that no one would be so brash as to make such an attempt. Surprise is the most vital element for success in war. As an example, the Marquis de Montcalm believed in 1759 that it was impossible for an armed force to scale the precipitous river banks south of the then walled city of Quebec, and therefore concentrated his formidable defenses along the more vulnerable banks north of the city. But General James Wolfe and a small force did indeed come up the St. Lawrence River and scale those heights. On the Plains of Abraham, Wolfe won a stunning victory that was made possible almost entirely by surprise. Thus he captured Quebec and in effect ended the French and Indian War. Like Montcalm, the North Koreans would regard an Inchon landing as impossible. Like Wolfe, I could take them by surprise.”
MacArthur acknowledged that the objections the Navy had made to the operation were germane and important. “But they are not insuperable,” he said. “My confidence in the Navy is complete, and in fact I seem to have more confidence in the Navy than the Navy has in itself. The Navy’s rich experience in staging the numerous amphibious landings under my command in the Pacific during the late war, frequently under somewhat similar difficulties, leaves me with little doubt on that score.”
Collins and the Army were urging a landing at Kunsan, on the west coast. “It would indeed eliminate many of the hazards of Inchon,” MacArthur conceded, “but it would be largely ineffective and indecisive. It would be an attempted envelopment which would not envelop. It would not sever or destroy the enemy’s supply lines or distribution center, and would therefore serve little purpose. It would be a short envelopment, and nothing in war is more futile. Better no flank movement than one such as this.” Better, too, simply to send the troops to Walker outside Pusan. But neither would this meet the requirements of the hour. “To fight frontally in a breakthrough from Pusan will be bloody and indecisive. The enemy will merely roll back on his lines of supply and communication.”
The only way forward was Inchon, MacArthur said. “Seizure of Inchon and Seoul will cut the enemy’s supply line and seal off the entire southern peninsula. The vulnerability of the enemy is his supply position. Every step southward extends his transport lines and renders them more frail and subject to dislocation. The several major lines of enemy supply from the north converge on Seoul, and from Seoul they radiate to the several sectors of the front. By seizing Seoul I would completely paralyze the enemy’s supply system—coming and going. This in turn will paralyze the fighting power of the troops that now face Walker. Without munitions and food they will soon be helpless and disorganized, and can easily be overpowered by our smaller but well-supplied forces.”
MacArthur moved to his peroration. “The only alternative to a stroke such as I propose will be the continuation of the savage sacrifice we are making at Pusan, with no hope of relief in sight. Are you content to let our troops stay in that bloody perimeter like beef cattle in the slaughterhouse? Who will take the responsibility of such a tragedy? Certainly not I.” The consequences of the decision at hand would be felt far and long. “The prestige of the Western world hangs in the balance. Oriental millions are watching the outcome. It is plainly apparent that here in Asia is where the Communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest. The test is not in Berlin or Vienna, in London, Paris or Washington. It is here and now—it is along the Naktong River in South Korea. We have joined the issue on the battlefield.” This was more than the free world was doing in Europe. “We here fight Europe’s war with arms, while there it is still confined to words. If we lose the war to communism in Asia, the fate of Europe will be gravely jeopardized. Win it, and Europe will probably be saved from war and stay free. Make the wrong decision here—the fatal decision of inertia—and we will be done. I can almost hear the ticking of the second hand of destiny. We must act now or we will die.”
MacArthur proposed to take full responsibility for whatever happened. “If my estimate is inaccurate and should I run into a defense with which I cannot cope, I will be there personally and will immediately withdraw our forces before they are committed to a bloody setback. The only loss then will be my personal reputation.” But this would not happen. “Inchon will not fail. Inchon will succeed. And it will save 100,000 lives.”
In a lifetime of dramatic performances, MacArthur had never been more persuasive. It helped that he outranked everyone in the room, but he also outmaneuvered them, and the president in Washington as well. Neither the joint chiefs nor Truman could reject his promise to save 100,000 lives, given before witnesses who could be counted on to remember and testify if called upon to do so. He knew he had friends in Congress who were blaming the president for the loss of China and would be quick to blame him for the loss of Korea. He raised the stakes in saying that much more hinged on the pending decision: all of Asia, even Europe. The timing was perfect, too. The president had just slapped him publicly over Formosa, for striving too hard to defend freedom from godless communism. The president couldn’t afford to slap him again. The president couldn’t say no to Inchon.
The president didn’t say no. Collins and Sherman reported MacArthur’s bravura performance to Washington. The joint chiefs let themselves be persuaded, and Truman accepted their decision. The landing was scheduled for the highest tide of September, on the 15th.
The preparations were made, the troops and ships gathered and positioned. MacArthur felt the rising excitement he had felt before every major challenge. All boded well, he thought, for the conclusive operation of his final campaign.
And then: “It was at this eleventh hour that I received a message from the Joint Chiefs of Staff which chilled me to the marrow of my bones.” A decade later he still felt the shock. “The message expressed doubt of success and implied the whole movement should be abandoned. It read in part: ‘We have noted with considerable concern the recent trend of events in Korea. In the light of the commitment of all the reserves available to the Eighth Army, we desire your estimate as to the feasibility and chance of success of projected operation if initiated on planned schedule.’” MacArthur sensed the stifling timidity of Washington. “What could have given rise to such a query at such an hour?” he asked himself.
“Had someone in Washington lost his nerve? Could it be the president? Or Marshall, who had just become secretary of defense? Or Bradley? Or was it merely an anticipating alibi if the operation should run into trouble?”
MacArthur reacted at once. “I regard the chance of success as excellent,” he scribbled in reply. “I go further in belief that it represents the only hope of wresting the initiative from the enemy and thereby presenting the opportunity for a decisive blow. To do otherwise is to commit us to a war of indefinite duration, of gradual attrition and of doubtful result.” MacArthur wanted this on the record in writing: that the blood of American soldiers in a prolonged Asian war would be hands of those who denied him his chance at Inchon. “The embarkation of the troops and preliminary air and naval preparations are proceeding according to schedule,” he told the chiefs. “I repeat that I and all of my commanders and staff officers, without exception, are enthusiastic for and confident of the success of the enveloping movement.”
He sent the message off and awaited an answer. “Was it possible, I asked myself, that even now, when it was all but impossible to bring this great movement grinding to a halt, timidity in an office thousands of miles away, even if by a president himself, could stop the golden opportunity to turn defeat into victory?” When the answer arrived, it corroborated his suspicion of the source of the hesitancy. The joint chiefs said they approved the operation and had “so informed the president.” MacArthur thought the language odd but significant. “I interpreted this to mean that it had been the president who had threatened to interfere and overrule, on a professional military problem, his military advisers.”
MacArthur read too much into the message. The joint chiefs were the ones with the second thoughts. Omar Bradley knew from his own sources that MacArthur exaggerated the enthusiasm of his lieutenants for the Inchon operation. “A majority of MacArthur’s staff—especially the naval and Marine officers—held gravest reservations about Inchon,” Bradley recalled. “It was the wildest kind of military plan—Pattonesque.”
Yet Bradley and the others deferred to MacArthur. If a commander of his stature and record expressed such confidence, they weren’t going to hold him back. At the very least, they had his assurance of success on the record. If something went wrong, the blame would be his.
To purchase The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War, go here.
Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett
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