The Magazine

Irresistible Force

Meets immovable object.

Feb 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 22 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
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At the beginning of the effort, the president had proclaimed the Truman Doctrine: "It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." This bold statement resonated much more loudly than Truman's qualifier that such help would be mainly through economic aid. Having left the impression of a universal commitment to block Communist expansion, Truman made reliance on economic assistance all the more necessary by drastically cutting the defense budget.

By 1950, the European strategy was a manifest success, but a significant section of the Republican party--much of it isolationist before World War II--had emerged as "Asia Firsters," criticizing the administration for the loss of China and arguing for support to Chiang. On June 25, the North Korean invasion of the South brought Asia to the center of American attention.

Having written off South Korea and sharply reduced American military capabilities, why did the Truman administration decide to fight there? If South Korea had fallen to internal subversion, the United States would have done nothing. But could it ignore a cross-border invasion of a client state without undermining the credibility of a NATO structure that existed mainly on paper? Munich, less than a dozen years in the past, was a living memory. Truman's instincts, moreover, were for intervention, whatever the difficulties.

"Dean, we've got to stop the sons of bitches no matter what," he told Acheson. The Europeans, responding with fulsome praise, seemed to agree. A United Nations resolution legitimized the effort.

Driven into a perimeter around the southeastern port of Pusan, American troops and the remnants of the South Korean Army held the line. On September 15, 1950, a flawless amphibious landing at Inchon turned the tide. About two weeks later, with explicit permission from Washington,

MacArthur sent his troops across the 38th parallel in an ill-coordinated dash for the Yalu River. China, he assured Truman in a mid-October meeting at Wake Island, would not intervene.A month later, at least a quarter million Chinese troops moved into North Korea without detection, struck hard at American units, and sent them on a long retreat. European allies who had lauded the decision to intervene were soon obsessed with the fear that American power and attention would be sucked into the quicksand of Asia.

What the Europeans feared, MacArthur saw as an opportunity. Asia had been the focus of his career for a decade and a half. Convinced that Europe was the past and China the future, he saw the Korean conflict from the beginning as a vehicle for liberation of the mainland. Swallowing his own doubts about Chiang and not bothering to seek authorization from Washington, he had flown to Taiwan for talks with the Kuomintang leader. He thereby established the appearance of an alliance and fed Mao's paranoia.

MacArthur astoundingly would tell Washington in February 1951 that 100,000 Kuomintang troops, landed with American support, could achieve "the domination of South China behind the protective line along the Yangtze River." Neither the White House nor the Pentagon bought into this optimistic scenario, but the politics of the war compelled a commitment to the defense of Taiwan, previously written off as militarily insignificant.

In early 1951 Americans and South Koreans, under the command of General Matthew B. Ridgway, managed to stop the overextended Chinese offensive, then push the enemy back to the vicinity of the 38th parallel. Like most historians, Pearlman commends Ridgway's reinvigoration of a beaten army, and he especially lauds Marine General Oliver P. Smith, whose brilliantly executed retreat from the Chosin reservoir preserved his own force while doing great damage to the Chinese.

The Truman administration was ready for negotiations to end the war; it signaled MacArthur to establish a strong defense line and concentrate on inflicting maximum casualties. Eager to assuage European fears, it had already drafted General Eisenhower from retirement to command NATO. Now committed to a military buildup, it bolstered Ike's reassuring presence by sending fresh divisions to Europe rather than Korea.