The Magazine

Leatherneck Tales

How the Marines have survived, and why.

May 6, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 32 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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In 1957, the commandant of the Marine Corps, General Randolph Pate, sent a brief note to the director of the Marine Corps Educational Center, Brig. Gen. Victor Krulak, in which he asked, “Why does the U.S. need a Marine Corps?” Krulak, already a legend in the Marines, penned a lengthy reply: “The United States does not need a Marine Corps mainly because she has a fine modern Army and a vigorous Air Force. .  .  . We [the Marine Corps] exist today—we flourish today—not because of what we know we are, or what we know we can do, but because of what the grassroots of our country believes we are and believes we can do.”


Krulak went on to say that the American people believe three things about the Marines: that they will be ready to fight on short notice; that they will turn in a dramatically and decisively successful performance; and that the “Corps is downright good for the manhood of our country; that the Marines are masters of a form of unfailing alchemy which converts un-oriented youths into proud, self-reliant stable citizens—citizens into whose hands the nation’s affairs may safely be entrusted.” Krulak concluded that as long as the American people “are convinced that we can really do the three things .  .  . we are going to have a Marine Corps. .  .  . And, likewise, should the people ever lose that conviction—as a result of our failure to meet their high—almost spiritual—standards, the Marine Corps will then quickly disappear.”  

The connection between the Marine Corps and the American people is the topic of this fascinating social history of the Marines from the end of World War II to Vietnam. Aaron B. O’Connell, an assistant professor of history at the Naval Academy and an officer in the Marine Corps Reserve, shows how the Marines themselves helped shape the perspective of the American people during this period—by means of gaining the support of newspaper reporters and publishers, Hollywood(!), and, especially, Congress. The result was a robust public relations infrastructure that successfully reinforced the perception of the Corps as America’s most prestigious fighting force.

The title is, on one hand, a play on the appellation allegedly given to the Marines by the German defenders of Belleau Wood during World War I: Teufel Hunden or “Devil Dogs.” On the other hand, “underdogs” also captures the “minority status, sense of persecution, and paranoia that have always been a dominant cognitive frame in Marine Corps culture.” But as the old saying goes: Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean you don’t have enemies. Throughout its history the Marine Corps has, indeed, been targeted for extinction by its adversaries. Between 1829 and 1932, there were four attempts to either merge the Marines with the Army or to abolish the service altogether. That experience led to a certain “hypervigilance” on the part of the Marines, which along with “the group cohesion that flowed from it were the engines of the Marines’ cultural power and institutional success.”

Before World War II, the Marines managed to fight off attempts to merge them with the Army, or to abolish them altogether, while also proving adept at conducting “small wars” in Latin America. Fatefully, the Marines also developed the doctrine for seizing defended islands for advanced naval bases, which they executed in the Pacific during World War II, cementing the reputation of the Marine Corps as an extraordinary fighting force. The war also established a Marine ethos of valor and sacrifice. This ethos was intensified by inter-service rivalry. According to O’Connell:

[T]he tremendous casualties of the Pacific reinforced the Corps’ spirituality; interservice rivalry strengthened its insularity. .  .  . [Marine] culture’s broad network of fictive kinship bound [Marines] together in a community of remembrance, one that kept them connected to those who did not survive the war. That sense of a Marine Corps “family” continued long after the war’s end and was integral to the Marines’ success in the postwar era. 

O’Connell describes the way the Marines were able to portray themselves to the American public not only as a particularly effective military organization but also as “a deeply loyal community—more a family in some ways than an impersonal and bureaucratic military service.” The “Toys for Tots” program that began in 1947 was only one, albeit one of the most successful, efforts toward this end.