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.”

Marines

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. 

Despite its success in World War II, the Marine Corps found itself fighting for institutional survival as the war ended. O’Connell examines how the cultural cohesion the Marines had created during the war contributed to the survival of the Corps during the nasty fight over “service unification” that characterized this era. The dominant unification plans threatened the survival of the Marine Corps as a separate service. More important, they would have led to the loss of the mission that the Marines performed. The advocates of unification, however, failed to make the case that what the Marines did wasn’t necessary, or that another organization could have done it more efficiently and effectively. Employing “guerrilla warfare,” the Marines fought against the 1947 unification bill and the 1949 amendments on two fronts—political and cultural—rallying a coalition of congressional supporters and influential journalists, veterans, and defense experts to their cause. “On the political front,” writes O’Connell, “the Marines’ strategy was one of deception, delay, and irregular warfare. On the cultural front, they launched a direct attack against the President and the Army. Both strategies succeeded.”  

The guerrillas came to be known as the Little Men’s Chowder and Marching Society, a loose affiliation of thinkers, lobbyists, and war heroes who shared the conviction that the Marine Corps was in danger of being reorganized out of existence. In the unification fight, the Marines were blessed with their enemies. Enemy Number One was President Harry Truman, who wrote, in a moment of ill-advised candor, that “the Marine Corps is the navy’s police force as long as I am president. .  .  . They have a propaganda machine almost equal to Stalin’s.” Facing extraordinary public criticism, Truman publicly apologized. 

Enemy Number Two was Louis Johnson, a political hack who became the second secretary of defense when Truman fired James Forrestal over disagreements about the defense budget. In December 1949, Johnson proclaimed that amphibious assaults were a thing of the past. Ten months later, the Marines landed at Inchon, breaking the back of the North Korean offensive that had almost defeated the unprepared Americans and their South Korean allies. Blamed for the lack of readiness of the troops initially sent to Korea, Johnson was pressured to resign as secretary. The Marines’ problems continued during the Eisenhower administration, and it was not until Congress passed legislation in 1953 providing statutory protection for the Corps that the existential threat to its force structure and doctrine passed. 

O’Connell examines the impact of the Korean War on both the Marine Corps and American society. He points out that, while the conflict is often called the “forgotten war”—an aberration or an anomaly—the Marines in fact celebrate it because it validated the virtues of the Corps. While the early performance of the Army was subpar, the Marines seemed to save the day: the Marine “Fire Brigade” that defended the Pusan perimeter when the North Koreans had nearly driven the Americans off the peninsula; the landing at Inchon that turned the tide of the war; and the epic fighting withdrawal of the First Marine Division from the Chosin Reservoir in the face of a massive Chinese intervention. 

But O’Connell also looks at the negative impact of the Korean War experience, especially as evinced in the alcohol abuse and domestic violence of veterans, which he attributes to what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After Korea, the Marine Corps proved to be extraordinarily innovative, effectively adapting its strategic concept to the Cold War security environment, thus reinventing itself as an expeditionary “force in readiness,” capable of responding with tailored, task-organized forces to any crisis across the spectrum of conflict—including short-fuse contingencies that could arise at any time or place. The new strategic concept of the Marine Corps complemented that of the Army, which centered on the requirement to fight and win the nation’s land wars. In accordance with this strategic concept, the Army helped to deter major conflict by stationing units in or near the most likely theaters of war. 

O’Connell focuses less on the strategic issues that shaped the Marine Corps during the 1950s and early ’60s, emphasizing, instead, the way in which the Marines continued to sell their virtues to the American people. They not only stressed military virtues of toughness, courage, and battlefield success, but also the intimate, nostalgic, and familial elements of Marine culture. Hollywood helped with such movies as Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) with John Wayne and The D.I. with Jack Webb (1957). But those who live by their public image can die by it as well. The Marines suffered a massive setback to their reputation as a result of the Ribbon Creek incident in the spring of 1956: A drill instructor who had been drinking on duty took his recruit platoon on a night march to punish poor performance. Six recruits drowned. O’Connell argues that Ribbon Creek was merely a microcosm of the broader problem of unauthorized violence in the Marine Corps of the 1950s. 

This is, for the most part, an excellent book. O’Connell tells the Marines’ story, warts and all, but there are some shortcomings as well. First is a stylistic problem: O’Connell is a fine writer, but the reader is often jarred by his use of postmodern social science jargon. (Whoever derived the verb “to privilege” from a perfectly good noun did the English language no favor.) Other issues are substantive. For instance, O’Connell takes the Marines to task for their tactics during the unification debate: stealing and then leaking classified Joint Chiefs of Staff papers to the press and to Congress; coming close to accusing the Army (and those who favored a more unified defense establishment) of favoring Prussian-style militarism; and what O’Connell calls “fear mongering” about an overly centralized executive branch. O’Connell suggests that the Corps was more interested in its institutional survival than in the good of the nation.

But the Marines believed that they made a strategic contribution to the nation—one that would be lost were they marginalized. In essence, the Marines were advocates of “strategic pluralism,” the idea that national defense requires a broad array of capabilities. The unification proposals, in contrast, pushed “strategic monism,” which sought to impose a single vision on the defense establishment. The risks of strategic monism were illustrated by the strategy pursued by the Eisenhower administration. The centerpiece of the “New Look” was long-range strategic airpower, but this focus on strategic bombing to the exclusion of other capabilities resulted in strategic inflexibility. The only reason the United States could respond to threats at the lower end of the spectrum of conflict was that the Marines had (in the face of much opposition) maintained the necessary capabilities. 

Regarding the dark side of the Marine Corps of the 1950s—domestic violence, alcohol abuse, and the like—O’Connell makes a common mistake: He fails to compare the Marines with their civilian counterparts by cohort. (We saw this flawed approach after Vietnam, when veterans of that war were portrayed as ticking time bombs that could explode at any time, and whose rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and incarceration were unusually high.)

Finally, the post-World War II Marines were not unusual in forging an alliance with Congress and Hollywood to get their story out to the public. The newly emerging Air Force mastered this approach as well with such movies as Twelve O’Clock High (1949) with Gregory Peck. In addition, James Stewart, an Army Air Forces bomber-pilot who flew numerous missions in Europe and served as a brigadier general in the Air Force Reserve, helped to push the airpower story with movies such as 1955’s Strategic Air Command. Today, of course, no organization has used Hollywood to tell its story more successfully than the Navy SEALs. In Congress, the Air Force was able to count on powerful members to advance that service’s interests. The actions by both the Marines and the Air Force illustrate an important element of U.S. civil-military relations: Rarely is the military per se pitted against the civilian per se; rather, civilian-military coalitions struggle for advantage in the corridors of the Pentagon, the halls of Congress, and in the press. 

In his firsthand account of Marine Corps history, First to Fight (1984), General Krulak relates the story of his exchange with a Marine gunnery sergeant in 1935. Krulak, then a lieutenant, asked the venerable gunny how the Marines had gained their reputation as one of the world’s great fighting forces. “Well, lieutenant,” the gunny replied, “they started right out telling everybody how great they were. Pretty soon they got to believing themselves. And they have been busy ever since proving they were right.”

Mackubin Thomas Owens is editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and a Marine infantry veteran of Vietnam.