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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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.