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Big Job; Wrong Man

2:30 PM, Feb 8, 2013 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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Chuck Hagel, if he is confirmed, will almost certainly be responsible for managing a decline in the nation’s military capabilities.  That decline is already underway.  Leon Panetta, the current secretary of defense, is on the record here and says that things will only get worse – and, perhaps, much worse – if the budget sequester goes through.  The Navy has already cut back from two aircraft carrier groups to just one in the Persian Gulf.  The administration has made public its intention to shift the nation’s military focus to the Pacific where China is rising and behaving aggressively, if not belligerently.  The Pentagon is in the early process of executing this shift, moving Marines to Australia.  The Marine Corps, meanwhile, has announced a force reduction of some 20,000 personnel.

Another secretary of defense was faced with managing similar cutbacks in troops and equipment.  Louis Johnson followed James Forrestal in the post and made himself the instrument of President Truman’s desire to unify the services and cut defense spending rapidly and deeply.  This included stripping the Marine Corps to bare bone, a policy adopted as much out of pique as from any strategic considerations.  Truman hated the Marines. 

There was doctrine, however, in support of most of the actions Johnson took, including cancellation of a new aircraft carrier for the Navy.  In the future, the nation would rely on the atom bomb and air power.  Johnson put it to one admiral this way:

Admiral, the Navy is on its way out. There’s no reason for having a Navy and a Marine Corps. … amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.

Then, North Korea launched an invasion of the South and pushed badly equipped, prepared, and trained U.S. and Republic of Korea forces into the Pusan perimeter.  The line was augmented by strikes flown from a couple of Navy carriers that were still operational.  And, a few weeks later, the Marines conducted an amphibious operation at Inchon that led to a rout of the North Korean army.  By then, Truman had accepted Johnson’s resignation and replaced him with a solider, General George C. Marshall. Among Johnson’s last acts as secretary was to request from Congress a supplemental defense appropriation equal to almost 80 percent of the amount already budgeted.

Other than that, he was a failure.  He was the president’s choice and a bad one.

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