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How To Remember The Forgotten War
The Korean conflict erupted fifty years ago this June. Many Americans still believe that it began in debacle (which is true) and ended in a humiliating compromise that changed nothing (which is not).
May/June 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 3
For MacArthur, however, victory meant not merely the restoration of the border but the destruction of the enemy and the reunification of divided Korea. That Chairman Mao’s Chinese might not want us on their borders was not a consideration to MacArthur. He saw the advance northward to the Yalu River, and Manchuria, as easily accomplished: The North Koreans were decimated and disorganized; the Chinese, too busy consolidating their country after the long civil war, would make noise but would not intervene, and if they did, they would lose and perhaps make it possible for Chiang’s exiled legions in Taiwan to return to the mainland of Asia.
With the amphibious victory at Inchon still fresh, MacArthur sold at least the first part of his proposition to Washington. Few paid attention to the threats from China or to the shaky military logic of MacArthur’s division of his forces for the pursuit north. For Inchon he had already created a separate entity from his 8th Army, X Corps, commanded by his court favorite, Maj. Gen. Edward Almond. He disliked his 8th Army commander, Lt. Gen. Walton Walker, who had been foisted on him by the Pentagon, and wanted Almond to play the leading role. MacArthur proposed to keep Walker plodding north while Almond with his men would reboard their ships and sail around Korea and up on the other side to make another landing and pinch off the remaining communists—and most of Korea.
The new operation drained fuel and equipment from Walker’s army, which could not hurry north, and wasted a month in reloading and transporting the X Corps armada to Wonsan, where, it turned out, the landing could not be made until thousands of mines were swept, and there were no minesweepers in Korean waters. MacArthur’s toadyish intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Charles Willoughby, hadn’t known about the mines. By the time MacArthur got his men ashore, Bob Hope, flown over to entertain the troops in the X Corps, was waiting on the beach for them. And the Chinese had been given the opportunity to slip tens of thousands of troops unnoticed across the Yalu River. Moreover, winter had blanketed the north. Up at the frozen Chosin Reservoir in the northeast to hand out medals, Almond assured the Marines, “We’re still attacking and we’re going all the way to the Yalu. Don’t let a bunch of Chinese laundrymen stop you.”
The laundrymen, the weather, bad intelligence, worse planning, and the delays in the advances on both fronts were turning victory into defeat. Abandoning their newly delivered weapons, the 8th Army in the northwest retreated even before they saw any of the tough, tenacious Chinese; over the mountains to the east, the X Corps was stalled in the snow and forced into a fighting withdrawal on foot and an evacuation by sea all the way south to Pusan. It had come almost full circle. MacArthur’s War was effectively over, and with it his reputation. Walker was killed in a jeep accident, and the Pentagon sent Matthew Ridgway to take over.
After Ridgway’s arrival, MacArthur vas effectively finished as a commander.
Ridgway was even better at public relations than MacArthur, who was seventy-one and had been left, tired and depressed, with his burst balloon. Ridgway arrived in Korea wearing his World War II combat uniform with his trademark grenade fastened to the right shoulder strap of his paratroop gear and a first-aid kit attached to the left. Impressed GIs immediately began calling him Old Iron Tits.
With Ridgway’s arrival, MacArthur, although still ensconced in Tokyo, was effectively finished as a commander. In any case he had never been a hands-on general in Korea. Save for following the X Corps into Inchon, he had been on Korean soil for only a few hours at a time, landing in his big four-engine bird for photo sessions with the press and taking off again for dinner in Tokyo. All he could do was to work on Washington to widen the war into an anticommunist crusade, which Harry Truman’s UN cohorts resisted. So did Truman, who did not want to mire American forces indefinitely in Asia. While MacArthur attempted to sabotage negotiations to end the war approximately in place, Ridgway began taking UN forces back to, and across, the thirty-eighth parallel. Truman had to keep warning the Supreme Commander not to step over the line into political insubordination. He did anyway. In April 1951 MacArthur was relieved. He came home, and I went to Korea.