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Memories Of Peace And War
An Exclusive Interview With General Maxwell D. Taylor
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
I had joined General Ridgway in the summer of 1942 to serve as his chief of staff of the 82nd Infantry Division at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana. About two months later, a couple of officers came down from Washington and said: “Gentlemen, we’ve got news for you. We’re going to assign the 82nd four parachute infantry regiments now in training and divide it into two airborne divisions. ” This decision was based on the recent German airborne success in taking Crete. They parachuted and landed troops in the face of the Royal Navy surrounding the island and the preponderant British forces on Crete. They dropped in, seized the airfields and took the island. The curious thing was that while Crete convinced us in the U.S. that we needed large airborne units, Hitler, after losing four thousand troops and scores of aircraft, came to just the opposite conclusion—that large airborne attacks were too costly.
So the Germans never tried it again?
Not a major airborne operation. They did put down several hundred parachutists during the Battle of the Bulge—men pulled out of various units and assembled into a ramshackle task force. Militarily they accomplished very little, but the psychological effect on us was terrific. I was on my way back from an assignment in the States to rejoin my unit at Bastogne. I stopped by Ike’s headquarters outside Versailles, and even though I was in a major general’s uniform, I had to show my identification tags to prove I wasn’t a German parachutist there to drop a grenade in the chief’s office. Incidentally, the German paratroopers were commanded by an old Normandy adversary, Lieutenant Colonel von der Heydte. I finally met him by chance after the war at an industrial conference in Chicago. He was a university professor and by that time looked more like a scholar than the ubiquitous paratroop leader who frightened so many people in Belgium and France during the Bulge.
Of all the battles your division fought during World War II, possibly the most controversial was the Arnhem operation, which you have said “accomplished everything except victory at the critical point.”
That’s true. Both the 101st and the 82nd got all their objectives, but the real purpose of the exercise was to get the bridge across the Nieder Rhine at Arnhem. The major defect of the operation was its dependence on the Army forces on one two-way road, seventy miles long to Arnhem, which crossed innumerable streams and canals, big and little. Had we got up there, we still would have had an Army supported by a single road, and beyond the Rhine we’d have been faced by German reinforcements that had had time to get ready. So the whole thing was a poor show from the point of view of the payoff to be expected. In retrospect, the whole Arnhem campaign was a little like the march to the YaIu River in Korea, in that both might have been even more disastrous had they been successful.
Allied intelligence at Arnhem wasn’t too good, either.
It was better than I knew at the time. I was really aghast when I discovered after the war that we had broken the German code and had knowledge of many German dispositions. I knew nothing about that. Even the British airborne commander at Arnhem was not told of the presence of two Nazi panzer divisions resting in his attack area. But Ike knew it, and [Field Marshal Bernard] Montgomery knew, but they never got the word out to the major combat units. I suppose the reasoning was that if we indicated by our actions that we knew the panzers were there, the enemy would figure out we had broken their code and would change it. That’s an awfully thin excuse. What do we have these things for if not to win a battle? In that case, we lost a lot of brave British troops.
You suggested that the march to the Yalu in Korea might have been a disastrous success.
Very much so. The worst thing that could have happened would have been to be victorious. Had we made it to the YaIu River, we presumably would have overrun but not pacified North Korea, with thousands of communists and sympathizers capable of creating a serious guerrilla problem in the rear. And we still would have had a million Chinese waiting on the other side of a four-hundred-mile hostile frontier preparing to attack when they got ready. An intolerable situation in the long run.
Why did Mac Arthur go for the Yalu?
That’s hard to explain. He came out of World War II with a record as a great strategist. Perhaps, by that time, he had a feeling he could not be defeated. He couldn’t believe that he would be licked and his forces run back to below the thirty-eighth parallel. The invasion at Inchon, of course, was a great victory and just confirmed his feeling of omnipotence. Not that Washington was blind to the danger of Chinese intervention. It’s just that after Inchon, nobody was prepared to challenge the great proconsul’s strategic judgment. But in the process we jettisoned the original war objective of repulsing the North Korean invasion and substituted a far more ambitious goal of reunifying all of Korea by force of arms. It’s unfortunate, really, that no thoroughgoing analysis was ever made of the Korean War, because we proceeded to repeat many of its mistakes in Vietnam.
Because of the difficulty in reconciling foreign policy objectives with military action?