The Pentagon’s 50th … And The Future For America’s Defense

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The admirals’ revolt had involved the Navy’s roles and missions, but fundamentally it was a quarrel over money. The military budget, which had peaked at $83 billion in 1945, had plummeted to less than $14 billion during the Truman years, barely 5 percent of the gross national product. But this was about to change, for the Soviets had consolidated their control over Eastern Europe and had exploded their own atomic bomb. Truman, learning of this new Soviet weapon, said, “This means we have no time left.” At virtually the same time, China fell to its own communists.

Truman already was setting up the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and early in 1950 he ordered a high-priority effort aimed at building a hydrogen bomb. Then in April he took the next significant step, directing his National Security Council to prepare a policy paper to be known as NSC-68. It authorized a major new build-up, and declared that up to 20 percent of the GNP would be spent for this purpose. It also accepted a strategy under which the United States would not limit itself to a well-defined sphere of influence. Instead we would meet any threat by the communists, anywhere in the world.

Two months later the army of North Korea struck at its southern neighbor, and with the suddenness of Pearl Harbor, America again was at war. Truman rushed U.S. forces to the defense, but they had to retreat, falling back on Pusan in the southeast corner of the Korean peninsula. As more troops arrived, we and the South Koreans held the line, but with little prospect of a breakout or counter-attack. But the commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, was prepared to fight by sea as well as on land, and in mid-September he unleashed his masterstroke.

Dividing his forces, he left enough in place to defend the Pusan perimeter and put the rest on oceangoing transports. He then struck from the sea at Inchon, well up Korea’s western coast, and slashed across the North Korean supply lines. Within days their offensive turned into a rout, and MacArthur pushed his forces northward. His goal was the YaIu River, the border with China, and by October his forward battalions had it in view.

The Chinese government had become increasingly concerned. There were no diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing, but through neutral parties such as India, Chinese leaders gave increasingly insistent warnings that they would intervene. MacArthur ignored them. So did Truman, who in the wake of Inchon had every reason to defer to his general. China thereupon jumped in with 33 divisions, and when the front finally stabilized, we found ourselves in a war we could neither win nor end. Finally, after two years of stalemate, the Chinese accepted truce terms that amounted to restoring the status quo, and the war was over.

The Korean War nevertheless was important in an entirely different respect, for it brought a desegregated military. In July 1948 Truman had issued Executive Order 9981, which declared that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” Henceforth promotions were to be based “solely on merit and fitness.” By mid-1953 more than 90 percent of blacks in the military were serving in integrated outfits. The last all-Negro units were abolished during 1954.

That same year also launched an entirely different era of change, as the long-range ballistic missile suddenly became a matter of urgency. There had been considerable talk of such weapons since 1945, but the plans and designs had foundered on guidance systems so errant that even the power of the atomic bomb was not enough to compensate for their inaccuracy. But the hydrogen bomb was another matter; it could destroy a city even with a miss of up to three miles.

A good deal of the technical groundwork for such missiles was already in place when a new type of H-bomb, designated Bravo, exploded on March 1, 1954. The test occurred at Bikini Atoll in the Pacific and yielded fifteen megatons, with the bomb being compact enough to deliver by air. Within three weeks the Air Force Secretary directed that the missile program was to receive “the maximum effort possible with no limitation as to funding.” Two weapons of 5,000-mile range, Atlas and Titan, received the main attention, but there were other such projects as well. The forced pace of the effort was particularly clear in one of them, the 1,500-mile Thor. In less than a year its manufacturer, Douglas Aircraft, went from contract signing to having a working missile on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

The advent of the missiles thus represented the Pentagon’s response to the H-bomb, just as the Strategic Air Command had been its principal response to the A-bomb. This time, however, the Navy would share in the developments. Its focus of attention was the submarine, which had proven itself as a formidable commerce raider in both World Wars. Yet those diesel-powered boats could submerge for only a few hours at a time.