MacArthur’s War, Korea & the Undoing of A Hero

Book Review

MacArthur’s War, Korea & the undoing of an American Hero,

by Stanley Weintraub.

Published by Simon & Shuster Inc., New York, FY 2000.

This book was published 13 years ago about a war that occurred six decades earlier but it is still very relevant as it reflects international geo-politics even today. The Korean War (1950-1953) was the first major shooting war of the Cold War fought by the surrogates of the Soviet Union and the USA, Kim Il Sung in the North and Syngham Rhee in the South, both ruthless dictators, till it became a major international war between the US and its allies and China which intervened to support the North. The author of the book was himself a veteran of this war. His extensive research of original source material (detailed at the end of the book) allows him to illustrate the principal characters as a real life drama of absorbing interest.

Korea, which had been occupied by Japan, was divided into two halves by the USSR and the USA after WW2. The Korean War began in mid-1950 when, after a series of border disputes, the North invaded the South. The North, which was now home to the Korean army of anti-Japanese fighters who had fought for the Chinese communists in Manchuria and North China, had a battle-hardened army and soon occupied much of the South. The prevailing hysteria about communist expansion worldwide prompted the US government to enter the war on behalf of their staunchly anti-communist client, Syngham Rhee, whom they had installed.

War is the main business of the USA and it does this with political and propaganda finesse. United Nations Security Council authorisation was obtained as a cover and traditional Western allies (that remain unchanged to date, except for the then Aparthied South Africa) were cajoled into supporting this initiative which however remained a US military operation with smaller units of allied forces. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was the Supreme Allied  Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP) in Japan (a peace treaty with Japan was still not signed in 1950 and was only done in 1952 but even after that Japan remained a US military base) was made commander of UN forces. A war against communists in Korea, a country most Americans did not know existed, was widely acclaimed as anti-communism was the main platform of domestic US politics. It was the era of the Grand Inquisitor, Joseph McCarthy, when thousands of Americans lost their jobs and their freedom and the general population was cowed by his anti-communist witch hunts which mimicked the sham trials of the communist dictator, Stalin, to subdue any dissenting views.

Since the time he accepted the surrender of Japanese forces in 1945, MacArthur had his office in the palatial Dai Ichi building in Tokyo overlooking the imperial palace grounds and conducted himself as the Viceroy of Japan. Japanese Emperor Hirohito personally called on MacArthur on eleven occasions but MacArthur never cared to visit his palace. Here, he held court surrounded by fawning courtiers consisting of media personnel and his favoured military officers. The Japanese people, long used to divine emperors requiring unquestioning obedience, took this in their stride. MacArthur was the most senior and most decorated US general, a living legend. But by now he was an aging prima donna (he was 70 years in 1950), vain, capricious and egotistical. His theatricals designed for self-publicity would have rivalled that of the Hollywood super-stars. With his overblown self-importance he had lost touch with reality. His minions at SCAP fed him information that he wanted to hear and even the Chief Intelligence Officer, Willoughby, ignored intelligence reports and pandered to his illusions that led to several military blunders.

More than anything military, MacArthur saw himself as the American statesman destined to save the Asian region from what he saw as the rising communist menace. In this role, he defied the Joint Chief of Staffs (JCS) in Washington, the Secretary of Defence, the Secretary of State and even the President of the US to further his political objectives. His pet project was to assist the defeated Chiang Kai-shek, whom history had passed by, to invade and re-conquer communist China. He made unauthorised visits to Taiwan, issued his views to the media and was backed in the USA by conservative Republicans opposed to President Truman. He was not only playing politics, with the support of the ultra-right wing Republican leaders in the US, he was keen on the US presidency and openly discussed this with visiting Gen. Eisenhower, his one time subordinate.

The war initially went badly as MacArthur, except for brilliant flashes, had lost touch with reality. A racist, like most US leaders of that time, he under-estimated both the North Koreans and the Chinese forces that later came to assist the North in its dire hour of need. He contemptuously stated that these races would flee at the sight of American forces. The reality should have surprised him but, in the traditional American style, he put a spin on all events, magnifying triumphs and explaining away heavy defeats (just tactical withdrawals). The one flash of his old genius was the Inchon landings. The US and South Korean military had been driven by the North Koreans to a small enclave around the Pusan. US troops were being evacuated from this area when MacArthur drew his plans to make a landing at the rear of the enemy at Inchon, a very difficult harbour where the landing of heavy craft was only possible during the short time of the highest tides. He argued with the Chiefs of the General Staff that this risky operation would assure total surprise as the enemy would never dream of such risk taking and he was proved right. It turned the tide of the war for a while. But the US sense of triumphalism allowed MacArthur to push to the YaluRiver boundary with China and threaten China which he proclaimed would not dare confront US forces. There were plans to drop atom bombs on Manchurian and North Chinese targets to prevent the flow of arms and material from China to North Korea.

The Chinese response came as a total surprise. In the freezing North Korean winter, 200,000 Chinese “Volunteers” first crossed the YaluRiver during dark nights without any of the US surveillance aircraft observing them, using blue painted wooden floats kept a few inches below the water level to avoid observation. When the river froze, they moved over the ice at night and swept the evidence with brooms before daylight. They avoided all radio communication to prevent interception. Attacking at night from mountain hideouts, they used bugles and metal drums as communications for attacking troops. The Americans and South Koreans fled South in disarray, terrified of an often unseen enemy that attacked at night. One American officer remarks that such a humiliating flight by US forces had not been seen in 200 years. Pushed far south of the 38th parallel, the US and allied forces re-grouped and re-assembled till the Chinese found their long supply lines untenable and were forced to withdraw. The US allies were able to regain the area up to the original 38th parallel boundary line when the heavy cost of this Asian war persuaded them to seek peace initiatives through the UN, initiatives which the Chinese rejected initially as they were preparing for a massive Spring offensive.

Every time the US forces were facing disasters, MacArthur, backed by many in Washington and publicly echoed by President Truman, talked of using atom bombs on China. This was in reality an American war and the UN, as happened on many later occasions, was only used as a fig leaf for US aggression. On one occasion, Prime Minister Clement Atlee of Britain rushed to personally warn Truman in Washington that there was no UN mandate to use atomic weapons (by then, the USSR also had the atom bomb). Towards the end of the war, when the atomic bomb option was seriously taken up (to firstly warn China and Russia they said privately) and bombs were transported to Guam in readiness for use, Britain and other allies had to intervene and insist that the peace process was the only option.

Wittingly or not, the book also reveals the chaotic inner workings of the US government where conflicting power bases make it impossible to have a coherent national policy. Unlike in a parliamentary form of government, the elected majority party in Congress and the President have no clear line of authority. Powerful politicians and interest groups backed by corporate money and the media guided political opinion and foreign policy issues. President Truman, a decent and rational man but without the strong leadership and personality of his giant predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, found himself buffeted by these groups. With the Democratic Party in a minority in Congress and his need to keep an eye on the next congressional elections, he had enough of a difficult time without the antics of MacArthur who kept disobeying orders and dealing directly with Republican politicians and the US media. Finally, after much hesitation by the JCS and by the Defence Secretary, owing to the awe in which MacArthur was held, President Truman decided to relieve him of his commands in April 1951.

The British Foreign Secretary in a cable to the UK Ambassador in Washington expressed the European frustration with Washington’s foreign policy and leadership as follows. “Our principal difficulty is General MacArthur. His policy is different from the policy of the UN. He seems to want a war with China. It is no exaggeration to say that by his public utterances, he has weakened public confidence in this country and in Western Europe in the quality of American political judgement and leadership. Here we seem to have a case of a commander publicly suggesting that his policy is not the stated policy of his government, not subject to the control of his government, and whom his government is, nevertheless, unwilling and unable to discipline.”

The stark contrast between the American and allied European military forces and those of the Chinese will be of special interest to military readers. Here we see the Americans, as always since World War 2, equipped with the most technologically advanced equipment in seemingly limitless quantities. They have the world’s most powerful navy and airforce, thousands of varied aircraft, thousands of battle tanks, armoured vehicles, trucks, long range artillery, the biggest bombs and a highly organised supply chain. It has hundreds of generals, a worldwide CIA intelligence and international subversion operation, as well as hundreds of local intelligence operatives in the theatre of war. MacArthur has the most advanced Lockheed Constellation plane for his personal use as well a navy flagship, MountMcKinley (on which the Japanese surrender was signed). The troops have hot meals and equipment delivered to the front, including special traditional Christmas and Thanksgiving celebratory dinners flown from the USA. The Americans and their allies mostly journey by road on vehicles to the frontlines.

In contrast, the Chinese strategy is planned in Mao Zedong’s small dwelling in Beijing which also serves as his office. Here he lives a simple life, like his generals. But the world’s leading practitioner and authority on asymmetrical warfare is able to outfox the world’s greatest military power. The US and its allied generals and their achievements are the at the centre of the international media while the lead Chinese generals, Peng Denhuai, Peng Hua and Cheng Geng are not even known by name to their own troops. A Chinese prisoner tells the Americans that their commander is the old hero, Lin Biao, who was sick and declined to lead the Chinese invasion force. The astute Mao does not declare war but surreptitiously sends troops as a Volunteer force (China was still not in the UN while small Taiwan was called China and sat in the Security Council). The Chinese army is a People’s Army. Field officers do not carry ranks and are simply called platoon leader, company leader, etc., and wear similar uniforms as the rank and file and live under the same conditions. They have no airforce or navy and no heavy equipment. They have only infantry weapons soldiers can personally carry, including light artillery that can be dismantled and carried by porters. Supplies are carried by porters on their backs, harnessed to wooden triangles that make the back pack. For security, plans are not carried as written orders and radios are not used. But field officers have a lot of discretionary authority and local plans are made in consultation with the soldiers. They travel over the mountains, avoiding roads which the US forces bank on. Mao famously says: “Two feet are better than four wheels”. Their success is due to surprise, exceptional discipline and bravery. A US pilot observes that even while they were strafing a Chinese column, they never broke ranks and marched four abreast. Chinese casualties were very heavy.

In the aftermath, MacArthur returned with hopes of attaining the US Presidency. Initially, the majority of the US public disapproved of his dismissal and President Truman was vilified. MacArthur was allowed to address a joint session of the US Congress and a gold coin was issued in his honour. During the 1952 Republican Convention to choose their presidential nominee, he was allowed the keynote speech. But he did not impress and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower got the nomination and went on to be President. Thereafter, public interest in MacArthur waned.

A worse fate awaited his brilliant Chinese adversary, Peng Denhuai, who led the Chinese Peoples’ Volunteer Army and signed the treaty that ended the Korean War in 1953. After a period as Minister of Defence (1954-1959) he fell out with Mao’s on his extreme policies. During the madness of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when Mao’s senility led him to promote the excesses of the youthful Red Guards, General Peng was denounced and  imprisoned in 1970 and died in prison in 1974. After Mao died in 1976, he was posthumously rehabilitated and honoured for his services in 1978 by the new government.

For Mao’s views on asymmetrical warfare, read


Kenneth Abeywickrama

18 March 2014


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