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The Korean War included a clash of titans
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"General MacArthur was

ready to risk general war.

I was not."

- President Harry S Truman

The pivotal decade of the 1950s and Korea presaged a theme that would recur throughout the 20th century and beyond - wars that would topple presidents, and clash between foreign policy objectives and the traditional military objective of "total victory."

September 1950 - MacArthur's amphibious landing at Inchon paved the way for liberation of South Korea. If prior to Inchon MacArthur was formidable, after Inchon with remnants of the North Korean Army on the run, MacArthur was untouchable.

So why not chase them all the way to the Yalu River, the Manchurian border, and achieve a unified non-Communist Korea? There was a catch - a big one, namely Mao's proven Chinese Communist army. That army had evicted Chiang Kai Shek's Nationalist Chinese army from the mainland to its refuge on the Island of Formosa (Taiwan).

Upon North Korea's invasion of South Korea in June, Chiang had immediately offered two divisions of his Nationalist troops to assist the United Nations forces. President Harry S Truman and General MacArthur both agreed to reject Chiang's offer. Chiang's Nationalist Army had been nearly useless against Japan, totally ineffective against Mao's Red Army, and would be ineffective against the tough North Korean Army.

Furthermore, removing troops from Formosa would tempt Mao to invade, probably drawing the U.S. into war with Red China, and maybe the Soviet Union. It is easy to forget, and hard for younger people to imagine, what a tinderbox that region was during those "Cold War" years. China had been warning that American troops in North Korea would be considered a direct menace.

In October 1950, President Truman and General MacArthur met at Wake Island to discuss incursion into North Korea. MacArthur, in uncharacteristic underestimation of his enemy, assured Truman that Red China would not intervene, but if it did, there would be the "greatest slaughter."

The drive north by U.N. forces ended in total disaster. Even as the first Chinese soldiers were encountered, MacArthur insisted that there were no more than 30,000. In fact, there were over 300,000 that had crossed the Yalu into North Korea. In bitter cold, ill clothed, with extended supply lines, and vastly outnumbered, the talk of victory and "home by Christmas" turned to survival. (The interested reader is referred to T.R. Fehrenbach's "This Kind of War," Macmillan 1963, for informative but depressing reading of a sad chapter in American military history.)

With heavy casualties, the demoralized Eighth Army was in shambles. The Truman administration was fighting for its life. MacArthur seemed to be offering the president only a choice between a larger war and a complete rout. The Joint Chiefs no longer trusted nor believed in MacArthur but were afraid to challenge him. There was loose talk of using atomic weapons, drawing heavy protests from a Europe that was itself just recovering from wartime devastation.

It was in those dark days that the clash between a military goal of "total victory" and a foreign policy objective of avoiding a larger war became more evident. It was also then that Eighth Army Commander Walton Walker was killed in a jeep accident. While he was considered "tough and feisty," he was thought to lack the broader skills necessary for high command. He was replaced by General Matthew Ridgway who visited the front line troops, raised hell with his division and regimental commanders, and is credited with turning the Eighth Army around. General Omar Bradley later wrote, "It is not often in wartime that a single battlefield commander can make a decisive difference. But in Korea, Ridgway proved the exception."

Even as Ridgway understood that gaining ground was essential for eventual negotiations, MacArthur, stung by failure of the drive in North Korea, was becoming more difficult and was pushing for a broader war, including bombing Manchuria. With the objective of avoiding a broader war and ending the fighting, Truman was planning to seek a cease-fire as a first step in arranging a settlement with the Chinese.

MacArthur sealed his own fate by cutting the ground out from under Truman. He released his own statement, insulting and taunting the Chinese, insisting that if his restrictions were removed, they would be doomed to military collapse.

This was clear insubordination, urging a wider war as the president was trying to wind it down. Worse yet, MacArthur sent a letter to the House minority leader, now urging Chiang's Nationalist troops to enter the fray.

In June 1951, Truman fired the iconic MacArthur. The resulting reaction by Congress and national division of opinion probably exceeded the divisiveness of even today's poisonous political atmosphere.

MacArthur later delivered his famous farewell address to a joint session of Congress. There was a push for MacArthur to run for president, but his considerable political rhetorical skills fell short. Truman's successor would be a World War II general and a Republican, but it would be the less regal, more affable "everyman's soldier," Dwight Eisenhower, a moderate who hard core right wingers insisted was indistinguishable from the hated Roosevelt "New Dealers." The general campaigned on "getting out of Korea," and he kept us out of Vietnam.

As American Viceroy in Japan, MacArthur, the symbol of reactionary politics, introduced liberal values including civil liberties, labor unions, and equal rights for women. He presided over perhaps the most widespread, successful land reform effort of any nation in history. We got what we said we wanted from post-war Japan-an anti-Communist, democratic, capitalistic ally. The credit belongs to MacArthur. If Japan became a stronger economic competitor than American industry anticipated, we go back to the adage, "be careful what you wish for."

In his later years, MacArthur asserted, "I am a 100 percent disbeliever in war."

A final irony in the life of this most complex, enigmatic "American Caesar" is that he urged President John F. Kennedy, and on his deathbed, begged President Lyndon Johnson, "Stay out of Vietnam."

- Monroe Resident John Waelti can be reached at