MacArthur and the Chinese Communist Intervention
in the Korean War, September-December 1950
in the Korean War, September-December 1950
Dr. D. Clayton James
Virginia Military Institute
A familiar pattern in historiography is the three-step dialectic of thesis, or orthodox position; antithesis, or revisionist stance; and synthesis, or eclectic interpretation. This process has not developed, however, regarding most issues of the Korean War, especially General of the Army Douglas MacArthur's supposed blunders in relation to the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) intervention into Korea in the autumn of 1950. The orthodox views, as espoused by President Harry S. Truman and his top advisers, remain substantially unrevised today in textbooks and public media presentations. Indeed, many professional historians have been surprisingly acquiescent in tolerating three myths about MacArthur and the CCF intervention.
The first of these is that MacArthur's arrogant, unilateral decision-making precipitated the invasion of North Korea by United Nations forces. The second myth is that MacArthur, at the Wake Island conference, misled Truman and his advisers and made them unduly optimistic by his prediction that the Chinese Communists would not enter the war. The third myth is that MacArthur's splitting of his Eighth Army and X Corps for the advance through North Korea enabled the Chinese forces to strike between the divided U.N. forces and thus rout them. The purpose of this paper is to endeavor, within the time limitation, to lay these myths to rest.
MacArthur did not conceive the idea of liberating North Korea. Long before his successful amphibious assault at Inchon, Pentagon and State Department leaders supported an invasion of North Korea, even when we were backed up into the Pusan Perimeter. On August 17, 1950, Warren R. Austin, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called for U.N. backing for "establishing democratic government in the reunited Korea." In a nationwide radio broadcast on September 1, Truman came out in favor of a "free, independent, and united" Korea, and Secretary of State Dean G. Acheson likewise endorsed the idea of reuniting the two Koreas, if necessary by force. Also, in August and September influential members of the British Parliament proclaimed their support for Korean unification after the northern part was "liberated."
The President approved NSC 81/1 on September 11. Two of its provisions are pertinent here: It stated that U.N. forces would be authorized to cross the 38th parallel for the purpose of either making the North Korean People's Army withdraw from South Korea or inflicting a decisive defeat upon that force. The document also authorized MacArthur to prepare contingency plans for the occupation of North Korea.
On the day that MacArthur's attack on Inchon began, September 15, he received from the Joint Chiefs the basic provisions of NSC 81/1, and on the 27th he got the crucial directive authorizing an offensive into North Korea. The directive included many phrases taken directly from NSC 81/1, and it had the strong support of Truman, Acheson, and the new Secretary of Defense, George C. Marshall. There had also been "some amount of inter-allied consultation" about the directive; the United Kingdom, France, and some of the British Commonwealth nations backed an advance into North Korea. "Your military objective," stated MacArthur's directive, "is the destruction of the North Korean Armed Forces." He was told that he would soon receive surrender terms to broadcast to North Korea. Also, he was instructed to submit his plans for operations above the 38th parallel and for the occupation of North Korea, which he did the next day.
On September 29, Marshall sent MacArthur a supportive message that even my good friend Forrest Pogue has never satisfactorily explained. The message included the following words, words that you should never send to MacArthur: "We want you to feel unhampered strategically and tactically to proceed north of the 38th Parallel." A confident MacArthur replied: "I regard all of Korea open for our military operations unless and until the enemy capitulates."
The first of MacArthur's units to move across the 38th parallel was the Republic of Korea (ROK) 3rd Division which, on October 1, advanced rapidly up the east side, along the coast of the Sea of Japan. Within a few days it had gotten fifty miles. The American Eighth Army, spearheaded by the 1st Cavalry Division, launched its offensive across the 38th parallel on October 9 on the western, or Yellow Sea, side of the peninsula.
Acheson and Austin and their lieutenants convinced the U.N. General Assembly to pass a resolution that radically changed the U.N.'s objective in the war, in effect, to attain Korean unification by the conquest of North Korea. The "Liberation Resolution," as some facetiously called it, was passed on October 7 by a 47 to 5 vote (with 7 abstentions). Thus MacArthur's offensive into North Korea was undertaken in execution of a policy change that was strongly endorsed by official Washington and by a large U.N. margin.
The spectacular Inchon success both fueled MacArthur's arrogance toward his superiors and further intimidated the JCS in dealing with him. There is no question that he disobeyed the JCS, who prohibited him from sending non-ROK troops into the North Korean provinces bordering the Yalu River. There is no question, too, that MacArthur inflicted logistical nightmares on the Eighth Army when he decided to take Wonsan by amphibious assault with the 1st Marine Division. But in the act of invading North Korea, he was merely implementing a policy that originated in Washington, not Tokyo. The textbooks, the media, and, sadly, some scholarly studies, still perpetuate the myth of the warmongering MacArthur irresponsibly plunging into North Korea on his own.
The second myth that needs to be reexamined is MacArthur's prediction at Wake in mid-October that there was "very little" likelihood of the Chinese Communists coming into the Korean fray. Confident of General Stratemeyer's air power, MacArthur boasted to Truman that "if the Chinese tried to get down to Pyongyang (which the Eighth Army would seize on October 19) there would be the greatest slaughter."
Actually both MacArthur's views on the chances of Chinese entry and the figures he quoted at Wake from his intelligence chief about the strength and disposition of the Chinese armies in Manchuria were surprisingly similar to those reported by CIA, Pentagon, and State Department intelligence sources at the time. Truman and his advisers, including General of the Army Omar N. Bradley, the JCS chairman, were quite aware of the latest Washington intelligence estimates on China. The only published report of the Wake talks was a compilation of notes of Truman's team prepared by Bradley during the return flight to the States. An important omission in the Bradley compilation, which was included in the notes made by MacArthur and his Wake advisers during their flight back to Tokyo, was MacArthur's qualification, in the presence of Truman, that his views on Red China's likely intentions were purely speculative. He had reminded Truman that the collection and evaluation of data on whether nonbelligerent nations would enter the Korean War was in the realm of political intelligence. That domain, MacArthur told Truman, belonged to CIA and State Department intelligence, not to his military intelligence staff, which was busily gathering data about the battlefield enemy, the North Korean People's Army.
It is astounding that this single question by Truman, and MacArthur's brief response, constituted the entire extent of the Wake conferees' probe into the enormous implications that the current U.N. offensive in North Korea might have on Peking or Moscow. Months later, however, Truman and several of his officials spoke publicly and frequently about how misleading and erroneous MacArthur had been, portraying his remarks about China as if they were the focus of a crucial strategy session. Truman, Acheson, and other administration leaders knew of MacArthur's well-known proclivity for expounding ad nauseam on subjects beyond his expertise. It is difficult for me to escape the conclusion that Truman, who did not need MacArthur to give him the latest intelligence on Red China, was fishing for a MacArthur quote that could help nail him later as a scapegoat as well as garner votes for Democrats running in the off-year congressional races. I'm a fisherman, and in fisherman's parlance, MacArthur surely presented the President with a lunker.
Unhappily, many writers imply that if MacArthur had predicted more accurately, the direction of the war might have been quite different: perhaps Washington's diplomatic efforts might have staved of f China's intervention, or perhaps the U.N. forces in North Korea might have been better prepared to thwart the impending Chinese offensive. The Truman administration, however, was already fully committed to the drive to the Yalu before the Wake meeting, and, besides, Truman and his main advisers at Wake agreed with MacArthur about the improbability of Chinese intervention. The truth is, nothing of significance occurred at the Wake Island meeting--nothing.
If Truman and MacArthur had been less obsessed with political maneuvering at the Wake conference, their meeting could have afforded and excellent chance to reassess what the U.S. and the U.N. were trying to achieve in the Korean War. In retrospect, it might have prolonged the careers of the President and the general, for the Chinese entry produced a war that could not be won nor terminated, at least until both MacArthur and Truman were out of the picture.
The third and final myth that needs to be buried is that MacArthur committed a tactical blunder by splitting his forces in North Korea and thus allowed the Chinese to strike through the gap between the Eighth Army on the west and the X Corps on the east side of the peninsula. At a meeting of the National Security Council on November 9, just over two weeks before the main Chinese offensive was launched, Marshall criticized the disposition of MacArthur's army and separate corps because they were not within physical contact of each other and therefore could not cover each other's flanks. In leading his 1st Marine Division northward toward the Chosin Reservoir in the X Corps sector, Major General Oliver P. Smith, a man that I knew and admired very much, also feared that enemy forces would exploit the gap, hitting the flanks of both the Eighth Army and the X Corps and possibly driving into the rear areas of both commands. On numerous occasions, patrols from Lieutenant General Edward M. Almond's X Corps and General Walton H. Walker's Eighth Army tried to make contact but could not because of the high, rugged, and almost trackless region of the Taebaek Mountains that separated the advancing U.N. forces in North Korea.
After the principal Chinese offensive in late November and early December 1950, the so-called Second Phase offensive, caused the Eighth Army to retreat in near-rout chaos, numerous influential military analysts and political leaders in America and Europe, especially in Britain, charged that the Chinese breakthrough had occurred through the gap created by MacArthur's allegedly stupid splitting of his main offensive units in North Korea. Roy E. Appleman wrote recently: "There has been no greater misunderstanding, and resulting explosions of rhetoric pro and con, during the entire course of the Korean war than the controversy over the so-called gap between Eighth Army and X Corps."
In truth, neither the U.N. nor the CCF forces operated in the almost impassable Taebaek Range. The Chinese attacked the Eighth Army by frontally assaulting the ROK II Corps and breaking through its center, then exploiting the penetration by pouring backup units through the hole and into the rear of the Eighth Army's right flank. The CCF did not try to exploit the gap on the X Corps' left flank either, instead hitting the 1st Marine Division on the west of the Chosin Reservoir and the U.S. Army's 7th Infantry Division on the east side of Chosin with frontal attacks supplemented be simultaneous envelopment attempts. Because of the enormous geographic problems imposed by the mountain range, the Chinese commands attacking the Eighth Army and the X Corps functioned as distinctly separate forces that did not attempt to cooperate with each other. As it turned out, the gap between Walker's and Almond's forces was not of great military consequence to either side's operations.
Why have myths such as these persisted? Most historians of the Korean War have focused on its diplomatic, rather than military, aspects. Some have produced fresh, challenging interpretations for the origins of the war--one outstanding example would be Bruce Cummings' work--although, as yet, scholars have not devoted much critical attention to strategic issues during the war--and remember, I teach college kids and I know what is in the textbooks that they get in high school and college and it is way out of date. Perhaps some day revisionists will investigate why the strategic direction of the war has been so often viewed by writers from the perspective of the Truman administration.
List of Topic Discussion Papers
- Colloquium on Contemporary History Project
- Invation Patrol: The Seventh Fleet in Chinese Waters
- General George E. Stratemeyer and the Air War in Korea: Fall 1950
- The Epic of Chosin
- General Discussion