How administration policies moved America from greatness to mediocrity
The United States was a very troubled land following World War II … only most people didn’t realize it. The American people had grown tired of the tragedies of war and all of its inconveniences on the home front. Over a million Americans became casualties during the war: 292,000 killed in action, 113,842 non-combat related deaths, 670,846 wounded in action, and 30,314 missing in action. Folks back home wanted their survivors back, their husbands, sons, daughters, and sweethearts, so that they could return to a normal life. What they did not know, and could not know, was that there would never again be “a normal life” following World War II.
Part of this, of course, was the war itself. People who come through war —any war— are never quite the same as before they experienced it. Part of it, too, was that American society was moving away from a few of its traditional defects; change is never easy. There were civil rights issues, voting rights issues, human dignity issues … problems that were created and nurtured by the Democratic Party over the previous 80 years. Americans did address these issues, fought back against the innate racism of the Democratic Party and in time, for the most part, many of these problems were solved —to a point.
With the war drawing to a close in May 1945, Democrat President Harry S. Truman ordered a general demobilization of the armed forces after the defeat of Nazi Germany, even while the war continued in the Pacific. In May, before Japan’s surrender, the United States had more than twelve million men and women serving in uniform; nearly eight million of these were serving outside the United States. Truman’s plan for general demobilization was code-named Operation Magic Carpet, supervised by the War Shipping Administration. It was a massive undertaking that demanded hundreds of liberty ships, victory ships, and nearly 400 ships of the US Navy to bring the troops back home.
Post-war demobilization of the armed forces was always anticipated, of course. But, as we shall see, the Truman administration took the concept of a peace-time America a few extraordinary steps beyond demobilization and why this is important is because none of Truman’s decisions were beneficial to the long-term interests of the United States, or its long-suffering population. In fact, the incompetence of the Truman administration was so pervasive that it is nearly impossible to believe it. Make no mistake, however, Truman and his associates guaranteed to the American people great suffering and angst.
At the conclusion of World War II, after the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan, occupation forces were needed throughout Asia to disarm and help repatriate remnants of the Japanese military. The steps that would be necessary for the immediate post-war period were negotiated and agreed to by the aligned nations long before the end of the war. Each allied nation accepted responsibility for disarmament and political stabilization in Europe and on the Asian mainland. Korea, however, presented a unique set of problems —and unknown to most Americans at the time, it was a harbinger of the Cold War.
Before World War II, Korea was a unified nation, albeit one controlled by the Empire of Japan. In negotiating the fate of post-war Korea, the allied powers (principally the United States and the Soviet Union) failed to consult anyone of Korean descent. The Soviet Union did not want the United States in control of an area abutting its Pacific border and the United States was not inclined to relinquish the Korean Peninsula to the Soviet Union.
While the Soviet Union (then one of the allied powers) (an ally of the United States in name only) agreed to liberate the northern area of the Korean Peninsula and accept the surrender of Japanese forces there, the United States assumed responsibility for the southern region. Korea was thus divided into two separate occupation zones at the 38th parallel. Ostensibly, the ultimate objective was for the Soviet Union and the United States to help stabilize the Korean Peninsula, and then let the Korean people sort their politics out for themselves. The problem was that every effort to create a middle ground whereby unification might occur peacefully was thwarted by both the US and USSR.
Thus, two new sovereign states were created out of post-war geopolitical tensions. In the north, the Soviet Union created a communist state under the leadership of Kim-Il-sung and in the south, the United States created a capitalist state eventually led by Syngman Rhee). Both Kim-Il-sung and Syngman Rhee claimed political legitimacy over the entire peninsula, neither man ever accepted the 38th parallel as a permanent border, and neither of these men (or their sponsors) would yield to the other.
In South Korea, Truman directed the establishment of the United States Army Military Government in Korea (acronym: USAMGIK), the official ruling body of South Korea from 8 September 1945 until 15 August 1948. At the head of USAMGIK was Lieutenant General John R. Hodge, U. S. Army, while concurrently commanding the United States’ XXIV Corps. As an organization, USAMGIK was completely out of its depth in addressing the challenges of administering South Korea. The problems were several and serious:
- USAMGIK had no one on staff who could speak the Korean language, no one with an understanding of, or appreciation for Korean culture, its history, or its politics. Consequently, many of the policies it enacted had a destabilizing effect throughout South Korea. To make things worse, waves of refugees from North Korea swamped USAMGIK and caused turmoil throughout Korean society.
- The consequences of Japanese occupation remained throughout the occupation zone; popular discontent stemmed from the military government’s support of continued Japanese colonial government. Once the colonial apparatus was dismantled, the military government continued to retain Japanese officials as their advisors.
- On the advice of these Japanese advisors, the military government ignored, censored, or forcibly disbanded the functional (and popular) People’s Republic of Korea. This action discharged the popular leader, Yeo Un-hyeong, who subsequently established the Working People’s Party, and it further complicated matters by refusing to recognize the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea (in exile), led by Kim Ku, who was insulted when he was required to re-enter his own country as a private citizen.
In the beginning, the USAMGIK was tolerant of leftist politics, including the Korean Communist Party —apparently attempting to seek a balance between hard-left and hard-right political groups. Such liberality created an adverse relationship with the powerful South Korean leader Syngman Rhee. In any case, the effort to reconcile political differences in South Korea didn’t last and the ban on popular political expressions sent dissenting groups underground. Following South Korea’s constitutional assembly and presidential elections in May and July 1948, the Republic of South Korea was officially announced on 15 August 1948. US military occupation forces were withdrawn in 1949.
In 1948, a large-scale North Korean-backed insurgency erupted in South Korea. The unrecognized border between the two countries was part of the problem, but Kim-Il-sung was an experienced guerilla fighter; one who helped lead Korea’s resistance to Japanese colonialism. Kim Il-sung, more than most, knew how to agitate the masses. The communist insurgency resulted in thousands of deaths on both sides. Post-1945, the armed forces of the Republic of Korea (ROK) were almost exclusively armed and trained to address the Communist insurgency. They were not trained or equipped to deal with conventional war. Advising the ROK military was a force of about 100 US Army advisors.
The communist insurgency did have the attention of senior military leaders in the United States, but they were preoccupied with the Truman administration’s gutting of the US Armed Forces. In January 1949, recently elected President Truman appointed Dean Acheson as the 51st Secretary of State. Acheson had been ensconced at the State Department since 1941 as an under-Secretary. In 1947, Truman awarded Acheson the Medal of Merit for his work in implementing the Marshal Plan, which was part of Truman’s overall Communist containment policy. In the summer of 1949, after Mao Zedong’s victory against the Chinese Nationalists (and before the presidential elections), the American people (mostly Republican politicians) demanded to know how it was possible, after spending billions of dollars in aid to the Nationalist Chinese, that the United States lost China to the Communist dictator, Mao-Zedong.
To answer this question, Secretary Acheson directed area experts to produce a study of recent Sino-American relations. Known conventionally as the China White Paper, Acheson used it to dismiss claims that Truman’s incompetence provided aid and comfort to the Maoists during the Chinese Civil War. The paper argued that any attempt by the United States to interfere in the civil war would have been doomed to failure. This, of course, was probably true. It did not, however, serve American interests for the Truman administration to bury its collective head in the sand and pretend that all was well in the world. It was not.
On 12 January 1950, Acheson addressed the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. During his discussions about the all-important US Defense Perimeter, Acheson failed to include the Korean Peninsula or Formosa within the United States’ protective umbrella. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and North Korean leader Kim-Il-Sung interpreted what Acheson had not said as a green light for military aggression on the Korean Peninsula.
In March 1949, President Truman nominated Louis A. Johnson to serve as the second Secretary of Defense. Johnson shared Truman’s commitment to drastically reduce US expenditures on national defense in favor of socialist programs. Truman viewed defense spending as an interference with his domestic agenda and without regard to the nation’s ability to respond to foreign emergencies. Truman made the erroneous assumption that America’s monopoly on nuclear weapons would be a sufficient deterrence against Communist aggression. Secretary Johnson’s unwillingness to budget for conventional forces-in-readiness caused considerable dissension among the nation’s military leaders.
To ensure congressional approval of Johnson’s proposed DoD budget request, both President Truman and Johnson demanded public acceptance, if not outright support, from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other leaders of military departments when making public statements or testifying before Congress. The intimidation worked, apparently, because General Omar Bradley changed his tune once he was nominated to become Chairman of the JCS. In 1948 he moaned, “The Army of 1948 could not fight its way out of a paper bag.” In the next year, both he and General Collins testified before Congress that Truman cuts made the services more effective.
In a meeting with the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Richard L. Conolly, Johnson said, “Admiral, the Navy is on its way out. There is no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps. General Bradley tells me amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.”
Truman had no love for the US Marine Corps; he did not think the nation needed a Corps of Marines when it had an army capable of doing the same things. He never accepted the fact that the Marine Corps, as a combat force, provided unique strategic and tactical strengths to the Naval establishment and he, in fact, undertook efforts to disband the Marine Corps prior to the National Security Act of 1947, which protected the Marine Corps from disbandment. What the law did not allow Truman to do, he attempted to accomplish through insufficient funding —but this was something the Marine Corps shared with all other services. As a result of Truman’s Department of Defense (DoD) budget cuts, the United States had no combat-effective units in 1950.
On 31 December 1945, the Eighth US Army assumed occupation duties in Japan, replacing the Sixth US Army. Between then and June 1950, the Eighth Army was reduced in both manpower and material. Most of the enlisted men were basically trained soldiers with no combat experience. Among the enlisted men, life in Japan was good. Owing to the fact that there was no money for adequate resupply, training ammunition, fuel, or replacement parts for vehicles, radios, or aircraft, there was plenty of time for imbibing, chasing kimonos, gambling, and black marketeering. Equally inexperienced junior officers, mostly from wealthy families padding their resumes for post-military service, stayed out of the way and allowed the senior NCOs to run the show. Mid-grade officers were experienced enough to know that the senior officers didn’t want to hear about problems involving troop efficiency, unit morale, or disciplinary problems. The more astute majors and colonels learned how to lose games of golf to their seniors, and the generals enchanted their wives by throwing wonderfully attended soirees for visiting dignitaries.
In the early morning of 25 June 1950, the North Korean People’s Army invaded the Republic of South Korea. It was a lightning strike. The only US military presence in the ROK was the US Military Advisory Group (KMAG) under Brigadier General William L. Roberts, U. S. Army, commanding 100 military advisors. Wisely, officers not killed or taken as prisoners of war made a rapid withdrawal southward toward Pusan.
Acting on Dean Acheson’s advice, President Truman ordered General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) to reinforce the South Korean military, transfer materiel to the South Korean military, and provide air cover for the evacuation of US nationals. Truman also ordered the 7th US Fleet to protect the Republic of China (ROC) (Taiwan).
On 3 July, Lieutenant General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, conferred with General Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo, Japan. At the end of this meeting, MacArthur dispatched this message to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Request immediate assignment marine regimental combat team and supporting air group for duty this command. Macarthur.”
Before the JCS made their decision on General MacArthur’s request, MacArthur had to send five additional dispatches. The Korean War was a week old and still, the Marine Corps awaited orders. But while waiting for Truman to decide whether or not there was a role for the Marine Corps, the Marines had begun the process of creating a regimental combat team. On 3 July 1950, however, the 1st Marine Division, closest to the action on the Korean Peninsula, was a paper division. There was only one infantry regiment (as opposed to three): the 5th Marines. Commanding the regiment was Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murry (Colonel Select). Rather than three infantry battalions, Murry had only two. Each battalion had two rifle companies (rather than three). Each company had two rifle platoons, instead of three. Given the status of Murry’s regiment, it would require a herculean task to put together a regimental combat team.
In Korea, the Battle of Osan was the first significant engagement of US forces in the Korean War. Tasked to reinforce the South Korean Army, Major General William F. Dean, commanding the 24th US Infantry Division in Japan, assigned the 21st Infantry Regiment as his lead element. Its first battalion (1/21) was the regiment’s only “combat-ready” battalion, commanded by the experienced Lieutenant Colonel Charles B. Smith, who had earlier participated in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Designated Task Force Smith, 1/21 moved quickly to block advancing NKPA forces. Smith’s orders were to hold off the NKPA until the rest of the division could be moved to Korea by sea —Major General Dean thought it would take three days.
Smith had a little over 500 men under his command, barely 3 rifle companies and a battery of field artillery. Most of these men were teenagers with no combat experience and only eight weeks of basic training. Each of Smith’s rifleman was limited to 120 rounds of ammunition and two days of field rations. Task Force Smith arrived in Korea on 1 July 1950. The unit moved by rail and truck northward toward Suwon, about 25 miles south of Seoul.
At the Battle of Osan on 5 July 1950, Task Force Smith was only able to delay the advancing KPA for seven hours. American casualties were 60 killed, 21 wounded, 82 captured, and six artillery pieces destroyed. Smith did the best he could with what he had at his disposal —which was little more than young boys carrying rifles. His soldiers ran out of ammunition. None of his field radios were in working order. The size of his task force was insufficient for the mission assigned to him. When faced with retreat or capture, Smith ordered the withdrawal of his companies in leap-frog fashion. The men of the 2nd platoon, Company B never received Smith’s order to withdraw. When the platoon commander finally discovered that he was completely alone, it was already too late to withdraw his men in an orderly manner. The wounded were left behind, along with much of the platoon’s equipment (including automatic weapons). According to the later testimony of a North Korean army officer, the Americans were too frightened to fight.
Smith’s withdrawal soon devolved into confused flight. In total, Task Force Smith imposed around 20 enemies KIA with 130 wounded. Task Force Smith revealed the effects of Truman’s national defense policies. The troops were completely unprepared for combat and their inoperable or barely functioning equipment was insufficient to their mission. Following the defeat of Task Force Smith, the 24th Infantry Division’s 34th regiment was likewise defeated at Pyontaek. Over the subsequent 30 days, the NKPA pushed the Eighth Army all the way south to Pusan and the United States Army gave up its most precious resource —the American rifleman— to enemy fires … all because President Truman thought that socialist programs were more important than the combat readiness of its military services.
Equally disastrous for the United States was the long-term implications of the Truman administration’s thinking. There is no such thing as “limited war,” at least, not among those who must confront a determined enemy. Police action is something that civilian police agencies do … winning wars is what the US military establishment is supposed to do … but when national policy dictates “holding actions,” or the acceptance of stalemate, then America’s excellent military can do no more than win battles, give up casualties, and accept the stench of strategic losses created by Washington politicians.
But there is an even worse outcome, which is where I think we are today. It is that in serving under self-absorbed, morally bankrupt, and thoroughly corrupt politicians, career military officers relinquish their warrior ethos. They learn how to accept casualties as simply being the cost of their career advancement, they learn how to lose graciously, and they learn that by getting along with Washington and corporate insiders, lucrative positions await them after military retirement.
The stench of this is enough to make a good American retch.
These lessons began in Korea. The mindset took hold during the Vietnam War. Their effects are easily observed in the more recent efforts of Generals Petraeus and McCrystal, who focused on counterinsurgency strategies (winning hearts and minds) rather than locating a ruthless enemy and destroying him. Recent history demonstrates that there is little that counterinsurgency did to benefit the long-term interests of the United States in the Middle East.
Our current policy objectives accomplish only this: making America the laughingstock of a dangerous and determined enemy. Neither have the efforts of American diplomats benefited our national interests, but then, this has been true for well over 150 years.
The American people are not consulted about the direction of their country but they must live with the results of inept government policy. The American people have but one responsibility, and that is to vote intelligently and responsibly according to their conscience. Nor is the imposition of this responsibility overpowering. We only vote once every two years in general elections.
Yet, how the people vote does matter. Ilhan Omar, Hank Johnson, Erick Swalwell, Ted Lieu all matter. Who the people choose as their President matters: Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. Presidents matter because they appoint cabinet officials (Dean Acheson, Robert McNamara Cyrus Vance, Edmund Muskie, Warren Christopher, Madeline Albright, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry), federal judges (John Roberts, Ruth Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan), and other bureaucrats whose primary allegiance is to themselves rather than to the poor dumb suckers across America who pay their salaries.
Truman laid the foundation for our national malaise, and most presidents between then and now have contributed to our present-day quagmire. America is in trouble and has been for far too long. It occurs to me that if the American people are tired of burying their loved ones at Arlington National Cemetery, then they need to do a better job choosing their national leaders.
The United States was once, not long ago, a king on the world’s stage; today, America is a joker —a useful idiot to people who share the world stage but whose diplomats and policy makers are much smarter than anyone on our side of the ocean.
Success has many fathers—Failure is an orphan.
- Cumings, B. The Origins of the Korean War, Liberation and the Emergence of Separate Regimes. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.
- Eckert, C.J. and Ki-Baik Lee (et.al.) Korea: Old and New, a History. The Korea Institute, Harvard University Press, 1990.
- Karnow, S. Vietnam: A History. Viking Press, 1983
- Millett, A. R. The War for Korea, 1945-1950: A House Burning. Topeka: University of Kansas Press, 2005
- Robinson, M. Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey: A short history. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007
 John Reed Hodge (1823-1963) attended Southern Illinois Teachers College and the University of Illinois and received his appointment in the U. S. Army through the ROTC program. He served in World War I and World War II, retiring as a lieutenant general following his assignment as Chief of Army Field Services in 1953.
 The exact-same strategies used by Ho Chi Minh in 1946. The similarities are no coincidence since the USSR backed Ho Chi Minh at the same time they backed Kim Il-sung. Part of this strategy was to overwhelm South Korea and South Vietnam by streaming thousands of “refugees” into the struggling countries and embedding within these populations hundreds of Communist troublemakers. The amazing part of this is that no one in the Truman administration was able (or could be bothered) to put any of the pieces together. In both events (Korea/Vietnam), Americans lost their lives in a losing proposition. The architect (through malfeasance) of both disasters was the Truman administration.
 The United States’ long-time ally in China was Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s useful idiots and a beneficiary of Roosevelt’s lend-lease arrangement. Roosevelt also provided Mao Zedong with arms and munitions so that he too could confront Japanese Imperial forces in China. Chiang was only marginally successful in waging war against invading Japanese, Mao didn’t even try. He kept Roosevelt’s gifts for use later on against Chiang. In any case, with American made arms and munitions, Chiang repressed the Chinese people, driving many of them squarely into the Communist camp. The first question to ask might have been whether or not Chiang or Mao deserved any support from the United States, and the second might have addressed the kind of ally Chiang would have made had he won the civil war. In any case, no one in America was smart enough to deal effectively with unfolding events in Asia.
 These wounded soldiers were later found shot to death in their litters.