Shortly after the inauguration of President George Washington in 1789, Congress created the United States Department of War (also, War Department) as a cabinet-level position to administer the field army and Naval Affairs under the president’s constitutional authority as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States and the United States Secretary of War. The first Secretary of War was retired army general Henry Knox. With the possible exception of President James Madison “lending a hand” alongside U. S. Marines at the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814, George Washington is the only Commander-in-Chief to lead a field army in 1794 during the so-called Whiskey Rebellion.
President John Adams considered the possibility of reorganizing a “new army” under the nominal command of retired President Washington to deal with the increase of maritime incidents between the United States and the French Republic in 1798. Adams considered this possibility owing to his concern about the possibility of a land invasion by the French and his perceived need of consolidating the Armed Forces under an experienced “commander in chief.” A land invasion would come, but not from France.
Also, in 1798, Congress established the United States Department of the Navy, initiated on the recommendation of James McHenry to provide organizational structure to the emerging United States Navy and Marine Corps (after 1834), and when directed by the President or Congress during time of war, the United States Coast Guard (although each service remained separate and distinct with unique missions and expertise). Until 1949, the Secretary of War and Secretary of the Navy served as members of the presidential cabinet.
Following World War II, particularly as a consequence of evolving military technology and the complex nature of war, Congress believed that the War and Navy departments would be better managed under a central authority. James Forrestal, who served as the 48th Secretary of the Navy, became the first United States Secretary of Defense. A restructuring of the US military took the following form under the National Security Act of 1947.
- Merged the Department of the Navy and Department of War into the National Military Establishment (NME). The Department of War was renamed the Department of the Army. A Secretary of Defense would head the NME.
- Created the Department of the Air Force, which moved the Army Air Corps into the United States Air Force.
- Protected the U. S. Marine Corps as a separate service under the Department of the Navy.
- The secretaries of military departments remained nominal cabinet posts, but this arrangement was determined deficient given the creation of the office of the Secretary of Defense.
While the National Security Act of 1947 did recognize the U. S. Marine Corps as a separate naval service, it did not clearly define the service’s status within the Navy Department. Under this new arrangement, the Commandant did have access to the Secretary of the Navy, but many operational matters involving the Marine Corps continued to fall under the purview of the Chief of Naval Operations. As an example, the U. S. Navy funded Marine Corps aviation, determining types of aircraft made available to the Marine Corps as well as matters pertaining to air station operations. Accordingly, the Marine Corps, as an organization, remained vulnerable to the dictates of others in terms of its composition, funding, and operations limiting the role of the Commandant in deciding such matters.
Within three months of assuming the office of Commandant on 1 January 1948, General Clifton B. Cates was forced to confront a difficult political situation. In March, Defense Secretary Forrestal convened a meeting of the military secretaries and service chiefs in Key West, Florida to discuss and resolve their respective roles and missions within the National Military Establishment. Since General Cates was not invited to the meeting, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Louis E. Denfield, undertook the representation of the Marine Corps as part of the Navy. The problem was that the Marine Corps has never been part of the U. S. Navy.
Part of the Key West conference involved a discussion concerning likely future conflicts, with everyone agreeing that America’s next war would involve the Soviet Union in Europe. Should this happen, given President Truman’s mandate to cut Defense spending, then the Army and Air Force would require substantial defense allocations for reinforcements. In order to fund this potential threat, the meeting concluded that the Marine Corps must receive less money. Besides, argued the Army and Air Force, there would be no need for an amphibious force in a European war. The Key West meeting concluded with an agreement that the Marine Corps would be limited to four infantry divisions, that the JCS would deny Marine Corps leadership any tactical command above the corps levels, and a prohibition of the Marine Corps from creating a second land army.
When General Cates learned of this meeting, he protested making such decisions without his participation claiming that it violated the intent of the National Security Act of 1947 and impaired the ability of the Marine Corps to fulfill its amphibious warfare mission. General Cates protestations fell on deaf ears.
Louis A. Johnson replaced James Forrestal as Secretary of Defense in March 1949. Johnson shared Truman’s commitment to drastic reductions in defense spending in favor of domestic programs. Both Truman and Johnson made the erroneous assumption that America’s monopoly on atomic weapons would act as a sufficient deterrence against Communist aggression. Neither of these men, therefore, believed that a military force-in-readiness was a necessary function of the Department of Defense.
Given the relative autonomy of the service secretaries and military chiefs under the National Security Act, and as a means of thwarting independent lobbying by either the Navy or the Air Force, President Truman pursued two courses of action. (1) Truman sought (and obtained) an amendment to the National Security Act that made the Department of Defense a single executive department, which incorporated as subordinates, each of the service secretaries. The amendment also created the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, subordinating its members to the chairman, the first of these being General Omar Bradley. (2) Both President Truman and Johnson demanded that the service secretaries and senior military leaders “get in line” with the President’s defense cuts.
The intimidation apparently worked 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 Army Chief of Staff General Collins testified before Congress that Truman cuts made the services more effective.
At about the same time, in a meeting with the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Richard L. Conolly, Johnson told him, “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 hated the Marine Corps with intense passion, which might afford psychologists years of interesting study. He did not think the nation needed a corps of Marines when there was already a land army. In implementing Truman’s budget cuts, Secretary Johnson intended that the Marine Corps be disestablished and incorporated into the U. S. Army. Toward this goal, Johnson initiated steps to move Marine Corps aviation into the U. S. Air Force. He was soon reminded that such a move would be illegal without congressional approval.
Neither Truman nor Johnson ever accepted the fact that the Marine Corps, as a combat force, provided unique strategic and tactical strengths to the national defense structure. What the law would not allow Secretary Johnson or President Truman to do, they attempted to accomplish through financial starvation. Under the chairmanship of Omar Bradley, the JCS was bitingly hostile to the Marine Corps.
The Marine Corps, however, was not the lone ranger. Less than a month after assuming office, Secretary Johnson canceled construction of the USS United States, a then state-of-the-art aircraft carrier. Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan resigned his office, and a number of Navy admirals joined him, effective on 24 May 1949. The incident is remembered as the Revolt of the Admirals.
The revolt of admirals prompted the House Armed Services Committee to convene hearings during October 1949. A number of active duty and retired admirals appeared before the committee and gave their testimony, including Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Denfield. They had little good to say about Louis Johnson or newly appointed Navy Secretary Francis Matthews. General Cates also gave testimony, giving his unqualified support to the Navy. Along with this, he protested the fact that he had not been consulted in matters pertaining to the Marine Corps and the impact of these decisions on the national defense. Said Cates, “… the power of the budget, the power of coordination, and the power of strategic direction of the armed forces have been used as devices to destroy the operating forces of the Marine Corps.” The House committee also called General Bradley, who, in arguing in favor of disestablishment of the Navy and Marine Corps rejected the notion that the United States would ever again have a use for amphibious operations.
Replacing Admiral Denfield as CNO was Admiral Forrest P. Sherman, who immediately repudiated General Vandergrift’s agreement with Secretary Sullivan. He instead approached the Secretary of Defense and requested “a free hand” in matters pertaining to the Marine Corps. Johnson granted Sherman’s request. At the beginning of 1950, after two years of forced budgetary cuts, Sherman slated the Marine Corps for additional cuts. The Marine Corps would be reduced to 24,000 officers and men, a reduction from eleven infantry battalions to six, from twenty-three aviation squadrons to twelve. Additionally, Secretary Johnson ordered the curtailment of appropriations for equipment, ammunition, supplies, and people and excluded Marine Corps units from various tactical training. Admiral Sherman assigned the bulk of amphibious ships to support Army training, leaving the Marines with little to do.
War did return to the United States, of course. When it did, it proved General Omar Bradley and the other joint chiefs were completely wrong in their predictions. Worse, it demonstrated how unprepared the United States was for its next martial challenges.
Support for the Marines
Although Representative Carl Vinson (D-GA) proposed a bill that gave full JCS membership to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the measure failed but generated much attention in the American press, particularly in the Hearst news organization. Public support was already growing for the Navy-Marine Corps when the war clouds once more gathered in the Far East.
Among Truman’s staunchest congressional foes was Representative Gordon L. McDonough (R-CA). McDonough wrote a letter to President Truman noting how the Marine Corps has always rushed to the nation’s defense. With this in mind, the congressman urged the president to include the Commandant as a full member of the JCS. The president’s response to McDonough tells us far more about Truman than is possible in an entire essay. Truman wrote, “For your information, the Marine Corps is the Navy’s police force, and as long as I am President, that is what it will remain.” Apparently, Truman failed to consider that he was writing to someone who might use the president’s blistering comments against him later on. Truman continued, “They [Marines] have a propaganda machine almost the equal of Stalin’s. When the Marine Corps goes into the Army it works with and for the Army and that’s the way it should be … The Chief of Naval Operations is the chief of staff of the Navy of which the Marines are a part.”
McDonough inserted Truman’s response into the Congressional Record, and it wasn’t long before the press picked it up and printed it. Press reporting created a firestorm in the United States. Conservative politicians of both parties and journalists excoriated Truman for his remarks. The White House was overwhelmed by mail from the public, many who lost loved ones during World War II, expressing their indignation of Truman’s remarks. Presidential aides scrambled to construct a letter of apology, which Truman personally handed to General Cates at the White House. He then released a copy to the press. Afterward, when Truman fired Louis Johnson after only 18 months as Defense Secretary, the matter moved to the back burner.
The nation responds
Immediately following World War II, the Eighth US Army was assigned to occupation duty in Japan. Initially, there was much work to be done: disarming former Japanese soldiers, maintaining order, dealing with local populations, guarding installations, and prosecuting war criminals. According to the Eighth Army Blue Book, “On 31 December 1945, Sixth Army was relieved of occupation duties and Eighth Army assumed an expanded role in the occupation, which encompassed the formidable tasks of disarmament, demilitarization, and democratization. The missions were flawlessly executed at the operational level by Eighth Army …”
The statement may be undeniably true, but as the Japanese people settled comfortably into their new reality, demands placed on soldiers and their officers lessoned. What the Blue Book’s history section omits, a dangerous precedent for future soldiers, was that this major combat command became lethargic, pleasure-seeking, and in the face of severe budgetary restraints imposed on it by the Truman administration, reached an unbelievable level of incompetence and ineptitude.
In the early hours of 25 June 1950, the (North) Korean People’s Army, numbering 53,000 front line and supporting forces followed a massive artillery bombardment into South Korea. There were only a handful of Army advisors in South Korea at the time. Those who wanted to continue living made a beeline toward the southern peninsula.
In Japan, there was a single battalion in the 21st Regiment of the 24th Infantry Division capable of “mounting out” to interdict the overwhelming KPA army. The battalion, composed of mostly untrained teenagers capable of little more than standing guard duty in Japan, never stood a chance.
The Marines Respond
At the time of the North Korean invasion, senior officers of the U. S. Marine Corps knew that they would be called upon to address this new crisis. Lieutenant General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Commanding General, Fleet Marine Force, Pacific, in Hawaii, flew to Tokyo to confer with General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander Allied Powers (SCAP), in Tokyo. At the conclusion of their meeting, MacArthur sent a dispatch to the JCS in Washington requesting the immediate assignment of a Marine regimental combat team to his command.
In Washington, General Bradley delayed his response for a full five days. By the time the JCS did respond, the North Korean Army had already mauled the 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division at the Battle of Osan, rendering it combat ineffective. Closer to the truth, 1/21 was combat ineffective even before it arrived on the Korean Peninsula. For these young men, the land of the morning calm had become a bloody nightmare.
In late June 1950, Marine Corps manpower equaled around 74,000 men. The total number of Marines assigned to the Fleet Marine Forces was 28,000, around 11,000 of these were assigned to FMFPac. Neither the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton nor its east coast counterpart, the 2nd Marine Division, could raise more than a regimental landing team (RLT) of combat-ready troops, with supporting air. To fully man a combat division, it would be necessary to transfer Marines to Camp Pendleton from posts and stations, recruiting staffs, supply depots, schools, depots, districts, and even Marine headquarters.
General MacArthur had requested an RLT, he would get a Marine brigade, the advance element of the 1st Marine Division that had been ordered to embark. The officer assigned to lead the Brigade was the senior officer present at Camp Pendleton, Brigadier General Edward A. Craig, an experienced combat leader with 33 years of active duty service.
The ground combat element of the Brigade would form around the 5th Marine Regiment under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray. Murray was already selected for promotion to colonel. Marines reporting for duty at Camp Pendleton were rushed to the 5th Marines where they would flesh out Murray’s understrength battalions. 1st Battalion 11th Marines (artillery) would serve in general support of the brigade with additional detachments (company strength) in communications, motor transportation, field medical, support, engineer, ordnance, tanks, and special weapons.
At the Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro, California, Marine Aircraft Group 33 was being formed around Brigadier General Thomas H. Cushman. Cushman would serve as Craig’s deputy and command the brigade’s air element, consisting of a headquarters squadron, service squadron, VMF 214, VMF 323, VMF(N) 513(-), and Tactical Squadron-2 (detachment).
In total, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade arrived in Korea with 6,534 Marines —its equipment, brought out of mothballs dating back to World War II: trucks, jeeps, amphibian tractors, all reconditioned and tested for service.
Major General Frank E. Lowe, U. S. Army (Retired) was dispatched to Korea as the personal envoy of President Truman. His task was to observe the conduct of the conflict and report his findings directly to the President. General Lowe advised President Truman that the Army, its senior leadership and combat doctrine were dangerously lacking. Of the 1st Marine Division, General Lowe reported, “The First Marine Division is the most efficient and courageous combat unit I have ever seen or heard of.” General Lowe recommended that the Marine Corps have a permanent establishment of three divisions and three air wings.
Whether General Lowe’s report influenced Truman is unknown. What is known is that the Secretary of Defense, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of the Navy, and Chief of Naval Operations continued to oppose recognition of the Marine Corps as a viable service and its leader as someone entitled to become a member of the JCS. Still, public and congressional support for the Marine Corps increased steadily. The issue of the Douglas-Mansfield bills was deferred until the 1952 legislative session. Before then, however, Admiral Sherman died suddenly in July 1951, and General Lemuel C. Shepherd succeeded Cates as Commandant of the Marine Corps.
As a result, the 1952 legislative session worked in the Marine Corps’ favor. The Marine Corps was approved for a peacetime force of three infantry divisions, three air wings, and a manpower ceiling of 400,000 men. The Commandant was granted access to the Joint Chiefs of Staff with voting rights on matters pertaining to the Marine Corps, as determined by the Commandant of the Marine Corps, and on 20 June 1952, President Truman signed into law the Douglas-Mansfield Act. Some pundits claim that politically, Truman did not dare veto the bill —others argue that Truman finally realized the value of the Marine Corps as our nation’s premier combat force.
- Catchpole, L. G. The Korean War. London: Robinson Publishing, 2001
- Davis, V. The Post-Imperial Presidency. New Brunswick: Transaction Press, 1980
- Fehrenbach, T. R. This Kind of War: The Classic Korean War History. Washington: Potomac Books, 2001
- Krulak, V. H. First to Fight: An Inside View of the U. S. Marine Corps. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999.
- Montross, L. and Nicholas A. Canzona. S. Marine Operations in Korea, 1950-1953 (Volume 1): The Pusan Perimeter. Historical Branch, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, Washington, D. C., 1954.
- The United States Naval Proceedings Magazine, Volume 33, Number 3: A Propaganda Machine Like Stalin’s, Alan Rems, June 2019
 A supporter of the United States Constitution, Representative from Maryland, and third Secretary of War. He was also a noted surgeon with many successes during the Revolutionary War. Fort McHenry, outside Baltimore, is named in his honor.
 Forrestal had served in the Navy Department as Under Secretary since 1940 and appointed as Secretary of the Navy in 1944. Forrestal served as Secretary of Defense from 18 September 1947 until 28 March 1949 when President Harry S. Truman asked for his resignation and replaced him Louis A. Johnson. Forrestal’s wartime service had taken its toll and he was personally shattered when fired by Truman, with whom he had little patience. He took his own life on 22 May 1949 while undergoing treatment for severe depression.
 During World War II, Chief of Naval Operations Ernest J. King was well-known as a micro-manager. He treated the Commandant of the Marine Corps as another one of his bureau chiefs and denied the Commandant access to the Secretary of the Navy. This restriction changed when Admiral Nimitz became CNO, but the relationship was a gentleman’s agreement between Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan, Admiral Nimitz, and Marine Commandant Alexander A. Vandergrift. The National Security Act of 1947, however, did not clarify the status of the Marine Corps within the Department of the Navy.
 During World War II, the Marine Corps fielded six infantry divisions.
 Nearly every newly created U. S. Air Force general was a proponent of the use of strategic bombing and atomic warfare as the United States’ principal defense strategy. Standing in opposition to this ludicrous mindset was nearly every active duty and retired Navy admiral.
 The JCS evolved from a relatively inefficient joint board of senior Army and Navy officers who seldom agreed in matters of operational planning or execution. The Joint Board performed as presidential advisors but had no authority to initiate programs or policies. Following World War I, the Joint Board was renamed the Joint Planning Committee with the authority to initiate recommendations but had no authority to implement them.
 General Bradley detested the Marine Corps almost as much as President Truman and Secretary Johnson.
 Because of Truman and Johnson’s defense cuts, the United States had no combat-ready units in June 1950.
 Replacing Sullivan was Francis P. Matthews, a former director of the USO who admitted to having no expertise that would qualify him for service as a Navy Secretary beyond his contempt for the Marine Corps.
 President Truman demanded Denfield’s resignation and took action to demote the other admirals.
 Dated 3 July 2019.
 Each of Murray’s battalions were organized with an H&S Company, two rifle companies, and one weapons company.