The War Against the Corps — Part 2

(Continued from last week)

Post-War National Defense Realignment

Following World War II, President Truman (known to harbor anti-Navy and anti-Marine Corps sentiments) directed a realignment of the U.S. defense structure.  Unifying the Army and Marine Corps became a principal effort from the White House down through the Department of War.

Marine Corps Commandant General Alexander A. Vandegrift was well-aware of the behind-the-scenes finagling by Army senior officers.  The Commandant appointed Brigadier General Gerald C. Thomas as his representative in the matter of defense realignment.  According to these initial discussions, Thomas reported that the Army planned to retain their “prerogative” to decide the U.S. Marine Corps’ roles, missions, structures, programs, and budgets — without Congressional oversight.  General Thomas believed that the future of the Corps was in grave peril.

Certain Marine Corps officers almost immediately began creating a defensive strategy.  Their justification for this direct action was, essentially, that “Marine Corps relations with Congress in 1944–1947 were based on the premise that the Corps’ existence as a balanced force of arms depended upon Congress recognizing the need for diverse military forces and military innovation. Traditionally, this recognition had come from Congress.”

The Army’s unification plan also threatened the Navy.  Leaders of the newly created U.S. Air Force argued that, for economy and efficiency, land-based naval aviation should become part of the USAF.  Secretary Forrestal quickly formed a committee under the leadership of Vice Admiral Arthur W. Radford.  Admiral Radford, in turn, assigned Brigadier General Merritt A. “Red Mike” Edson (Guadalcanal legend) to serve as the Marine Corps representative to Secretary Forrestal’s committee.

Meanwhile, General Vandegrift formed a research/action committee headed by Colonel Merrill B. Twining, and which included Lieutenant Colonel Victor H. Krulak.  The committee referred to itself as the “Chowder Society.”

Once Eisenhower became Army Chief of Staff, he initiated a long series of anti-Marine Corps essays that Colonel Twining regarded as a “felonious assault” on the exceptional combat record of the Corps.  Twining noted that Eisenhower’s essays “unprofessionally” belittled and demeaned the Marine Corps — even as he knew that Marines were fighters, amphibious warfare experts, and thoroughly dedicated to completing their missions.  Eisenhower knew this because Marines supported Eisenhower in the European Theater of Operations in World War II.  Eisenhower had Marines on his staff, they trained the Army’s divisions in the art and science of amphibious warfare, and they fought behind the lines as members of the OSS.  In attacking the Marines, General Eisenhower was at least disingenuous and, at worst scurrilous.

If Eisenhower had had his way, the new defense structure would limit Marine Corps operations to small naval raids, minor landings, and navy security duties.  Eisenhower argued that Army operations in World War II demonstrated that the Army could “do amphibious operations” as well as the Marine Corps; he apparently forgot that Marines not only trained the army in amphibious operations, but they also wrote the Army’s amphibious warfare doctrine.

During testimony before the House of Representatives, General Vandegrift argued for a Fleet Marine Force — as a matter of logic.  In Twining’s view (having helped prepare Vandegrift for his testimony), the Commandant’s remarks were innocuous — yet inspired nasty articles by “Army operatives” directed at a man who only a few short years before had been awarded the Medal of Honor.

Meanwhile, because Admiral Radford wouldn’t “play ball” with those seeking to destroy the Marine Corps, Secretary Forrestal removed him as Chairman of the Navy Board and replaced him with Vice Admiral Forrest Sherman. Radford’s removal was a brutal blow for the Marines because Sherman would do anything to become Chief of Naval Operations — anything at all.

Following Admiral Radford’s removal, the Marines were on their own.  They had no allies among the post-war Navy brass.  If Sherman harbored an intense dislike for Marines, it was nothing compared to Colonel Twining’s loathing contempt for Sherman.

Despite Forrestal’s earlier laudatory comments about the Battle of Iwo Jima, Colonel Twining suspected that he’d turned his back on the Marines to become the first Secretary of Defense.  James Forrestal did become the first Secretary of Defense but committed suicide in May 1949 after suffering a mental breakdown.

Admiral Sherman did become CNO and, absent Admiral Radford, the Corps’ only chance for survival was to go directly to the Congress on the issue of whether or not the United States needed its Corps of Marines.  Americans love their Marines, but because it is not a sentiment shared by every politician, the Chowder Society turned to the press.[1]

The American press was happy to take up the Marine Corps’ cause, and their support resulted in overwhelming popular support for the Marine Corps.  Truman, who was soon beside himself with all the Corps’ public support, realized that his unification bill could not pass in Congress.  He deferred the matter of Army-Marine Corps unification until 1947.  Following Vandegrift’s testimony in Congress, President Truman summoned him to the White House and threatened him with severe repercussions if he continued to oppose the unification effort.  Disappointingly, Vandegrift subsequently became a wallflower on this issue.

The new legislative session began in January 1947.  The White House, War Department, and Navy Department were all lined up against the Marine Corps.  A senate bill supported the unification measure.  Vandegrift was walking on eggshells, so the task of attacking the bill fell upon Brigadier General Merritt Edson.  Edson appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee wearing his Medal of Honor, two Navy Cross medals, his Silver Star, two Legions of Merit, and the U.K.’s Distinguished Service Order.

Edson, in his testimony, relied upon a speech he and Krulak had prepared for Vandegrift — and then added his own two cents along the way.  Edson tore into the bill’s proposed centralized defense structure as a worrisome measure leaning toward dictatorship, reminiscent of the discredited German General Staff.  He contrasted the long American tradition of civilian control with the concentration of military power in one individual.  He condemned the anti-Marine bias in the highly classified JCS-1478 paper, which remained classified and unavailable to the Senate.  Despite Edson’s courageous effort, he lost that battle. 

The People’s House

Pursuing a “by hook or crook” strategy, pro-Army members of Congress passed the Senate Bill to a known isolationist named Clare Hoffman.  The pro-Army cabal was betting that Hoffman had little-to-no interest in military affairs.  If that were the case, Hoffman would likely refer the Senate Bill to a subcommittee under the chairmanship of pro-Army member James Wadsworth.  Colonel Twining, who was never without an opinion, believed that Wadsworth was more than pro-Army; he was anti-Marine Corps.

However, Representative Hoffman happened to be a friend of the father of a member of the Chowder Society.  Rather than referring the bill to a subcommittee, Hoffman retained the bill and assembled a coalition of pro-Marine Corps representatives to consider it.

The committee battered witnesses called to testify with pointed questions about the concentration of power within the office of the Secretary of Defense, the danger of the JCS becoming German-style general staff, and the attendant usurpation of the authority of Congress.  The committee validated the Chowder Society’s contentions when Hoffman demanded that the Chairman JCS provide the classified 1478 document.

General Vandegrift’s eventual appearance before the committee turned out to be critical to the outcome of the hearing.  Hoffman had a hand in developing the protective amendments (drafted by the Chowder Society) that were presented earlier to the committee.  When Hoffman asked for Vandegrift’s opinion about those amendments, Vandegrift said he was in favor.  In expressing his assent, Vandegrift assumed Hoffman referred to the mild protective amendments rejected by the Senate, which he also proposed in the House.  This was an error that also escaped the attention of Vandergrift’s lawyer.  According to Lieutenant Colonel Krulak, “Whether Hoffman realized the confusion but chose to let the effect stand is unclear.  What is clear is that Knighton (Vandergrift’s attorney) later clarified, for the record, that the Commandant’s testimony concurred with the amendments.”

Another unexpected success occurred during General Eisenhower’s testimony.  After emphatically denying that the Marine Corps had reason to suspect the Army of conspiring to disband the Marine Corps, Hoffman asked him to explain his anti-Marine comments within the JCS-1478 document.  Eisenhower had nothing more to say.

The House committee was a Marine Corps success, but what was needed was a spectacular denunciation of the pending bill.  There was no one better qualified than General Edson, whose statement went far beyond his previous senate testimony.  Hammering the point that civilian control was necessary at the highest levels, he warned that “there can be a monopoly within the military field, just as there can be a monopoly within the industrial or commercial field, and with the same suppressive effects.”

After delivering his address, General Edson retired from active duty.  He was not the only casualty.  Vandegrift also reassigned Brigadier General Thomas to an overseas assignment.  Twining and Krulak believed that General Vandegrift intended to “curb the colonels” by getting rid of the one general officer who understood the seriousness of the Army’s war against the Marine Corps.  General Thomas was disgusted with Vandegrift and believed that the Commandant had lost his moral courage.

A revised bill passed the House, and Truman signed the compromise, which read in part, “The United States Marine Corps, within the Department of the Navy, shall include land combat and service forces and such aviation as may be organic therein. The primary mission of the Marine Corps shall be to provide fleet marine forces of combined arms, together with supporting air components, for service with the fleet in the seizure and defense of advanced naval bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign.”

The Fight gets Nasty

The National Security Act of 1947 did somewhat unite the armed services.  Yet, despite provisions that recognized the Marine Corps’ unique position as an amphibious force in readiness, the act did not clearly define the service’s status within the Navy Department, and the Commandant still lacked direct access to the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS).  Consequently, the Marine Corps remained vulnerable to the dictates of the other services relative to the Marine Corps’ composition, resources, and operations — and lacked the power to respond to adverse decisions taken outside the Marine Corps.

After succeeding Vandegrift as Commandant in January 1948, General Clifton B. Cates was forced to confront this difficult situation.  In March 1948, at a conference in Key West, Florida, the first Secretary of Defense, James V. Forrestal, met with the service chiefs to settle their respective roles and missions.  General Cates was not invited to the meeting.  Instead, CNO Admiral Louis E. Denfeld represented the interests of the Marine Corps as part of the Navy.  The group concluded the next “most likely war” would be against the Soviet Union in Europe and that the Army and Air Force would need substantial reinforcement to fight it. To obtain the necessary funds while controlling military costs, they sought economies elsewhere — that is, reduced funding for the Marines, whose expertise in amphibious warfare the service chiefs considered nonessential in the new world order.

The agreement that emerged from the Key West meeting included an understanding that, in the event of war, the Secretary of Defense “would only allow” four Marine infantry divisions (fewer than the six fielded during World War II and far fewer than the Corps’ mobilization capability).  Additionally, that no Marine officer would be given a tactical command above the level of an infantry corps.  Although hardly necessary given the other limitations, the agreement prohibited the Marines from creating a second land army.  Cates protested (in vain) that making such decisions without his participation as Commandant violated the 1947 National Security Act’s intent and harmed the Marine Corps’ ability to fulfill its amphibious mission.  He later told a reporter that his biggest worry was keeping the Marine Corps alive, adding, “There are lots of people here in Washington who want to prevent that, who want to reduce us to the status of Navy policemen or get rid of us entirely.”

Such was politics in the Truman administration that Truman and his acolytes determined that if he could not win the fight by hook, then he’d do it by crook: he would simply defund the Marine Corps until it had no practical purpose — but to appear as if he merely needed to re-channel appropriations to other departments, he also cut funding to the Army, Air Force, and Navy.

In March 1949, dissatisfied with the pace of defense cuts, President Truman fired Defense Secretary James Forrestal.  To replace Forrestal, Truman nominated his long-time crony, Louis A. Johnson.  Johnson was anti-military anyway, but if he couldn’t get rid of the Corps, he’d pare it down to a bare-bones operation.  As a cost-cutting measure, Johnson hoped that the Army would absorb the Marine Corps ground forces, that the Air Force would absorb Marine Corps aviation assets, and the Navy would simply “go away.”  However, Johnson’s first revelation was that all of his proposals were illegal without Congressional approval.  General Merrill B. Twining later explained, “He [Johnson] made Cliff Cates’ life miserable, treated him with contempt.  Cates hated him, and he hated Cates and the Marine Corps.”

President Truman had also learned how to reign in his service secretaries.  He obtained an amendment to the National Security Act that made the Department of Defense a single executive department, with the service secretaries subordinate to Johnson.  The National Security Act also created the position of JCS Chairman as principal military advisor to the President/Secretary of Defense.  The first officer to serve as JCS Chairman was General Omar N. Bradley, who was no friend of the U.S. Marine Corps.  Bradley made sure that the JCS remained glacially hostile to the Marine Corps.

Tensions between the armed services grew during 1949, erupting in the “Revolt of the Admirals.” To cover the considerable cost of the Air Force’s new B-36 long-range bomber program, Secretary Johnson canceled the construction of the Navy’s supercarrier, the USS United States.  Several senior admirals, as well as Navy Secretary Sullivan, resigned in protest.  President Truman replaced Sullivan with Francis Matthews, a politician without scruples or any naval background and completely unsympathetic to the Marine Corps.

By late 1949, interservice discord in the United States was palpable — at least sufficient to justify the intervention of the House Armed Services Committee.  Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Louis E. Denfeld (and other active duty and retired admirals) testified on behalf of the Navy.  General Twining remembered, “Denfeld went over there and told them what sort of heels Matthews, Johnson, and company were.”

General Cates appeared before the committee, as well — offering support for the Navy and supporting his Marines.  He protested the lack of “adequate representation in matters of vital concern both to the Corps itself and the National defense.”  

During his testimony, General Cates noted that former Navy Secretary Sullivan had wanted the Commandant of the Marine Corps to participate in the JCS during discussions involving the Corps and then offered a biting rebuke of Secretary Johnson and the JCS, protesting that “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 heard from Secretary Johnson: “I cannot see need or justification for giving the Commandant of the Marine Corps a special role which is not accorded to the chiefs of various other arms and services which are considered integral parts of the Army, Navy and Air Force, respectively.”[2]  JCS Chairman Omar Bradley, genius that he was, rejected the need for amphibious operations in future wars.

Although Navy Secretary Francis P. Matthews promised that those who testified could speak freely, Truman demanded Denfeld’s resignation and demoted the other admirals.  Cates was protected by Johnson, who convinced Matthews that action against the Commandant would create a political disaster.

Truman replaced Admiral Denfeld with Admiral Forrest P. Sherman as CNO.  General Twining summed Sherman up in this way: “It wasn’t so much that Sherman was anti-Marine as he was so tremendously egotistical and pro-Sherman, and the Marine Corps simply got in his way.”

Intent on asserting his authority over the Commandant, Sherman obtained authorization from Johnson “to have a free hand in matters regarding the organization and training of the Marine divisions.” Viewing Marine Corps Headquarters as another bureau of the Navy Department, Sherman attempted to interpose himself between General Cates and Navy Secretary Matthews.

January 1950 was bleak for the Marine Corps.  After two years of forced cuts, Johnson and Matthews directed an additional one-third cut to Marine Corps manpower — fewer than 24,000 officers and men, a reduction from 11 to 6 infantry battalions (two regiments), from 23 to 12 aviation squadrons.  Additionally, Johnson cut funding for training, equipment, weapons, munitions, and supplies.  Johnson wouldn’t allow the Marines to equip or train.  Admiral Sherman assigned the bulk of the Navy’s amphibious ships to the Army for training, which limited the Marine Corps’ ability to ready its own combat forces.

As three years before, the Corps’ best hope to avoid being defunded into oblivion was its relationship with the Congress.  Convinced of the correctness of the Marine’s stated cause, Democratic Representative Carl Vinson introduced a bill to extend membership on the JCS to the Marine Commandant.  Although the measure failed, editorials in the Hearst press generated much public support for the Marines. Two unexpected events would turn that burgeoning public support into an irresistible tide.

Bullets and Indiscretion

The outbreak of the Korean War on 25 June 1950 (Korean time) disproved General Bradley’s expectation about the United States’ next war: it wasn’t with the Soviet Union.  The Truman administration was utterly unprepared for new hostilities.  None of the U.S. Armed Forces was ready for combat.  General Cates offered what ground and air forces the Marine Corps had at their disposal.  The CNO (with the President’s concurrence) authorized the Commandant to activate the Marine Corps Reserve.  Suddenly, President Truman needed Marines.

President Truman had more than a few political foes in Congress — none more so than Republican Congressman G. L. McDonough, who continually wrote letters to President Truman reminding him how the U.S. Marine Corps has repeatedly rushed to the nation’s defense.  He may have been picking at the President’s scab when he reminded the president that as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, the president could give the Commandant of the Marine Corps a seat on the JCS.

President Truman responded, in writing: “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.” McDonough had irritated Truman, particularly in light of the overwhelming public support accorded to the Marine, because the president continued, “They [the Marines] have a propaganda machine almost the equal of Stalin’s.” Then, making his attitude even clearer, Truman continued: “When the Marine Corps goes into the Army, it works with and for the Army, and that is 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.”

Truman’s intemperate letter to McDonough was a gift to the Republican Party — and the Marine Corps.

McDonough didn’t send the letter to the press; he published it in the Congressional Record.  Journalists picked it up from there, and then the wire services.  Within a short time, Truman’s letter appeared in every major newspaper in the country — and the public reaction was anger. “Their” Marines were fighting in Korea, and the President had the gall to equate them with the communist, Joseph Stalin.  Republicans in Congress ripped into Truman, including Senator Joseph McCarthy.  Syndicated pundits piled on — Truman’s leadership was mediocre.

President Truman’s aides recognized a political disaster when they saw one.  They hastily prepared a letter of apology that the President personally handed to General Cates at the White House, with a copy released to the press.  The Marine Corps League was meeting in Washington at the time and had demanded an apology for the slur; it was decided that Truman would appear there beside Cates. Truman’s apology quieted matters, but he was severely chastened and forced to recognize the strength of public support for the Marines.

Victory for the Corps

In September 1950, the 1st Marine Division made a successful amphibious assault at Inchon, South Korea.  This was the strategy General Bradley had asserted would never again be used in modern warfare — and one that would not work at Inchon.  Along with their successful landing, the Marines score still another victory.  As later explained by Lieutenant General Victor H. Krulak, “We received some surprising news. President Truman, under heavy fire for the lack of preparedness of American forces . . . and tired of Louis Johnson’s squabbling . . . marched his defense secretary down the plank.  Johnson was fired, and there was genuine rejoicing.  There seemed in this some just retribution.”

But the Marines had a powerful ally in the Army, as well.  Early in the war, special Presidential Envoy Major General Frank E. Lowe visited Korea on a fact-finding tour.  His report to Truman severely criticized U.S. Army leadership, training doctrine, and combat performance un as acceptable.  In contrast, he wrote of the Marines, “The First Marine Division is the most efficient and courageous combat unit I have ever seen or heard of.” General Lowe recommended, as a matter of policy, that the mission to conduct all future amphibious operations be assigned to the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, that the government recognize the Marine Corps as the nation’s force in readiness, and permanently structured with three divisions and three air wings.

Considering the public reaction to Truman’s letter, the Marine’s exceptional performance in Korea, and General Lowe’s enthusiastic endorsements, the Marine Corps gained the support of influential members of Congress: Senator Paul Douglas (D), Representatives Carl Vinson, and Mike Mansfield.[3]  Douglas introduced a Senate Bill calling for four permanent Marine divisions and four air wings, membership in the JCS, and the creation of an Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Marine Corps affairs.  Mike Mansfield prepared a similar bill in the House, and the 82nd Congress considered and passed a compromise measure in 1952.

Public Law 416: To fix the personnel strength of the United States Marine Corps and to establish the relationship of the Commandant of the Marine Corps to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Be it enacted by the Senate and House Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the first sentence of Section 206 (c) of the National Security Act of 1947 is hereby amended to read as follows: “The United States Marine Corps, within the Department of the Navy, shall be so organized as to include not less than three combat divisions and three air wings, and such other land combat, aviation, and other services as may be organic therein, and except in time of war or national emergency hereafter declared by the Congress, the personnel strength of the Regular Marine Corps shall be maintained at not more than four hundred thousand.”

Section 2: Section 211 (a) of the National Security Act of 1947 (61 STAT 505), as amended, is hereby further amended by adding at the end thereof the following new paragraph: “The Commandant of the Marine Corps shall indicate to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff any matter scheduled for consideration by the Joint Chiefs of Staff which directly concerns the United States Marine Corps.  Unless the Secretary of Defense, upon request from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a determination, determines that such matter does not concern the United States Marine Corps, the Commandant of the Marine Corps shall meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff when such matters under consideration by them and on such occasion and with respect to such matter, the Commandant of the Marine Corps shall have co-equal status with the members of the Joint Chief of Staff.”

President Truman signed these amendments into law.  As important was recognizing that the Marine Corps was a separate armed service with specific roles and missions.  The legislation elevated the Commandant of the Marine Corps to the same level as the Chief of Naval Operations, with equal access to the Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of Defense.  The first Commandant to take a seat on the JCS was General Cates successor, General Lemuel C. Shepherd.  The CMC became a regular, full-time member of the JCS in 1978. 

Today, the U.S. Marine Corps has three infantry divisions, three air wings, and three combat logistics groups.  We still have the combat power as we did in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Viet Nam War … and the same kind of courageous young men as we always have had, since 1775.  What the Marine Corps is lacking today is quality leadership at its highest echelons.  Replacing the giants of the Marine Corps’ combat history are poor managers and exceptional politicians.  See also: We’ll All Die as Marines Blog.

(Continued next week)


  1. Biles, R.  Crusading Liberal: Paul H. Douglas of Illinois.  The Standard Biography, 2002.
  2. Cook, J. F.  Carl Vinson: Patriarch of the Armed Forces.  Mercer University Press, 2004.
  3. Coram, R.  Brute: The Life of Victor Krulak, U.S. Marine Corps.  Little, Brown, 2010.
  4. Hoffman, J. T.  Once a Legend: Red Mike Edson of the Marine Raiders.  Presidio Press, 1994.
  5. Keiser, G. W.  The U.S. Marine Corps and Defense Unification, 1944-1947: The Politics of Survival.  National Defense Unification Press, 1982.
  6. Krulak, V. H.  First to Fight: An Inside View of the U.S. Marine Corps. Naval Institute Press, 1984.
  7. Millett, A. R.  In Many a Strife: General Gerald C. Thomas and the U.S. Marine Corps, 1917-1956.  Naval Institute Press, 1993.
  8. Oberdorfer, D.  Senator Mike Mansfield: The Extraordinary Life of a Great American Statesman and Diplomat.  Smithsonian Books, 2003.
  9. Rems, A.  Semper Fidelis: Defending the Marine Corps. U.S. Naval Institute, 2017.
  10. Twining, M. B.  No Bended Knee: The Memoir of General Merill B. Twining.  Presidio Press, 1996.


[1] This was at a time when the United States had a patriotic press. 

[2] According to Robert Heinl, Louis Johnson viewed the Marine Corps as no more separate from the Navy than the Veterinary Corps.

[3] Both Douglas and Mansfield served as United States Marines; Mansfield in World War I, and Douglas in World War II.

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Retired Marine, historian, writer.

4 thoughts on “The War Against the Corps — Part 2”

    1. Mark people have no honesty today. Even our military heads “General Miley” is a stain and so dishonest. Yes, it would be buried. Does not surprise me in the least anymore.

      Liked by 1 person

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