Truman & MacArthur – Book Review
Although this reviewer might quibble somewhat about the overall images of Truman and MacArthur that emerge from the pages of Pearlman’s book (not quite negative enough on Truman nor positive enough on MacArthur to fully suit me), his documentation and research seem solid and extensive enough to back up his claims regarding his assessment of their characters. However, a quibble that won’t go unchallenged is Pearlman’s judgment of MacArthur’s Inchon operation. Although Pearlman admits that Inchon was “surely one of the best-conducted military operations of the twentieth century,” he concludes that “unfortunately Inchon was also a failure, at least at a strategic level. It certainly did not end the war” – ‘ending the war’ apparently being Pearlman’s principal benchmark for measuring the operation’s success.
Pearlman’s first criticism of Inchon (MacArthur’s plan to cut off the North Korean army, then bottling up U.S. and South Korean forces in the Pusan perimeter in southeast Korea, by landing at the port city, then striking to recapture Seoul astride the North Korean line of communications) is that it was unnecessary. He cited “the logical conclusion that Inchon was not necessary now that U.S./UN forces were winning the war at the Naktong” (the Pusan perimeter’s river border). Indeed, by the time of the Inchon landings, the North Korean army was, as Pearlman notes, “a spent force,” actually outnumbered by Pusan’s defenders and staggering at the end of a tenuous supply line heavily interdicted by UN air power. Yet, the U. S. Eighth Army and South Korean forces at Pusan could not possibly have pushed the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel by the end of September 1950 without the Inchon landing in the enemy rear precipitating the enemy’s withdrawal. As one who has actually walked the rugged Korean terrain from the Naktong river north to Seoul, this reviewer remains unconvinced that even a spent force could have been pushed back through the successive series of formidable natural defensive positions in that region in the approximately two weeks it took historically after the Inchon landing. Essentially, it is the difference between pushing on a rope and cutting it off. If one measures the success of Inchon as driving the North Koreans out of South Korea in as short a time as possible, then Inchon was a brilliant success, not an unnecessary diversion of combat power.
However, Pearlman is on somewhat firmer ground when he criticizes Inchon on the strategic level. It did not, as MacArthur clearly had hoped it would, “win the Korean War in a single stroke,” since he was not provided with the combat power to set up a two hundred mile troop barrier across the Korean peninsula that would have been necessary to trap and totally destroy the entire fleeing North Korean army (between 30,000 and 50,000 North Korean troops infiltrated through the rugged Korean hills back across the 38th parallel). Yet, in the face of strong opposition to the bold Inchon plan by the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and the U. S. Navy), MacArthur was fortunate to be given the troop and, especially, naval assets he needed just for Inchon. The Truman administration had so gutted America’s military forces in its rapid drawdown at the end of World War II – and was so focused on protecting Europe with what remained – that it could not provide its Far East commander with the combat assets that would have been required to establish a roadblock across the entire peninsula. The sad state of the U. S. Armed Forces in 1950 can hardly be blamed on MacArthur.
Inchon was a brilliant military stroke carried out by MacArthur in the face of strong opposition from nearly all quarters that clearly accelerated the collapse of the North Korean army and allowed UN forces to reestablish the status quo ante bellum (i.e. UN control of all of South Korea up to the 38th parallel pre-war dividing line) within about two weeks of the landing. Pushing them back from Pusan would not have accomplished the feat within the same time frame. Perhaps most importantly, it inspired UN forces (particularly the battered U. S. Eighth Army) to regain the psychological initiative in the war. Although, as subsequent events played out, it might be argued that when UN forces drove across the 38th parallel into North Korea, MacArthur’s forces had gained too much psychological initiative – i.e. they became recklessly overconfident.
Despite this Inchon quibble, however, Michael Pearlman’s book is a highly recommended “must read” for anyone wanting to find out the truth behind the Truman-MacArthur controversy. No Korean War library can now be considered complete without a copy of Pearlman’s outstanding Truman & MacArthur on its shelves. It is available in bookstores and on-line booksellers, such as amazon.com and barnesandnoble.com.
AUTHOR: Michael Pearlman, PhD, retired in 2006 as a history professor at the U. S. Army Command and General Staff College. The award winning historian is author of the books Warmaking and American Democracy: The Struggle over Military Strategy, 1700 to the Present and To Make Democracy Safe for America: Patricians and Preparedness in the Progressive Era.
REVIEWER: Jerry D. Morelock, PhD, is Editor in Chief of Armchair General magazine. He proudly admits to being a MacArthur partisan in the Truman-MacArthur controversy, but regards Michael Pearlman’s Truman & MacArthur as the most thoroughly-researched, authoritatively written, and “fair and balanced” presentation of the controversial issue yet published, an important counterpoint to the mythology and folklore perpetuated in the many accounts generally – and undeservedly – too favorable to Truman.