Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Book Review - MacArthur's War by Bevin Alexander

MacArthur's War : the flawed genius who challenged the American political system by Bevin Alexander

New York : Berkley Caliber, 2013                                           ISBN 9780425261200

I wasn't expecting this book to be such a polemic - it's truly a hatchet job on General Douglas MacArthur, and in the process of chopping him up Alexander makes some strange bedfellows and comes to some interesting conclusions.

This book is ostensibly about the removal of MacArthur from his role leading the United Nations troops in Korea, and the clashes he had with President Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff before that occurred.

After a long introduction that mostly concerns the Chinese Civil War and the Nationalist's retreat to Taiwan, Alexander ventures into American diplomacy after WWII, with an emphasis on the Kennan "Long Telegram", and the ensuing American policy, if that's the right word, of containment.

Alexander posits that the North Koreans basically acted alone in starting the Korean War, having advised the USSR that the USA would not respond to their aggression. Thanks to tactical blunders in the UN by the Soviets, the Americans passed a resolution that allowed a UN force to be sent to help the Koreans. It was at this moment that MacArthur showed his brilliance as a field commander, with the Inchon landings, which, at a stroke, changed the picture in Korea and allowed the UN forces to advance into North Korean territory.

It is here that Alexander seems to me to be blinded by his dislike of MacArthur. MacArthur always danced to the beat of his own drum, and rarely allowed wider perspectives to interfere with what he thought was best, usually for him. As a General, he naturally wished to completely defeat the enemy, and what better way than to occupy North Korea. Alexander makes much of his earlier discussion of the American policy of containment of Communism, and accuses both Truman, Acheson and the JCS of grievous wrong by going against that policy. He almost writes as if they were breaking the law by changing their minds, but surely the President makes foreign policy, and if events change the policy too would surely change. The complete collapse of the North Korean armed forces certainly changed events, and I don't think MacArthur can be held responsible for pushing the US into something it didn't want to do - it seems clear that both Truman and Acheson saw that uniting Korea was a positive, and now within their grasp. The JCS didn't see any reason not to agree with that change of heart.

Alexander then pillories MacArthur for not foreseeing that China would intervene in the war if the UN forces approached the Yalu River. He makes much of the lack of US intelligence gathering, and that if they had been more subtle they would have perceived what the Chinese were thinking, and in fact that if they had moved up to the Yalu with South Korean forces only, the Chinese would not have intervened. This is all a little hard to understand. MacArthur was not the only senior commander or diplomat who did not foresee Chinese involvement - in fact there was really only one voice in the US administration who was warning of the probability. Chinese intelligence on US intentions was equally as faulty as the US intelligence on China - the US never intended crossing the Yalu (despite what MacArthur might have thought), so there was no immediate threat to China. And I also wonder, if China wasn't going to intervene until the UN approached the Yalu, why they had nearly half a million troops gathered at the border?

When the Chinese wave broke over the UN troops, it does seem that MacArthur almost underwent some sort of breakdown - after the initial shock and ragged retreat, the UN and Korean forces soon stabilised as the Chinese outran their primitive logistical supply, and a status quo was reached. MacArthur, on the other hand, seemed to think that Korea was lost, and this was when he started to seriously vent his ideas about blockading China, and attacking the Chinese mainland.

One wonders what was going through MacArthur's mind at this stage of proceedings, as he was clearly contradicting his civilian superiors - Alexander doesn't much go in for psychological theories, but here's a couple from someone much less qualified - 1. MacArthur was well known for his narcissistic personality, and after the shock of the Chinese intervention, he was looking for a way for him to regain his glory, or "face". Alexander doesn't discuss MacArthur's WWII record in this book, but it is clear from that time that wherever MacArthur was and whatever he was doing was the most important place, battle, or struggle in the World. Therefore it is not surprising in the slightest that he still saw things that way. 2. Again going back to WWII - in that struggle the aim was total destruction (unconditional surrender) of the enemy, and every means and effort was expended to that aim, without political interference. Korea was a totally different time and place, but it could be that MacArthur expected the political side of the coin  to react to his ideas in the same way as they did during the earlier conflict. It's clear that MacArthur was wrong, and Truman and co. were right, but a small amount of thought goes a ways to understanding MacArthur's actions and words at this time.

Alexander doesn't seem to have considered these things, in fact he expends far more words attempting to explain away the Chinese activities than he does trying to understand MacArthur - he spends much more time on the "flawed" than the "genius" of his title.

Alexander finishes the book with a description of the hearings in Washington, which laid out in full the distance between MacArthur's thoughts, and those of the President and the JCS. In his conclusion he makes the claim that MacArthur was trying to usurp the elected President of the United States and create a military dictatorship. This is palpably a ridiculous claim - the quote from MacArthur that Alexander uses as a basis for this proposition clearly relates to civilian interference in battlefield decisions, not grand strategy or political control. The fact that MacArthur, when relieved of his command, made no protest, did not, as most military dictators would, take an army to the capitol, or even encourage his supporters to rebel. In fact, as related by his successor General Ridgeway "He [MacArthur] was entirely himself - composed, quiet, temperate, friendly, and helpful to the man who was to succeed him."

While this book was disappointing in many ways, like all good polemics it has much truth in it, and has driven me to widen my reading on this now little known controversy.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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