To the Editor:
Robert Elegant’s review of Stanley Weintraub’s Mac-Arthur’s War [June] and, apparently, the book itself preserve the tradition of “leaving war to the generals” and show an ignorance of basic military facts. In the first place, Mr. Elegant propagates the myth that the Inchon landing was a brilliant stroke by Mac-Arthur. But since the U.S. military knew that the entire North Korean army was more than 150 miles away at Pusan (where it was outnumbered by UN troops), the Inchon landing was an obvious move, despite the unfavorable tides.
Mr. Elegant’s bigger failure lies in not reporting that at Christmastime in 1950 the Chinese were winning because UN forces were being led incompetently, a problem that our military leadership in Japan and the Pentagon failed to grasp. It was only when General Walton Walker was killed in an accident and replaced by General Matthew Ridgway that the UN went from uncontrolled retreat to effective offense, and achieved a radical reduction in the rate of casualties—all in the course of seven weeks. Within months the Chinese army, and several replacement armies, were defeated.
General Ridgway did not bring to bear any new strategy or forces or equipment to produce this dramatic reversal. Rather, he turned defeat into victory simply through competence, by insisting that his officers do what they had been taught and what was written in their manuals: occupy high ground, prepare a defense perimeter at night, maintain contact with adjacent units, keep to the attack schedule, provide hot food to the troops, report truthfully. It was not brilliant, but it was enough.
Virtually nobody noticed. Reams of paper and gallons of ink have been given over to developing geopolitical theories about the military turnabout in Korea, but the fundamental cause of victory, a change in leadership, has been ignored.
Robert Elegant writes:
I am bemused that Max Singer has lit upon my review to unleash a pack of military truisms that are not often noted because they are so obvious. Nonetheless, his conclusions are awry.
If I am “ignorant of basic military facts,” it is not for want of trying. As I mentioned in my review, I covered several wars, from Korea to Vietnam, for both the Overseas News Agency and the International News Service. I wonder if Mr. Singer’s knowledge is based upon equal experience of combat.
In any case, he accuses me of preserving the tradition of “leaving war to the generals,” but then goes on to declare that leaving the war to General Matthew Ridgway—whom, incidentally, I also admire—produced victory.
In reality, the counteroffensive led by Ridgway did not succeed in regaining the 38th parallel until some four months after he took control from General Walker. In the interim, Seoul fell again to the Communists. That delay is completely understandable, but it does not support Mr. Singer’s assertion of Ridgway’s virtually miraculous accomplishments.
Finally, I still think that Inchon was a brilliant stroke by MacArthur—if only because the entire U.S. military leadership opposed it, and was only persuaded to allow MacArthur to take the risk because of his unique prestige.