MacArthur unfettered in Korea: What might have been

In this Sept. 1950 file photo provided by the Department of Defense, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, commander in chief of U.N. forces in the Korean War, is shown on the bridge of the USS Mount McKinley on his arrival at Incheon Harbor in South Korea. (AP Photo/U.S. Dept. of Defense, file)


The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished — tone and tint. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen vainly, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll.

General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, at the U.S. Military Academy, May 12, 1962

Old soldiers (and old sailors) tend to dwell upon the past. It goes with the territory. There comes a time in every man’s life, if he lives long enough, when most of what once he held dear is no more. Remembrance of better times for one’s self, and for one’s country, often is all that remains. The disappointments and hardships of yesteryear are papered over. Or forgotten.

There is nothing romantic about modern warfare, though great poetic things are written about it. There are no knights in armor fighting for a lady’s hand or favor. War is a bloody butchery when you get right down to it. Those who have seen it up front and personal know this to be true.

Gen. MacArthur’s military career spanned two World Wars and Korea. From the first two, America emerged as the dominant military and economic power in the world. Korea, which ended in a politically dictated stalemate, marked a turning point for America. Not then, nor since, has America clearly won any war. Korea led directly to Vietnam. Vietnam was followed by Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite the expenditure of rivers of American blood and treasure spread over more years than it took to win all of our external wars before Korea, we left Iraq in an unholy mess.

When, if ever, the last American troops come home from Afghanistan it will almost certainly be an unholy mess too. It’s not the U.S. military that is a gang that can’t shoot straight, it’s an administration and a Congress that time and time again has proven to fit that category.

The Korean war began with the June, 1950, invasion of the ostensibly democratic South by the openly communist North. The South Korean army, augmented by small U.S. forces, was quickly sent fleeing into the Pusan Perimeter, on the extreme southern point of the Korean peninsula.

Gen. MacArthur, then serving as an American “Caesar” in occupied Japan, utilizing the relatively meager forces under his command, staged an audacious amphibious landing at Inchon, just south of the 38th parallel marking the dividing line between North and South.

By cutting the North’s supply lines and attacking enemy forces from the rear, he enabled a breakout from Pusan. That led to the complete rout of the invaders. They were quickly pushed back to where they came from.

Had MacArthur stopped there, he would have been hailed as the military genius who won the Korean War. But he didn’t stop there. Without clear authorization from Washington, he pushed farther north. Near the Yalu River, without warning, China’s Red Army attacked. For months it was touch and go, as U.S. soldiers and Marines fought their way south to where many were eventually evacuated by the U.S. Navy.

(As an aside, I was a young navy reservist who had been recalled to active duty when the Korean War broke out. I was assigned to an aircraft carrier, part of Task Force 77 in the South China Sea, while all of this was going on.)

Well, the rest is history.

MacArthur was recalled and then fired by President Harry Truman. One must wonder, though, what the long-term effects on the balance of power in the Far East and in North Asia would have been had MacArthur been empowered to win the war in Korea. Things most certainly would have turned out far better for those now suffering under a crazed, brutal and nuclear armed dictatorship in North Korea.

South Korea, a burgeoning industrial power, to this day is protected by U.S. armed forces, though at present strength it is doubtful that the dwindling number of American troops deployed there would serve much more than as a human trip wire should the North again invade the South.

“Yours is the profession of arms,” an 84 year-old Douglas MacArthur, speaking without prepared notes, told cadets at West Pont on that warm spring day so many years ago. “... Let civilian voices argue the merits or demerits of our processes of government: Whether our strength is being sapped by deficit financing indulged in too long, by federal paternalism grown too mighty, by power groups grown too arrogant, by politics grown too corrupt, by crime grown too rampant, by morals grown too low, by taxes grown too high, by extremists grown too violent, whether our personal liberties are as thorough and complete as they should be.”

General MacArthur was an imperfect man and soldier, as historians generally have pointed out. His Medal of Honor, awarded not for an act of personal heroism in battle but for overall performance as U.S. commander in chief in the Pacific theater during World War II, has been questioned by critics. He remains, however, an historical figure who stands head and shoulders above much of the political leadership, then and now, that has overseen the steady degradation of American power and influence in the world.

What is past is prologue, Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest. America’s future, however, is written in the stars and unknowable to any man. Or woman, for that matter.

R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor. A retired naval officer, he is a veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars.