Good War Gone Bad

General Douglas MacArthur
General Douglas MacArthur; drawing by David Levine

On March 7, 1951, at a press conference, Douglas MacArthur, commander of all United States forces in the Pacific, spoke contemptuously of the way his commander in the field, Matthew B. Ridgway, was fighting the Korean War. Ridgway, MacArthur said, was following an ineffectual strategy, gaining a little here, losing a little there, aiming not at victory but at stalemate, and, MacArthur implied, it was unworthy of the United States to fight for anything but complete victory. The phrase MacArthur planted into the lexicon of military belittlement to characterize Ridgway’s strategy was “accordion war.”

MacArthur’s comment was all the more extraordinary since he was making it in violation of a gag order that President Truman had imposed on the military command four months earlier—one of several acts of insubordination that led Truman to relieve him of his command in April that year. Aside from that, the insult to Ridgway was astonishing in its misjudgment, or perhaps its wounded vanity. Ridgway had been appointed during one of the worst moments in American military history, after the Chinese army had, while MacArthur was in command, routed UN forces and pushed them from near the Chinese border to well below the 38th parallel, the demarcation line between North and South Korea. In a matter of just a few weeks, Ridgway had stopped the Chinese advance, and, using American firepower, was causing ten to fifteen times as many casualties among Chinese troops as the Chinese were inflicting on the UN’s forces.

But Ridgway wasn’t really the issue. MacArthur’s desire for a full-scale war with what was called “Red China” was the real issue, and beyond that was his defiance of the president he served. In those early months of 1951, MacArthur, who thought he might be the Republican candidate for president in 1952, complained that the political leadership in Washington was tying his hands, preventing him from carrying out the grand mission to which he believed he had been called by destiny. He had joined forces moreover with Truman’s bitterest political opponents: a coalition of right-wing Republicans, Henry Luce of Time and Life, and the entire China lobby, whose members were supporters of Chiang Kai-shek. All of these people agreed that an “accordion war” with China was a form of appeasement. As MacArthur himself told a joint session of Congress a few weeks after Truman sacked him, those who would “appease Red China” were “blind to history’s clear lesson, for history teaches with unmistakable emphasis that appeasement but begets new and bloodier war.”

MacArthur’s grand plan was to push the Chinese back across the Yalu River, which formed the border between Korea and China, thereby ensuring that the Korean War would result not in a stalemate but in an end to the aggressor North Korean regime. Part of the plan, and the part dearest to the hearts of Luce and the China lobbyists, was,…

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