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MacArthur's Korean War Generals.

MacArthur's Korean War Generals

By Stephen R. Taaffe

Reviewed by Donald W. Boose Jr., Contract Faculty Instructor, US Army War College; author of US Army Forces in the Korean War 1950-53 (Osprey Publishing, 2005); and coeditor of The Ashgate Research Companion to the Korean War (Routledge, 2014)

In this fascinating book, Stephen R. Taaffe examines the performance of and relationships among senior US ground force commanders during the first year of the Korean War when General Douglas MacArthur served as the unified, multinational commander-in-chief, Far East Command, and commander-in-chief, United Nations Command (UNC). During MacArthur's tenure, his forces first conducted a delay against attacking North Korean forces, then began a counteroffensive with the amphibious landing at Inchon and subsequent push deep into North Korea. A massive Chinese intervention in the winter of 1950-51 forced the UNC back into South Korea. A renewed UNC counteroffensive and subsequent war of movement in 1951 culminated in a final drive back to a line generally north of the 38th Parallel. At that point, the two sides began negotiations that would, after another 18 months of bloody but static conflict, bring an armistice that remains in effect to this day. For each phase, Taaffe provides clear, tightly written descriptions of the strategic situation, the military operations, and the actions of the senior ground force leaders. He concludes each section with an analysis of the performance of the senior leaders.

Taaffe, an experienced and respected military historian who has published several excellent books on senior American military leaders during the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II, is well placed to make these assessments. His evaluations are thoughtful, well informed, and persuasive. He deals with the two most controversial Korean War generals, MacArthur and X Corps Commander Edward M. Almond, objectively and unemotionally. He argues some of the qualities that had made MacArthur successful in the Pacific in World War II (giving his subordinates free play, remaining aloof from tactical decisions, and playing senior leaders against each other) were counterproductive in Korea. He also faults MacArthur for his decision to separate Almond's X Corps from Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker's Eighth Army, for withdrawing X Corps to conduct an amphibious turning movement into northeastern Korea, and for his hasty, ill-organized push north that left UNC forces vulnerable to the Chinese attack. Almond, he concludes "was certainly an overbearing, arbitrary, and insensitive man who made mistakes, but his innate aggressiveness and single-minded determination to win paid big dividends for the Eighth Army" (172).

Walker, MacArthur's ground component commander, tried with his understrength and poorly equipped Eighth Army to stop stronger, better-prepared North Korean forces during the chaotic and desperate first two months of the war. While noting examples of inadequate leadership by some of Walker's subordinates, Taaffe praises Walker for his conduct of the delay and subsequent tenacious defense of the Pusan Perimeter. He also notes Walker did not have MacArthur's full confidence, refused to challenge some of MacArthur's questionable decisions, and failed to relieve weak subordinates from fear of being relieved himself. Taaffe blames the substandard performance of some of Walker's subordinates in part on their selection, based not on previous performance, but rather to give them experience at a regimental or divisional command or as a reward prior to retirement.

Walker was killed in a traffic accident in December 1950. His replacement, Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgway, had the full confidence of both MacArthur and Army Chief of Staff J. Lawton Collins, which greatly strengthened Ridgway's position, allowing him to replace most of the early-war division commanders and to take other actions that improved capabilities. Ridgway's Eighth Army, now experienced in combat and under solid leadership at all levels, stopped the Chinese winter offensive.

Taaffe continues his analysis beyond April 1951, when President Truman relieved MacArthur of command and replaced him with Ridgway. Ridgway in turn was replaced as Eighth Army commander by Lieutenant General James A. Van Fleet, whom Taaffe rates highly. Under Van Fleet, Eighth Army stopped another Chinese offensive and drove north, well past the 38th Parallel. Taaffe argues, despite an uneven performance earlier in the war, Eighth Army fought well enough to win the war militarily. He insists Van Fleet most likely could have continued the offensive further north, and he notes it was a political decision, not the military situation, that stopped Eighth Army.

Readers may argue with some of Taaffe's judgments, but he has exhaustively examined the documentary evidence and makes a compelling case. MacArthur's Korean War Generals is particularly relevant to readers of Parameters. What could be more valuable to senior military professionals than a well-informed study of leadership and operational art during a major and challenging war? This is the heart and soul of the military profession, and Taaffe makes a substantial contribution to the grand conversation on the art of war.
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Author:Boose, Donald W., Jr.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2017
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