The Cold War Army
Despite some arguments that ground combat in the atomic age was obsolete, it soon became apparent that the nation in the postwar era needed a ground force for more than the occupation of enemy-held areas after their devastation by atomic bombs. Within two years of Hiroshima, Americans found themselves in a “Cold War,” a long-term global struggle of power and ideology against the Soviet Union and international communism. Aware that technology and changes in world politics had ended the age of free security, and that the nation could no longer afford to leave to others the task of fending off aggressors while it belatedly mobilized, Americans gradually came to accept alliance commitments, a sizable professional military establishment that stressed readiness, and even a peacetime draft. The new Army would serve both as a deterrent to Communist adventurism and as a support to foreign policy on a greater scale than ever before. World War II had shown the need for improved cooperation among the services, and the Army strongly supported the process of defense unification leading to the creation of a new Department of Defense. In Greece and the newly independent Philippines, it administered aid programs and supplied training expertise to governments fighting Communist insurgents. In western Europe, it helped launch the buildup of a large, multinational force to deter Soviet attack on the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The Korean War confirmed this mobilization of military resources to contain communism. In June 1950 the forces of North Korea’s Communist regime struck south across the 38th Parallel in an attempt to unify the Korean peninsula by force. President Harry S. Truman sent American naval and air forces to the aid of South Korea. When these did not stem the North Korean tide, he ordered in ground troops. By mid-September, MacArthur’s United Nations (UN) forces had managed to stabilize the front along a perimeter enclosing the southeast Korean port of Pusan. A brilliant amphibious landing at Inch’on
then cut North Korean lines of communication and sent disorganized enemy units fleeing north across the 38th Parallel toward the Yalu River at the border of Korea and Communist China. The United Nations expanded its objective from the preservation of South Korea to reunification of the entire peninsula, and UN forces pursued north to the Yalu, despite warnings from the Communist Chinese that they would intervene should UN troops approach their border with Korea. In November a final UN offensive to the Yalu was met by an overwhelming counterattack by the Communist Chinese, forcing a UN withdrawal back across the 38th Parallel.
As a new field commander, Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, rallied the demoralized UN forces, the United States and its allies decided to limit their objectives to the maintenance of South Korea, rather than risk a third world war in an effort to reunify the peninsula. The Army became the primary instrument of this strategy of limited war, so baffling to Americans accustomed to overwhelming victory. While negotiations for a cease-fire progressed, Army troops developed tactics to hold the line in Korea with a minimum of casualties, building up forti
fications and maximizing the use of artillery. Army planners adopted personnel and logistics policies, such as individual rotation, that made the burden of service in such a war as bearable as possible. The Army shared with other Americans the frustrations of limited war, but when MacArthur exceeded his authority in an attempt to pursue policies that might have widened the conflict, the Army leadership supported President Truman in his decision to relieve the general. After two years of stalemate and tedious negotiations, the two sides finally agreed to an armistice in July 1953. Although the Army and other UN forces had not achieved the reunification of Korea, they had preserved the independence of South Korea, strengthening the credibility of the American containment policy against communism.
In the aftermath of the Korean War, facing a tense bipolar world living under the shadow of nuclear destruction, the Army under the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower sought an organization and doctrines that would support the nation’s policy of containing communism over the “long haul” without wasting American resources or bankrupting the American economy. The Army especially needed to d evelop a credible deterrent in western Europe, where it faced the prospect of being overwhelmed by the numerically superior Soviet Army. To meet this challenge, it turned to tactical nuclear weapons that it hoped could repel an attack by the Warsaw Pact without touching off a general nuclear exchange. It also adjusted its organization to fight a tactical nuclear war, adopting atomic artillery and a new divisional organization, the so-called pentomic division, which used selfcontained battle groups that could supposedly fight under the confused conditions of a nuclear battlefield with only minimal direction from higher headquarters. The new organization was in line with the Eisenhower administration’s desire for a military force that could provide “bigger bang for a buck.”
As the Soviet Union approached nuclear parity and doubts grew over the ability of nations to keep tactical nuclear warfare limited, the new administration of President John F. Kennedy adopted the strategy of “flexible response.” Under this design, the United States would respond to the different forms of threat and aggression across the spectrum of conflict with an appropriate level of violence, ranging from nuclear exchanges through conventional warfare to low-key assistance to countries fighting Communist-sponsored “wars of national liberation.” The Army dropped the pentomic organization in favor of the Reorganization Objectives Army Division (ROAD). The ROAD division consisted of brigade task forces that were supposed to be flexible enough to fight in any environment, nuclear or nonnuclear, and to have
a plausible chance of defending western Europe without resort to tactical nuclear weapons. The Army also prepared to meet the threat from Communist wars of national liberation that so concerned the Kennedy administration, developing the Special Forces as an elite counterinsurgency cadre. It continued its provision of security assistance funds and training to anti-Communist governments. In the case of the Dominican Republic, it intervened to forestall the possibility that Marxist revolutionaries might seize control of the country.
Given the demands of the Cold War and the higher prestige of the military, Americans accepted an increased level of military involvement in traditionally nonmilitary sectors than ever before. Officers served in a variety of governmental and diplomatic roles. The Army also added to its list of contributions to society in the scientific and technical sectors. Army researchers contributed heavily to the development of improved communications, including transistors, miniaturization, and satellite signals. While working on missiles to deliver projectiles to targets, the Army developed the Jupiter rocket that propelled the first American satellite, Explorer I, into space in 1958. In the 1960s the Army contributed to the space program by constructing launch facilities, designing complicated communications systems, and producing simulators, special foods, protective clothing, and maps of the moon’s surface. The Army also continued its long tradition of contributions to meteorology by developing devices to record and transmit weather data from the upper atmosphere and outer space. Through their work on the intracoastal waterways and the St. Lawrence Seaway, Army engineers helped make inland waterway travel available on an unprecedented scale. Army medics were heavily involved in efforts to improve global health standards, with considerable success.
The Cold War Army did not remain isolated from changes in the society from which it came. The postwar Army acknowledged that racial integration was desirable, but it moved slowly toward that goal even after President Truman directed the full integration of the armed forces in 1948. Faced with administrative problems resulting from the maintenance of two personnel systems during the Korean War, the Army integrated its units, placing the service at the forefront of the battle for racial equality. When violence erupted in Little Rock, Arkansas, after nine African Americans enrolled at Central High School in September 1957, President Eisenhower called the state National Guard into federal service and sent a battle group of the 101st Airborne Division to enforce a court order for integration. Army troops helped enforce integration at the University of Mississippi in 1962 and in Alabama schools in 1963. Later in the 1960s, the Army joined efforts
by the Department of Defense to end discrimination in off-base housing. Since the 1970s, it has stood in the vanguard of attempts to expand equal opportunity through affirmative action programs.
In the mid-1960s the Army joined the nation’s “War on Poverty” by taking steps to overcome the weak educational backgrounds of many of its recruits. The Army already provided its soldiers with skills of value to the civilian sector, as well as opportunities to earn college credits through military extension courses. In 1966 it added Project 100,000, a program to annually induct and train to a standard of competence 100,000 soldiers who normally would not qualify for military service. Participants in the program took part in training on an equal basis with other troops, receiving extra instruction where necessary. The Army thus hoped to expand its pool of qualified manpower while easing a major social problem. The results exceeded the service’s expectations. Of the project’s participants, 95 percent completed basic training, compared to 98 percent for the Army as a whole, and the Army had to drop only 10 percent of the participants from its rolls before they finished their enlistments. Equipped with skills as mechanics, medical technicians, clerks, and other vocations, these soldiers returned to their communities better able to contribute to society than before they had entered the Army. Encouraged by the success of Project 100,000, in 1968 the Army instituted Project Transition, which provided job training and counseling to help veterans return to civilian life. Through Project Transition, thousands of soldiers left the Army prepared for careers in such fields as automobile repair, electronics assembly, bookkeeping, drafting, masonry, phone repair, and data processing.
The Army of the 1960s and 1970s also offered new opportunities for women. Although women had long served proudly in numerous supporting roles, they only officially became part of the Army with the Army Nurse Corps’ formation in 1901, and they achieved full military status only with the creation of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1943. Even after World War II, WACs faced numerous restrictions. They could not constitute over 2 percent of the Army, serve in the combat arms, or obtain promotion to general officer rank. They also faced discharge if they married or became pregnant. With the reexamination of the role of women in American society during the 1960s and 1970s, and given the Army’s need for qualified recruits for the post-Vietnam all-volunteer Army, these restrictions began to dissolve. In 1967 President Lyndon B. Johnson eliminated the restrictions on percentages of women and promotions, opening the door to the first female generals in the Army in 1970. Also during the 1970s the Army expanded the number of military occupational specialties (MOSs) open to women,
moved to ensure equal opportunity within those MOSs, abolished involuntary separation for parenthood, allowed women to command men in noncombat units, and established innovative programs to assist military couples with assignments, schooling, and dependent care. In 1972 women first entered ROTC, and in 1976 they entered the U.S. Military Academy. Despite an ongoing prohibition on women in combat positions, the Army had compiled an enviable record in providing new opportunities to women.
The containment policy, drawing a line against communism throughout the world, led the Army to the rice paddies and jungle-covered mountains of Vietnam. In 1950 the United States began aid to the French colonial rulers of Indochina, who were attempting to suppress a revolt by the Communist-dominated Viet Minh. After the French withdrawal from Indochina following the Geneva Accords of 1954, and the division of the region into Laos, Cambodia, and North and South Vietnam, Army personnel played a key role in American assistance to the fledgling South Vietnamese state. This aid increased in the early 1960s, as the Kennedy administration came to view Vietnam as a test case of American ability to resist Communist wars of national liberation. Army Special Forces teams formed paramilitary forces and established camps along the border to cut down the infiltration of men and materiel from North Vietnam, and other Army personnel trained South Vietnamese troops and accompanied them as advisers in field operations. Despite American efforts, the South Vietnamese government seemed on the point of collapse through late 1963 and 1964, as repeated coups and ongoing Communist infiltration and subversion undermined the regime’s stability. In early 1965, President Johnson b egan a process of escalation that put 184,000 American troops in South Vietnam by year’s end.
From 1965 to 1969 American troop strength in Vietnam rose to 550,000 men, as the Johnson administration sought to force the North Vietnamese and their Viet Cong allies in the South to either negotiate or abandon their attempts to reunify Vietnam by force. Barred by policy from invading North Vietnam, General William C. Westmoreland adopted a strategy of attrition, seeking to inflict enough casualties on the enemy in the South to make him more amenable to American objectives. In the mountains of the Central Highlands, the jungles of the coastal lowlands, and the plains near the South Vietnamese capital of Saigon, American forces attempted to locate the elusive enemy and bring him to battle on favorable terms. As the North Vietnamese admitted after the war, these “search and destroy” operations inflicted significant losses but never forced the Communists to abandon their efforts. In
February1968, during the Vietnamese lunar new year (Tet) celebrations, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong launched a countrywide offensive against the Americans and South Vietnamese, penetrating within the very gates of the American embassy in Saigon. The Tet offensive was repulsed with crippling losses to the Viet Cong. Nevertheless, it confirmed the feeling of a growing number of Americans that the preservation of the Saigon regime was not worth the continued expenditure of American blood and resources necessary to achieve it.
Over the next five years, the Army slowly withdrew from Vietnam while carrying out a policy of “Vietnamization” that transferred responsibility for the battlefield to the South Vietnamese. Throughout the process, President Richard M. Nixon sought to balance the need to respond to domestic pressure for troop withdrawals with diplomatic and military efforts to preserve American honor and ensure the survival of South Vietnam. While some American units departed, other formations continued operations in South Vietnam and even expanded the war into neighboring Cambodia and Laos. By the end of 1971, the American military presence in Vietnam had declined to a level of 157,000, and a year later it had decreased to 24,000. In the spring of 1972, Army advisers played a key role in defeating the Easter offensive, an all-out conventional attack by the North Vietnamese Army. Nevertheless, the Army’s efforts to preserve South Vietnam proved, in the end, unavailing. Within two years of the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, North Vietnamese troops overran the country. After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, the Army
helped close one of the most unfortunate chapters in American history with its assistance in resettling Indochinese refugees.
The bitter aftertaste from the Vietnam War and the revival of antimilitarism in the 1970s caused the Army to adopt a lower profile and to focus on more traditional tasks. Already disdained by many Americans for its involvement in an unpopular war, the Army earned little credit for its work in restoring order in many American cities during the riots of the late 1960s—a role that, however necessary, added to the image in some quarters of an American police state. Antimilitarism contributed to the end of the Cold War draft, leaving the Army with the difficult task of adjusting to an all-volunteer force. The Vietnam War also raised serious questions about flexible response and limited war, the raison d’etre for the Army since the Korean War.
For the rest of the 1970s and into the 1980s, the Army, while continuing civil works and humanitarian relief, focused on rebuilding its forces and adjusting doctrine for conventional war, especially the defense of western Europe against a possible attack by Warsaw Pact forces. The Army strengthened its NATO forces with new technology and a new doctrine that emphasized maneuver, mobility, and air support. It also formed a Rapid Deployment Force to meet the Soviet threat to other areas of the world, particularly the oil-rich Middle East. At the same time, the service continued its battle at a lower level against Marxist regimes and movements in the Third World, furnishing aid and advisers to the embattled government of El Salvador and assistance to rebels against the Sandinista rulers of Nicaragua. In October 1983 Army troops participated in a joint task force that invaded the island of Grenada to block an attempt by Cuba’s Communist dictator, Fidel Castro, to expand his influence in the Caribbean. Throughout the 1980s, Soviet and Marxist expansion continued to be the Army’s main concern.