MacArthur's 1950 Campaign in North Korea
Stanlis David Milkowski
Operational Command and Control in the Korean War
The Korean War offers an excellent case for investigation of operational art not only as a historical exercise, but also as a paradigm with particular relevance to current strategic thinking. General Douglas MacArthur, Commander in Chief (CINC) of joint and combined forces in the theater, was, until the ascension of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, Jr., in the Desert SHIELD/STORM campaign during the Gulf War, the last American operational-level commander.1 Paradoxically, the experience of operational planning in a global backwater at the midpoint of the twentieth century has possibly greater applicability to the dangerous world of the future than do the barely cold after-action reviews and lessons learned of the brief Gulf War. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the basic premise that underlies much strategic planning at the national level and that makes a virtue of budgetary necessity to reduce military force structure is that we must be prepared to deploy limited forces to strange corners of the world for ambiguous missions within ad hoc coalitions. The likelihood, therefore, is very great that operational planners may in the future find themselves dealing with a campaign on unfamiliar terrain, in a logistics- and intelligence-bare theater, without a command and control system tailored to the mission at hand. The task, in short, would be very much like that which confronted the operational commander ordered to undertake the pursuit into North Korea after Inch’on.
This essay examines the command and control system General Douglas MacArthur used to conduct operations in Korea and will determine how far it was to blame for the disaster which befell United Nations Command (UNC) deep in North Korea in November l950. In doctrinal terms, UNC was defeated when it passed beyond the operational culminating point without achieving its objectives.2 Interpretative historical accounts variously tend to blame this near-catastrophic setback on MacArthur’s hubris, or on “schizophrenia at GHQ” (General Headquarters), or on intelligence failure, or on the misplaced trust in
air power to isolate the battlefield.3 Arguably, there were elements of all these in MacArthur’s defeat, but they offer little help to either serious students of military history or the serving professionals who seek to understand how UNC came to find itself in such disarray on the eve of the Chinese counterstroke and why miscalculation so quickly turned into calamity. Certainly, they cannot be assigned appropriate weight unless one first asks what demands were made on the command and control system adapted for operations in North Korea and its adequacy for the purpose. Analysis of the reverses suffered by UNC in fact shows that it was the failure of the operational command and control system more than MacArthur’s often-cited single-mindedness that made inevitable a defeat of the magnitude the Chinese inflicted. That the latter contributed to the former is indisputable, given the dominance of MacArthur’s personality; yet UNC would not have come so close to catastrophe with less flawed command and control.
This essay concentrates on the period from the recapture of Seoul at the end of September 1950 to the withdrawal of UN and Republic of Korea (ROK) forces from North Korea completed in late December. The transition to the offensive from the stubborn, not infrequently desperate, defense of the Pusan Perimeter began with the Inch’on landings on 15 September and subsequent breakout from the Perimeter by Eighth Army; it was completed with the linkup of forces south of the Han River and consolidation at Seoul on 27 September. The same day, MacArthur received from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) the mission to destroy the North Korean armed forces and the authority to conduct military operations north of the 38th Parallel to this end. (Map 16) Further, the JCS directive specified the political and military constraints on UNC operations and described actions to be taken in the event of contingent Soviet or Chinese intervention.
Crossing the 38th Parallel in early October, UN and ROK forces drove into North Korea in an aggressive pursuit across a broad front that encountered no serious checks until the surprise Chinese counterattacks at the end of the month against extended forces. After a period of consolidation and adjustment of unit boundaries dictated by tactical withdrawals of forward elements, the final UN offensive designed to achieve the military objectives of the campaign opened on 24 November. Within seventy-two hours, the Chinese had struck hard at several points on UNC’s extended front and threatened to cut off major forces deep in North Korea. Though UNC was able to keep open its lines of communications (LOC) and extricate most forces in danger of encirclement, it was at the cost of heavy casualties, abandonment or destruction of large quantities of materiel, and the ultimate loss of all the hard-won gains of the offensive. By Christmas Day, UNC found itself almost where it had started three months earlier. It was, as MacArthur himself had reported to the JCS on 28 November, “an entirely new war.”4
Genesis of Operations in North Korea
Prior to the recapture of Seoul and the opening of the campaign outlined above, the operational task confronting the Commander in Chief, UN Command (CINCUNC), was simple: to maintain a foothold in South Korea until a counteroffensive could be undertaken. The command and control measures in effect represented ad hoc modifications of the organizations that existed when the North Koreans attacked. These measures were generally adequate as long as operations were confined to the area enclosed by the Pusan Perimeter and logistical support was uncomplicated (which is not to say easy).5 The command and control system that existed before hostilities and the initial modifications for war merit a brief description before considering operational planning for the invasion of North Korea.
First of all, even though MacArthur received his authority and missions as Commander in Chief, Far East (CINCFE), from the JCS, and his command included major navy and air force headquarters, General Headquarters, Far East Command (GHQ FEC), in Tokyo was essentially an army headquarters, staffed almost entirely by army personnel.6 As a gesture toward “jointness,” the staff coordinated planning through a Joint Strategic Plans and Operations Group (JSPOG), but the absence in GHQ of anything like balanced representation from the three services kept it from being a true joint headquarters.7 Functionally, MacArthur was also Commander, U.S. Army Forces Far East (USAFFE), although he did not use the title. Therefore, Lt. Gen. Walton Walker, Commander of Eighth U.S. Army, was merely the senior major subordinate commander within USAFFE, rather than the ground component commander within a joint headquarters.8 Walker had under his direct command four infantry divisions, all garrisoned in Japan, with no intermediate corps headquarters. This was the situation when the North Koreans attacked.
When Walker was named commander of ground forces in Korea in July 1950, Eighth Army’s area of responsibility was simply extended to Korea, and this geographical extension (or subtheater) was designated Eighth U.S. Army Korea (EUSAK) to differentiate it from the base structure.9 While Walker effectively controlled ROK army units in the Pusan Perimeter, he had no formal command authority over them (a good example of the improvised nature of initial operations). As quickly as skeleton corps headquarters could be organized in the Continental United States (CONUS), it was rushed to the theater, with Walker’s immediate requirements taking precedence. Although there was doubt in some quarters that Eighth Army could even hold the Perimeter, MacArthur early conceived the Inch’on landing as an operational maneuver to regain the initiative. This turning movement would isolate the bulk of the North Korean Army in the south, recover Seoul, and facilitate immediate offensive operations
against North Korea. To carry out the turning movement he envisioned, MacArthur needed to create a corps headquarters separate from EUSAK. Despite his staff ’s fears of a “half-baked affair,” he determined to form a corps staff from GHQ FEC personnel and selected his chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond, to command it.10 This organization was designated X Corps, assigned one Marine and one Army division, and placed in GHQ Reserve until the Inch’on operation commenced. Given the circumstances of its creation and the fact that nearly all key staff personnel were on loan from GHQ, JSPOG planners assumed that X Corps tactical elements would come under Walker’s command after the linkup with EUSAK. But the staff ’s assumption proved to be wholly erroneous, as the CINC had quite different plans for X Corps.11
Prior to welcome confirmation in Washington that Inch’on was not going to become a miniature Gallipoli or worse, the political object shaping military operations in Korea had been simply to prevent the destruction of the Republic of Korea and the ejection of UN forces from the peninsula. Now for the first time it was necessary to consider in concrete terms the basis for terminating hostilities and in particular whether or not to invade North Korea. The guidance conveyed in the 27 September JCS directive contained a clear mission that reflected the political consensus finally thrashed out within National Command Authority (NCA) councils and approved by the president. That mission was the destruction of the North Korean armed forces.12 UNC operations north of the 38th Parallel were explicitly authorized, but there was one major constraint and two significant caveats contained in the directive. Above all, no forces under MacArthur’s command were permitted to enter Manchuria or the USSR, and no air or naval actions were to be undertaken against those areas. Furthermore, in the conduct of his campaign, the CINCUNC was free to undertake military operations anywhere in North Korea only so long as there was no sign of entry by “major” Chinese or Soviet forces. Finally, “as a matter of policy,” he was prohibited from using non-Korean ground forces in the northernmost provinces bordering Manchuria and the USSR. As long as these conditions obtained, CINCUNC was enjoined “to feel unhampered tactically and strategically to proceed north of the 38th Parallel.” MacArthur confirmed his understanding of the mission, responding: “Unless and until the enemy capitulates, I regard all of Korea open for our military operations.”13
MacArthur, of course, had anticipated the 27 September mission and the operational latitude he could expect in selecting military objectives to accomplish it. Likewise, the FEC staff in Tokyo had earlier completed a preliminary estimate of the post-Inch’on situation. Already they were in the process of drafting proposed courses of action based on the assumption that the National Command Authority (NCA) would not settle for restoration of the 38th Parallel as the basis for calling off the UN intervention.14
The CINC, however, obviously had not communicated his concept of operations to his staff; nor had the staff validated the planning assumptions upon which they were proceeding. For, one day prior to receipt of the JCS directive, MacArthur surprised the staff with instructions to plan an offensive into North Korea that would feature a deep amphibious envelopment (à la Inch’on), in conjunction with a cross-country advance across the 38th. Although MacArthur did not specify the formation to be used for the amphibious landing, there was obviously only one candidate: X Corps.
A New Concept of Operations
MacArthur’s principal staff had assumed that he intended to give Walker command of X Corps; the FEC deputy chief of staff, the G–3 (assistant chief of staff for operations), and G–4 (assistant chief of staff for logistics) all strongly favored such a course.15 The Eighth Army staff also shared this mistaken assumption and had planned accordingly: After Seoul was retaken, X Corps was to continue the attack north toward the enemy capital, P’yongyang, maintaining the momentum of the offensive, while Eighth Army moved up behind it. Depending upon the development of the situation, X Corps might continue the attack in the west toward the Yalu, or move laterally along the P’yongyang-Wonsan corridor to assist ROK units advancing northward along the east coast. In either event, operations of both forces would be coordinated under Walker’s command.16
Because Inch’on had originally been conceived as only one pincer of a vast double envelopment, with a second amphibious operation on the east coast, JSPOG already had current data on likely landing sites, and within hours of receiving CINCUNC’s guidance was able to present MacArthur with an outline plan.17 The most likely candidate was Wonsan, an excellent deepwater port on the opposite side of the peninsula’s waist from P’yongyang and connected to it by the only east-west LOC of any consequence north of the 38th Parallel. MacArthur readily accepted the hybrid plan prepared by JSPOG, calling for X Corps to make an amphibious landing at Wonsan and prepare either to effect a juncture with Eighth Army (advancing in the west to capture P’yongyang) or to advance north to the key coast industrial complex, Hamhung-Hungnam.18 The X Corps would constitute an operational maneuver force under command of the CINCUNC. MacArthur apparently based his concept of operations on four assumptions, which seem not to have been explicitly stated at the time but tacitly accepted as the general conditions for operations in North Korea. First, the extremely difficult, nearly trackless mountain terrain running generally north-south divides maneuver into eastern and western compartments. Second, given the primitive condition of the transport system and the efficient work of Far East Air Forces (FEAF) on LOC interdiction, logistical support of operations throughout North Korea
could not be sustained from Inch’on and Pusan alone. Third, a turning movement on the east coast still might cut off large numbers of North Koreans who had escaped across the 38th Parallel. Fourth, there would be no Soviet or Chinese interference with UNC operations.19 MacArthur clearly had identified the remnants of the North Korean Army as the enemy center of gravity - which was true, as long as his fourth assumption remained valid.
Walker was soon disabused of the expectation that he would get X Corps under his command. Informed of GHQ’s new plan, Eighth Army staff objected vigorously. They believed that X Corps could reach Wonsan faster moving overland by road from Seoul; this was substantiated by the report on 1 October that ROK troops under Walker’s command had already crossed the 38th Parallel on the east coast highway against negligible enemy resistance. Furthermore, Eighth Army would be forced to delay its offensive for lack of supplies because the requirements to embark X Corps elements through the ports of Inch’on and Pusan would slow incoming cargo to a trickle (thus canceling the presumed logistical advantages accruing to amphibious seizure of Wonsan).20 Adding their voices, the Commander, Naval Forces, Far East (ComNavFE), and his staff objected to the amphibious operation as unnecessary, holding, with the army, that X Corps could march there faster than they could be lifted.21 Perhaps navy planners, realizing that they no longer enjoyed the element of surprise as at Inch’on, foresaw the slow and dangerous process of clearing Wonsan harbor of mines. But, MacArthur held to his plan for a Wonsan amphibious landing, not persuaded by the objections to that operation - if he was aware of them.
There is strong evidence that the organization of the FEC staff was unequal to the demands of supporting an operational commander. First, it had been raided for officers to serve the nascent X Corps headquarters, and these losses had not been made good. Second, there was a fundamental lack of joint service expertise on the staff. Professional air and naval planners served their respective component commanders; thus, the GHQ tended to perceive them as outsiders.22 The absence of a joint campaign plan was most conspicuous in the realm of air-ground coordination. During the summer, throughout the Pusan Perimeter fighting, command and control of air assets was confused, often wasteful, and sometimes ineffective. To some extent this was understandable, given the improvisation that characterized the initial period of U.S. intervention. But as late as the start of the Wonsan operation there was still no formal, clearly delineated command arrangement at theater level to centralize air operations over Korea. Finally, CINCUNC formally designated Lt. Gen. George E. Stratemeyer, Commander, Far East Air Forces (FEAF), as “operational controller” of all land-based air operations and “coordination controller” of all carrier-based naval and marine air operations over Korea. This
arrangement was the fruition of air force efforts to centralize theater air allocation and targeting that had been going on since July - resisted by the navy and GHQ FEC itself. At no time, however, through the end of the UNC’s withdrawal from North Korea was the air campaign fully integrated into planning at operational level.23
Finally, there seems not to have been a mechanism to disseminate to the staff principals planning guidance by which they in turn could have provided timely, thorough estimates and mission analyses to the CINC (as witness the staff ’s confusion about the direction of future operations after Seoul’s recapture and MacArthur’s apparent ignorance of serious doubts concerning the feasibility of a second amphibious thrust). Perhaps this was due to the failure to name a permanent replacement for General Almond, who had been FEC chief of staff when he was selected to command X Corps: He was expected to resume his former post upon conclusion of the campaign. Given MacArthur’s Olympian style of command, in which access to his telephoneless office in the Tokyo Dai Ichi Building was limited to a few trusted advisers, there was no conduit for the routine exchange of critical information between the CINC and his staff.24
Signs of Strain
On 2 October the CINCUNC issued orders assigning to Eighth Army the main attack in the west, with the initial objective of capturing P’yongyang. The X Corps was to land amphibiously at Wonsan to encircle enemy forces escaping north across the 38th Parallel. Once in possession of their respective objectives, each organization was to attack toward the other along the east-west LOC across the waist of the peninsula, cutting off all escape routes. The X Corps would remain under the direct command of General MacArthur.25 Adding insult to injury, as the Eighth Army staff saw it, Walker was also ordered on 2 October to provide logistical support to X Corps - without having any control over the corps’ operations. This added significantly to the burden on Eighth Army, which was already feeling the strain caused by the requirement to give priority at Inch’on and Pusan to outloading X Corps units. From 1–17 October the total tonnage unloaded was negligible, and most of that was necessarily diverted to X Corps.26 Throughout October, Eighth Army’s advance would be limited by the adverse logistical situation; its troops had nearly reached P’yongyang before it could get any supplies through Inch’on.27 Yet Eighth Army was not relieved of logistical support responsibility for X Corps until well after the corps had landed at Wonsan and commenced operations in North Korea.
It is impossible, without reading the detailed after-action reports and without some firsthand knowledge of the terrain, to appreciate the serious difficulties Eighth Army faced in making equitable distribution to X
Corps. So onerous was the burden, in Ridgway’s estimation, that to have given Walker tactical control of X Corps “would have added little to the load already awarded him.”28 Distance, terrain, lack of regular communications between the two fronts, guerrilla activity, and a fragile transportation net frustrated the best efforts of Eighth Army to carry out its responsibility. Inevitably, a significant degree of mutual resentment came to exist among staff officers of the two commands. This was occasioned by incidents like the one in which X Corps got CINCUNC to overrule an Eighth Army decision that it be held to the same level of a shortage of supplies as I and IX Corps.29
On the X Corps side, the staff wrestled with problems beyond its organizational abilities: It was performing army-type functions with a corps-size staff.30 As the Corps G–4 later wrote, in order to perform its logistical mission over wide frontages, with limited routes of communication, in support of joint and combined forces, “the book just had to be thrown out the window.” He found it inexplicable that GHQ FEC had tasked Eighth Army with logistical support in preference to X Corps’ direct contact with the theater logistics agency, Japan Logistics Command, which had been the arrangement from the formation of the corps through its commitment at Inch’on. “Detailed supply plans had been completed [with Japan Logistics Command] to meet unexpected difficulties. The introduction of Eighth Army into channels interrupted these arrangements at a critical time.” He concludes that, at a time when all staffs were overworked and involved in a very complicated operation requiring the closest liaison, many difficulties could have been avoided if X Corps had continued to receive logistic support directly from Japan, at least until the initial landings at Wonsan had been established.31 MacArthur’s decision to coordinate the operations of both the eastern and western maneuver forces from Tokyo was presumably based on an appreciation of the near-impassable terrain that separated them. Yet the assignment of theater logistical responsibility to Eighth Army indicates a lack of any such understanding. One must conclude that GHQ FEC was out of touch with the situation as the campaign shifted to the offensive.
Dash for the Yalu
In the final event, those who had expressed doubts concerning the efficacy of the Wonsan operation were proven right: ROK troops advancing up the east coast took Wonsan on 11 October - several days before the last X Corps units had even boarded transports. Apparently undeterred by this development, the CINCUNC merely announced his intention to detach ROK elements in northeastern Korea (ROK I Corps) from Eighth Army and place them under the operational control of X Corps, once it had landed at Wonsan.32 If the merits of the Wonsan landing already ap-4
peared dubious, the operation was soon to take on the aspect of a débâcle. The Navy found Wonsan Harbor to have been skillfully and heavily mined; after arriving off the objective area on 19 October, X Corps troops steamed back and forth until they were finally able to begin landing on the twenty-fifth.33 But probably the most pernicious effect of the ill-starred operation was on Eighth Army’s pursuit in the west: not until 9 October did the spearhead division strike across the 38th Parallel for P’yongyang, a delay caused primarily by supply shortages.34
The objective of the Wonsan landing was to permit X Corps to rapidly strike west toward P’yongyang, as Eighth Army drove north, thereby cutting off the withdrawal of the main North Korean forces that had been committed against the Pusan Perimeter. When it became clear that the North Korean capital could fall to UN forces long before X Corps debarked, CINCUNC issued a new operations order on 17 October that drew a proposed boundary between Eighth Army and X Corps, to become effective on his further order. The boundary ran northsouth, generally along the watershed of the Taebaek Mountain range, to an objective line deep in North Korea that corresponded to the JCS-directed limit of advance for non-Korean elements of the UNC. Eighth Army was to advance to the western extension of the line, X Corps to the eastern.35 On the eve of X Corps’ landing, MacArthur modified his instructions, ordering both commanders to drive forward to the Yalu River as rapidly as possible with all forces under their command - the old objective line was to be regarded as merely “an initial objective.”36 (Map 17)
The failure of the Wonsan operation to achieve the objective for which it was designed demonstrated the soundness of the view that Walker should have been given X Corps and designated the ground component commander for the post-Inch’on exploitation phase. But, with Wonsan and P’yongyang in friendly hands, the CINCUNC’s concept of two operational forces, maneuvering independently on either side of the Taebaek range, was eminently sound. It minimized the extremely formidable difficulties imposed by terrain and promised the rapid destruction of the North Korean Army as an organized force, assuming the continued forbearance of the Soviets and Chinese. Events almost immediately called into question the validity of that assumption. On 25 October Eighth Army units encountered Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) troops for the first time, north of the Ch’ongch’on River (just as the U.S. I Corps published its order for the advance to the Yalu).37 The following night Chinese units struck hard at the ROK II Corps on Eighth Army’s right and over the next three days caused the ROKs to pivot northeast to face in the direction of the Chinese main attack. This opened a gap in Eighth Army’s front, leaving the U.S. I Corps’ right flank open. Some 1st Cavalry Division elements were moved in to shore up the ROKs, and one regiment was badly mauled in the pro-
cess. The Chinese attacks ceased on 6 November as suddenly as they had begun, leaving Eighth Army holding a shallow bridgehead across the Ch’ongch’on, but with the ROK II Corps crippled and its troops demoralized.38 To the east, X Corps’ marines encountered Chinese troops in divisional strength, but repulsed them with limited losses. There, too, the Chinese broke contact after the end of the first week in November, although there were numerous signs that unknown size elements remained in the area.
In the wake of the Chinese “tap,” Eighth Army was shaken, X Corps sobered, and GHQ unsure as to the “present actual scope of [Chinese] intervention in North Korea.”39 On 14 November another ominous harbinger was recorded as temperatures plummeted - as much as 40 degrees in some places - to lows well below zero.40 Nevertheless, Walker made clear that he had no intention of going on the defensive, bringing the U.S. IX Corps up in the center in order to renew the advance in greater strength.41 Similarly, there was soon renewed confidence in Almond’s headquarters: Diminishing contacts led the Corps G–2 (assistant chief of staff for intelligence) to conclude on 18 November that the enemy had ended his delaying operations and was once again withdrawing to the north.42 Most significantly, in Tokyo the CCF intervention was clearly not taken at face value, that is, as evidence that the Chinese intended to prevent the complete destruction of the North Korean Army and the occupation of all North Korea to the Yalu by UN forces.
Under the circumstances, such a degree of optimism was extraordinary. The FEC G–2 (despite MacArthur’s later assertions to the contrary) had sufficient intelligence by mid-November to raise serious doubts about the wisdom of plunging into the unknown. He was privy to key national intelligence reports, which suggested a hardening resolve by the Chinese leadership to intervene in the conflict, and he possessed generally accurate information on the movement of several additional Chinese armies from their normal garrisons into Manchuria.43 That the national intelligence community regarded these indicators as ambiguous does not let theater intelligence analysts off the hook, for they were also receiving concrete tactical information that, taken with national reporting, suggested grounds for the greatest caution in renewing the offensive.44 Yet the FEC G–2 seems to have been unable to move off dead center: neither an unqualified positive forecast nor clear warnings of danger. Indecisiveness about enemy capabilities and intentions was reflected in the vacillating, even self-contradictory, daily intelligence estimates provided CINCUNC at this time. In the absence of solid intelligence estimates from his G–2, MacArthur’s reliance on his intuitive conviction that the Chinese were bluffing is perhaps more understandable.45
“Withdrawals Unnecessarily Precipitous”
MacArthur’s concept of dividing UNC into two maneuver forces operating on multiple lines, dictated by the compartmented terrain, was perfectly suited to the pursuit and destruction of a weakened enemy whose remnant forces were fugitive deep in North Korea. The commitment of Chinese troops, however, altered the equation. Regardless of how one interpreted Chinese intentions, the check to Eighth Army’s advance had been serious enough to suggest that UNC had reached the culminating point of the offensive. But when they vanished as suddenly as they had appeared, CINCUNC, after getting a scare, determined that the CCF intervention was token - a face saving gesture. Despite the rebounding optimism, there was at least recognition within GHQ FEC of the prudence in a closer examination of UNC’s dispositions and some adjustment of the original plan. Given that UNC’s main effort had to be made in the west, the only alteration of Eighth Army’s offensive scheme was to delay its resumption long enough to accumulate sufficient supplies to sustain it to the Yalu. The real question was what modification should be made in X Corps’ mission. This the GHQ FEC planners now took under consideration.
The CINCUNC directive to drive to the border with all possible speed following the Wonsan landing necessitated a wide deployment of X Corps troops. General Almond planned to conduct the dash to the Yalu by sending the ROK I Corps up the main east coast road to the Soviet border; the U.S. 1st Marine Division up the road from Hamhung to the Chosin Reservoir, from whence it could drive north; and the U.S. 7th Infantry Division, which had landed farthest up the coast at Iwon, straight north to the border.46 By mid-November X Corps covered a 400-mile front. Since most combat units were committed to reaching distant objectives, few troops were available for rear area security and anti-guerrilla missions, and the corps reserve was very small. It was also necessary for the X Corps commander to devote a great deal of time and some part of his limited resources to problems of civil government and rehabilitation of heavily damaged cities and ports.47 Thus, two basic alternative courses of action presented themselves after the Chinese broke contact. First, X Corps would continue its mission without regard to Eighth Army’s progress in the west or for flank security of its own columns, relying on momentum to reach its objectives before either winter or the Chinese could force a halt. Second, X Corps would consolidate its forces on its supply base of Hungnam, pulling back the most extended elements (some of which were rapidly closing on the Yalu) to positions from which they would provide mutual support in the event of trouble, and wait until Eighth Army could develop the situation in its sector. Almond, whose poor opinion of the Chinese infantryman’s fighting qualities inclined him toward CINCUNC’s interpretation of China’s intervention, was clearly set on resuming his offensive.
The JSPOG, however, tended to look at X Corps’ deployment from the standpoint of “how can X Corps best assist Eighth Army?” - even though the terrain separating them made such support a dubious proposition at best. From that point of view, there was little to recommend Almond’s plan.48 But its disadvantages were significant: X Corps’ advance, as currently oriented (almost due north), risked becoming seriously overextended; should progress by Eighth Army’s right flank be delayed, X Corps’ left flank would be completely exposed. On the other hand, X Corps could assist Eighth Army if Almond attacked to the northwest, thereby threatening enemy forces north of the Ch’ongch’on River with envelopment. It was estimated that Almond could make available two divisions for this purpose by calling off his advance north.49 This was the essence of the JSPOG recommendation to MacArthur, which was implemented on 16 November by a message directing X Corps to develop as an alternative a plan for reorienting the main attack west on reaching the Chosin Reservoir area.50
There were serious problems with the course of action recommended by the JSPOG staff. Perhaps most obvious is that it assigned a mission fundamentally incompatible with the scheme of operational maneuver: The main reason for control of X Corps as a separate force by the operational commander was the extreme impracticability of coordinating its operations with those of Eighth Army. Far worse from the maneuver commander’s point of view, the ground over which JSPOG intended that X Corps should attack in support of Eighth Army is the worst on the peninsula. Avenues of approach from the line of contact were extremely restricted due to the rugged, compartmented terrain, the paucity of even fair roads, and the virtual impossibility of cross-country motorized movement.51 Some indication of the difficulty involved in mounting mutually supporting operations across the Taebaek Mountains could have been received from the fact that, despite several efforts following the October Chinese attacks, it had not been possible to establish patrol contact between Eighth Army and X Corps. There was, in fact, an almost complete lack of liaison between the two fronts in November.52 The GHQ FEC was apparently ignorant of such nuances, probably because of their isolation in Tokyo: After Seoul was retaken JSPOG personnel seem rarely to have visited the theater and consequently had few firsthand impressions to guide their efforts.53
Whether it was cause or symptom of intelligence shortcomings is hard to judge, but operations planning seems to have been done in a vacuum within the staff as well. For example, on 12 November, when JSPOG began to develop their proposed branch to X Corps’ plan, planning assumptions credited the Chinese with less than a third of the strength G–2 had estimated to Washington that same day (whether they were unwitting or disbelieving of G–2’s figures is a matter of conjecture).54 And if the
limitations imposed by terrain upon friendly forces were poorly understood, there was virtually no comprehension of the manner in which Chinese forces made use of it. Whereas the JSPOG plan envisioned striking the Chinese force’s “flank,” threatening its “rear,” and cutting the enemy’s “main supply route,” these were meaningless abstractions when applied to the Chinese campaign plan. The lightly armed, well-disciplined Chinese troops carried four or five days’ rations and ammunition; when these were exhausted a fresh unit relieved them. All reinforcing units deployed directly from bases or assembly areas located north of the Yalu in Manchuria. They moved on foot in widely dispersed columns, usually at night. They attacked from the march and maneuvered rapidly over even the most difficult terrain.55
The JSPOG’s fundamental misunderstanding of enemy strengths and weaknesses reflected the isolation of GHQ FEC from the theater, its lack of firsthand familiarity with the ground on which United Nations forces were maneuvering, and a near complete breakdown of the operationsintelligence interface. There seems to have been little comprehension in Tokyo that once in motion X Corps forward elements might find themselves out on the end of some very long and precarious limb if anything went wrong. As Almond later put it, “the principal problem facing me as X Corps commander, with a fighting force extended over a 400 mile front, was how to concentrate these forces to meet a rapidly deteriorating tactical situation.”56
Upon assurance from Walker that his supply levels were adequate, the CINCUNC approved Eighth Army’s plan to resume the advance on 24 November. On that date Almond’s representatives briefed MacArthur in Tokyo on X Corps’ plan to support Eighth Army’s attack: basically a reorientation to the west of the corps main attack by 1st Marine Division from their positions south of the Chosin Reservoir. This he approved with only one modification, a corresponding shift of the proposed boundary between the two commands, and then he directed its implementation. The X Corps scheduled its supporting attack to commence at 0800 on 27 November.57 But even as the 1st Marine Division launched its attack west on the morning of the twenty-seventh, Eighth Army’s offensive was halted by strong Chinese counterattacks on its right and center.58 Within twentyfour hours, the ROK II Corps had collapsed on Eighth Army’s right and numerous penetrations elsewhere had forced a general withdrawal by the U.S. I and IX Corps to defensive positions. In X Corps, the 1st Marine Division’s attack had been halted by heavy Chinese counterattacks and its route of withdrawal cut in several places, while major elements of 7th Infantry Division were isolated and under heavy pressure.
“Having done everything humanly possible within the capabilities of [the] Command,” MacArthur announced that his plan for the immediate future was to pass from the offensive to the defensive, with such
adjustments as were dictated by a “constantly fluid situation.” He concluded that the ultimate objective of the Chinese Communists was “undoubtedly” the complete destruction of all UN forces in Korea and that it was “quite evident” that his present strength was insufficient to meet this “undeclared war by the Chinese with the inherent advantages which accrue thereby to them.”59 But an infantry lieutenant’s recollection of the ordeal east of the Chosin Reservoir cuts straight to the heart of the UN Command’s defeat: “Once the battle was joined with the overwhelming but unorganized Chinese forces, our withdrawals were unnecessarily precipitous and uncontrolled.”60
Thoughts for the Operational Artist
Near the end of his discourse on military genius, Clausewitz characterizes the qualities demanded of the commander in chief in terms that precisely sum up the challenge of the theater commander in 1950. He must also be a statesman, but he must not cease to be a general. “On the one hand, he is aware of the entire political situation; on the other, he knows exactly how much he can achieve with the means at his disposal.”61 That MacArthur’s leadership and judgment after Inch’on do not pass this test is fundamentally attributable to the fault Clausewitz identifies as “obstinacy.” “Stubbornness and intolerance of criticism result from a special form of egotism, which elevates above everything else the pleasure of its autonomous intellect, to which others must bow.” Unlike vanity, which is content with appearances, “obstinacy demands the material reality.” Strength of character becomes obstinacy when the commander resists another’s point of view “not from superior insight or attachment to some higher principle, but because he objects instinctively.”62
This is the hard kernel of MacArthur’s flaw as operational commander. His overriding belief in his mission and willingness to call what he surely regarded as a Chinese bluff in order to carry out that mission became the dominant factors influencing campaign planning for operations in North Korea.63 But, even so, the flaw need not have been fatal, if MacArthur’s command and control system had left him some margin for rashness, accidents - or chance.64 The main point of this study is that command and control of UNC operations was itself fatally flawed; the command system was simply unequal to the demands on it. In essence, it lacked both the structure and the flexibility to be successful in the unique circumstances obtaining in the fall of 1950. These shortcomings may be summarized as follows.
The GHQ FEC had not been a joint headquarters when the war began, nor did it become one until long afterward.65 The staff, not surprisingly, tended to see the war almost exclusively in terms of the ground component, usually leaving air and naval coordination as afterthoughts. Certainly, the operations of the four services were never synchronized
into a single operational campaign plan (although the brilliantly executed Inch’on operation was clear evidence of the tactical merits of such synchronization). This points out probably the hardest task in a contingency of the sort Korea represents: to tailor a joint operational staff functionally organized to deal with the specific problem at hand.
The lack of a joint campaign plan is also evident in the failure to plan ahead to exploit the success of the Inch’on turning movement. This resulted in loss of momentum at the critical point when, it is clear in hindsight, the balance might have been tipped irreversibly in UNC’s favor. Because a “seam” was introduced in operations, the effects of friction were greatly increased. And unquestionably the greatest cause of friction was the decision to continue X Corps’ independent existence. MacArthur’s failure to ensure unity of effort by the ground component at this juncture is hard to understand. Perhaps it can be partially explained by the fact that he had not seen the ground on which the campaign was to be fought. Prior to Inch’on he had visited Korea only three times, and there is no indication that he conducted a personal reconnaissance of the area north of Seoul.
If allocation of resources is the key logistical problem at operational level, control of the logistical spigot also gives the operational commander the means to weight the main effort or to change the direction of that effort by reinforcing success. By making the commander of Eighth Army responsible for resupply of X Corps, a force not under his control, CINCUNC reduced his own flexibility to exploit a tactical advantage developed on either front, quite apart from seriously encumbering Eighth Army at the critical point in the campaign. The Eighth Army–X Corps situation demonstrates a major difficulty with multiple lines of operation in a single campaign: It tends to produce competition for resources which might better be concentrated in support of one commander or the other.66 Had Walker been designated ground component commander after the recapture of Seoul, it would have made sense to vest him with logistical responsibility for all forces in the peninsula. Otherwise, it was inexplicable.
The single operational failure that had the direst consequences for the offensive into North Korea was, of course, intelligence. The function performed by the operational intelligence officer is unique. He represents the point of convergence of national and tactical intelligence collection. His is the key responsibility to collate intelligence from above and below, to correlate it with weather and terrain, and to disseminate to subordinate commanders what they need to know. Above all, he is responsible for estimates of enemy intentions as well as capabilities. By this standard, it is hard not to conclude that the CINCUNC was badly served by his G–2. In general, the greater the degree to which a theater lacks prior “strategic intelligence preparation of the battlefield,” the more likely it is that the operational G–2 will have a better feel for enemy intentions than national intelligence agencies.
What gave the Korean War its unique character was that it was fought at the margin of U.S. strategy, beyond the line that demarcated America’s vital interests. It was also fought on the margin in the sense that resources were limited - borrowed from strategic missions elsewhere. In a dangerous world, future crises may overtake us in the same way, at places where map sheets end and where there is no contingency planning worthy of the name. Against that day, operational planners might do worse than to consider the lessons of 1950.
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