In the long history of the United States, both the political and military leadership of the country were united in a brash policy of confrontation with military rivals that demanded total victory. These military conflicts included being the underdog in the Revolutionary War with the British, and being the heavily favored in the sad and inexorable wars with the Western native tribes. The trend demanding to win reached its apotheosis at the end of World War 2 when the American military was directed by President Harry Truman to drop two atomic bombs on the recalcitrant Japanese which shocked them in to surrender and induced them to accept invasion by a foreign culture and people.
The century and three quarter long policy of uncompromising insistency on military victory was breached in 1951 when the same US President, Harry Truman, fired his leading general, Douglas MacArthur, in a conflict on the use of American military power against the Chinese during the Korean War. MacArthur wanted to continue the same policies and cultural insistence on supreme victory, and Truman did not. When Truman perceived that MacArthur was seeking to undermine his authority to direct American military forces fitting with his constitutional position as Commander in Chief, he fired Douglas MacArthur and sent the hero General packing.
The start of the Korean War was clear enough for all to understand; North Korean forces swept across the border with South Korea in June of 1950. The communist forces of North Korea had Soviet tanks to support their troops and their actions were in no way covert. It was an invasion of conquest and for weeks, it was working perfectly. The forces of the ROK, Republic Of Korea, were pushed back and it was clear that the communist North would defeat the nominally democratic South unless someone intervened.
Across the Sea of Japan, General Douglas MacArthur waited for the political leadership in the United States to decide what the Americans would do. Eventually, the United States entered the war under the authorization given by the United Nations, and not the US Congress. MacArthur swung the American military in to action and mounted a daring amphibious landing at Inchon, above the North Koreans, and the tide of battle turned. The North Koreans were pushed back and eventually, MacArthur found himself deep in North Korea and approaching the North Korean border with China at the Yalu River.
It is here that we reach the hinge in US and world history. The Chinese entered the war on behalf of the North Koreans but they did so without any formal declaration or war or even announced war aims. The communist Chinese leadership under Chairman Mao simply directed up to 300,000 Chinese Army troops to begin moving in to Korea. They avoided immediate detection by traveling at night and hiding during the day but the massive inflow of Chinese troops quickly swung the balance of the fighting. American forces took heavy casualties and were pushed back out of North Korea.
Like it or not, the US was now in an undeclared war with the Chinese. To win, the United States would have to attack the staging areas over the Yalu River in mainland. China. Defeating China would require a massive stepping up of American fire power, and that would be most easily accomplished by introducing nuclear weapons.
Truman authorized the release of nine March 4 bombs from the Atomic Energy Commission to the United States military but this raised the question of who could trigger their use. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, which is the governmental body at the top of the military chain of command, hesitated to release the bombs to MacArthur for fear that he would see them as a tool of victory and use them.
In fact, they were surely right as MacArthur’s view was entirely consistent with previous generations of America war leaders and he believed that the time had come to confront the communists around the world. After the Americans regained the offensive and pushed the Chinese back without using nuclear weapons, MacArthur publically called on the Chinese to admit defeat just as Truman was preparing to begin seeking a negotiated settlement. Truman and the American allied countries in Europe feared that an attack on China would trigger the Soviets to enter the war by pushing West in Europe and yet another world war, this one fought with nuclear weapons, would begin only a few years after the last one stopped.
Publically, MacArthur had no reservations about attacking the Chinese and he believed it to be a necessary path to victory. A letter he wrote to Congress was read aloud in the House and it included this final passage:
It seems strangely difficult for some to realize that here in Asia is where the communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest, and that we have joined the issue thus raised on the battlefield; that here we fight Europe’s war with arms while the diplomats there still fight it with words; that if we lose the war to communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable, win it and Europe most probably would avoid war and yet preserve freedom. As you pointed out, we must win. There is no substitute for victory.
But Truman did not wish to confront the ‘communist conspirators’ in Asia if that meant war with China and neither did his successor. For campaigning to counter the policy of a sitting US President, Douglas MacArthur was fired. After years of talk and millions of artillery shells fired back and forth while the negotiations continued, a timid peace was reached in Korea under the direction of President Eisenhower. The borders of the country reverted back to where they began and the communist government of North Korea and China were preserved whole. There was no World War 3 and Europe was not overrun by the Soviets.
But in this war, the Americans accepted a limited victory and that has been the pattern ever since. In a little over 20 years Americans would watch from the safety of fortress North America as the communist North Vietnamese claimed the former ally defended in the Vietnam War. The negotiated peace there was not maintained as it has been in Korea. War protestors in the United States helped establish an entirely different cultural set of priorities, called counter-culture, that went on to dominate every institution in the country. Also in the years, to follow, China broke free of its communist economy while maintaining its communist political system and now is dominate in Asia and on a path to be the world’s most powerful country if it isn’t there already. North Korea is a sort of massive state prison for its helpless citizens.
It is impossible to know what might have happened if MacArthur had launched the United States in to a war with China in 1951. Maybe the conflict would have triggered a third World War, or maybe the recently defeated Nationalist Chinese who are still in their redoubt on the island of Taiwan, would have helped the US defeat the Chinese Communist Party early in its history. That was a path not taken by Presidents Truman or Eisenhower and the world is what it is, and not what it might have been. There is no way to know which is better, but it is clear enough that after prevailing in Europe and Asia in 1945, the United States reached a limit to its willingness to use unlimited power to win only a few years later. The consequence of this cultural change has defined all that followed it and it began the era in which we currently live.
The first video here shows the first 6 minutes of MacArthur’s farewell speech, and the second video has the rest of the speech with just the audio. This is the last voice for the uncompromising use of American force to effect the world for good.