Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Savior Generals by Victor Davis Hanson - Ridgway

The 4th story in Victor Davis Hanson’s book, The Savior Generals, bears the title “One Hundred Days in Korea” and relates the tale of General Matthew Ridgway. I know almost nothing about the Korean War, so this particular story was all new to me. 

Shortly after WW2, Harry Truman had made Korea a test of American resolve to never again appease and aggressor. But by December, 1950, that determination was looking to fail. 

The very popular General MacArthur was in charge of the Pacific, yet he had failed to anticipate the large Communist Chinese incursion into the peninsula. However, in the days when we had just stopped the Japanese with an atomic bomb, MacArthur believed the best way to deal with the hordes was to once again resort to nuclear weapons to bomb the Chinese supply lines. Truman did not rule it out. 

If Korea fell, it appeared the aggression of the communists would overtake Japan, Taiwan, or maybe even the Philippines. It looked desperate.

General Ridgway had made a name for himself calling for America to fight limited, conventional wars and eschew nuclear weapons as the first choice. “Perhaps his appointment to save a limited war through conventional means was seen as a way of putting Ridgway’s proverbial money where his mouth was.” Ridgway was one of the few generals who had actually seen combat but he knew little about Asia and Korea in particular. 

Initially, MacArthur had enjoyed stunning success. He pushed the North Koreans all the way back to the the border with China. But MacArthur was one to brag that he had reunited the peninsula and so antagonized the Chinese neighbors. The communists had finally crossed the border and pushed the Americans almost out of the country. 

“Against this backdrop of the growing panic, Ridgway was taking over a seemingly hopeless command pawned off on him by his legendary superior, General MacArthur. The latter was ensconced  hundreds of miles away in Tokyo fighting political battles with the Truman administration for his own legacy and reputation, hoping to preserve a possible future career in politics. If the Americans surrendered or were destroyed, Ridgway would be responsible for that defeat as supreme commander in the field -- and MacArthur could use Ridgway’s failure as proof that the war effort had been shorted by Washington. Yet if Ridgway were to be successful in restoring the front, the credit would likely go to the old strategist MacArthur, who still enjoyed nominal overall command.” Ridgway was faced with a lose-lose proposition. 

The Communists were similarly dug-in about not allowing an American backed government right on their doorstep. Russia and Mao believed all of Korea belonged in their sphere. Ridgway was not even clear on the American objective. Were we willing to go the distance and take the whole country? Could we defeat a newly nuclear-armed Russia? Were our nuclear weapons even capable of being effective against China?

Ridgway knew he had to raise the morale of the troops he commanded. They had just suffered a disastrous route after a huge victory. Just his appearance encouraged his men. He routinely dressed as a common soldier. He had a grenade and medical kit strapped onto his shoulders as if at any time he could be called into battle. Also, he knew his history and the age-old problems of armies making huge incurrences into enemy territory. The further they went, the longer and less stable became the supply lines. Like Johnston, Ridgway sought a tactical retreat, hoping to stretch the Chinese supply lines, while strengthening his troops until the communists were vulnerable to a counterattack. 

Because of his genius strategy, “in about eleven weeks after Ridgway’s arrival, Seoul was recaptured from the Chinese and North Koreans. In little more than three months, South Korea was in fact saved and its borders restored to or beyond the 38th Parallel.” Ridgway’s good news was actually disheartening to MacArthur because he proved the old general wrong. We did not need atomic bombs and more funding from Washington to preserve South Korea. 

Ridgway did not press on to take the whole country. The country had been divided for many years. The battle to reunite the halves led to talk of nuclear weapons and invasions of China. After Ridgway’s victory in reclaiming Seoul and the 38th Parallel, “all such desperate planning quietly ceased.” 

We forget that once we entered “the nuclear age,” limited conventional wars were thought to be a thing of the past. Ridgway’s brilliant conventional victory removed the instant reliance on our nuclear arsenal. We may be able to credit the fact that no one has ever again dared to detonate an atomic weapon to Ridgway’s success in South Korea, a place once believed to be lost. 

Americans proved that Soviet aggression could be stopped, and we succeeded in giving South Korea “a chance to find their own destiny.” The success of both South Korea and Taiwan today owe much to Matthew Ridgway.

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