by Francis P. Sempa, Contributing Editor
The audacious Inchon landing was a dramatic military success that changed the course of the Korean War in 1950. However, its outcome also sharpened the Cold War policy debate between advocates of containment and those favoring liberation. Containment prevailed. – Ed.
The U.S. victory at Inchon, however, also set the stage for a dramatic debate about the direction and goals of U.S. foreign policy in the early Cold War period; a debate that initially revolved around the forceful personalities of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur and President Harry S. Truman.
MacArthur was 70 years old at the time of the Inchon landing. His distinguished fifty-year military career included deputy command and command of the “Rainbow Division” in France during the First World War, where he was repeatedly decorated for heroism and bravery; superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; Army Chief of Staff in the early 1930s; military advisor to the Government of the Philippines and command of the nascent Filipino army; commander of U.S. and allied forces in the Southwest Pacific during World War II, where he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor; and military governor of Japan in the immediate post-World War II years.
MacArthur conceived the Inchon landing after visiting the battlefront on a hill near the south bank of the Han River on June 29, 1950, four days after the North Korean invasion. In his memoirs, MacArthur recalled that he “watched for an hour the pitiful evidence of the disaster I had inherited. In that brief interval on the blood-soaked hill, I formulated my plans.” “I would rely,” he continued, “upon strategic maneuver to overcome the great odds against me.”1
During the Second World War, MacArthur had planned and launched more than 50 successful amphibious envelopments of enemy forces in the Southwest Pacific. Despite that record of success, however, his Inchon plan met with stiff resistance and repeated doubts in Washington. Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as Marine and Naval officers repeatedly emphasized the great risks posed by the narrow port channel and the extremely high tides at Inchon. At the decisive conference on August 23 at MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo, MacArthur patiently listened for an hour to these and other expressions of doubt. He later recalled, “I could almost hear my father’s voice telling me as he had so many years before, ‘Doug, councils of war breed timidity and defeatism.’”2 Then, for the next 30 minutes or so, MacArthur forcefully argued that the only alternative to the Inchon landing would be to slug it out in a costly war of attrition. “Are you content,” he asked the doubters, “to let our troops stay in that bloody perimeter like beef cattle in the slaughterhouse?” He ended his presentation in dramatic fashion: “We shall land at Inchon and I shall crush them.”3
The Inchon landing produced precisely the results promised by MacArthur. Soon, South Korea was cleared of communist forces, and U.S. and UN forces crossed the 38th parallel into North Korea. The Truman administration and the UN proclaimed a policy of liberating and unifying all of Korea under non-communist leadership. Truman flew to Wake Island in October to reap the political benefits of MacArthur’s victory at Inchon.
In late October and early November, however, Chinese communist forces surged across the Yalu River and halted the U.S. and allied advance. It was a massive intelligence failure. MacArthur advised Washington, “We face an entirely new war,” and proposed to defeat Chinese forces and achieve the liberation of all of Korea. Truman, however, ultimately retreated from the earlier goal of liberation, and Washington increasingly imposed restrictions on MacArthur’s ability to wage war against Chinese forces. MacArthur publicly complained about those restrictions. U.S. and allied forces were pushed back across the 38th parallel. The war settled into a bloody stalemate. But MacArthur believed, as he wrote to a Republican Congressman, that in war “there is no substitute for victory.” MacArthur hinted at the possible use of atomic weapons. When in April 1951 MacArthur issued an ultimatum to China to surrender or face defeat at the same time that Truman was attempting to negotiate a cease-fire with China, Truman fired the General.
MacArthur came home to a hero’s welcome. In a dramatic address to Congress and in subsequent Congressional hearings, MacArthur sharply criticized Truman’s policy of limited war in Korea. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, backed Truman, calling a potential expanded war with China, the wrong war, at the wrong time, with the wrong enemy. Truman had settled for containing communist expansion instead of liberating areas under communist control.
The Truman-MacArthur dispute reflected a wider strategic debate about the best method to wage the Cold War. The forces supporting MacArthur sided with the approach advanced by James Burnham, a leading anti-communist intellectual, in three influential books written between 1947-1951, The Struggle for the World, The Coming Defeat of Communism, and Containment or Liberation?. Burnham argued that the “World Communist Enterprise” headquartered in Moscow effectively controlled the geopolitical “Heartland” of the Eurasian landmass, and could only be defeated by an aggressive policy of “Liberation,” which would free key areas from communist control, particularly Eastern Europe. Containment, Burnham contended, was too defensive and left it to the communists to determine where and when the conflict would be fought. During the 1952 presidential campaign and early in 1953, candidate and President Dwight Eisenhower paid lip service to a policy of Liberation or “rollback.”
Those who sided with Truman in the dispute looked for intellectual support to George F. Kennan, a top State Department planner who had explained the policy of containment in an article in Foreign Affairs in 1947. Kennan had written that “firm and vigilant” containment would promote the eventual mellowing and break-up of Soviet power.
At stake in Korea, therefore, was not only the future of the Korean peninsula, but also the overall strategic direction of U.S. foreign policy in the Cold War. That became clear when the Joint Chiefs of Staff and key Truman foreign policy advisors squared off against MacArthur in lengthy Congressional hearings held in the wake of MacArthur’s removal from command in Korea. While Truman remained in office, containment won out over liberation.
Events soon proved that Eisenhower, too, favored containment over liberation. Eisenhower ended the Korean War without liberating North Korea. When East Germans in 1953 and Hungarians in 1956 rose up against their communist oppressors and requested U.S. assistance, the Eisenhower administration stood by and watched as the Soviets and their allies crushed the rebellions. In the next decade, in Southeast Asia, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, following the Korean precedent, fought a limited war, choosing containment over liberation. The United States also stood by while the Soviet communists crushed the Prague Spring in 1968.
Prior to Inchon, the debate about containment versus liberation was theoretical. Inchon and its aftermath forced U.S. policymakers to choose a strategy. For better or worse, they chose containment.
Francis P. Sempa is an American Diplomacy contributing editor and has written frequently for this journal as well as other publications on geopolitics, foreign policy, and historical topics. He is an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.