Matthew B. Ridgway, who brought a beaten Eighth Army back from disaster in 1951, was a thinking—and fighting—man’s soldier.
IF YOU ASKED A GROUP OF AVERAGE AMERICANS to name the greatest American general of the twentieth century, most would nominate Dwight Eisenhower, the master politician who organized the Allied invasion of Europe, or Douglas MacArthur, a leader in both world wars, or George C. Marshall, the architect of victory in World War II. John J. Pershing and George S. Patton would also get a fair number of votes. But if you ask professional soldiers that question, a surprising number of them will reply: “Ridgway.”
When they pass this judgment, they are not thinking of the general who excelled as a division commander and an army corps commander in World War II. Many other men distinguished themselves in those roles. The soldiers are remembering the general who rallied a beaten Eighth Army from the brink of defeat in Korea in 1951.
THE SON OF A WEST POINTER who retired as a colonel of the artillery, Matthew Bunker Ridgway graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1917. Even there, although his scholastic record was mediocre, he was thinking about how to become a general. One trait he decided to cultivate was an ability to remember names. By his first-class year, he was able to identify the entire 750-man student body.
To his dismay, instead of being sent into combat in France, Ridgway was ordered to teach Spanish at West Point, an assignment that he was certain meant the death knell of his military career. (As it turned out, it was probably the first of many examples of Ridgway luck; like Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, he escaped the trench mentality that World War I experience inflicted on too many officers.) Typically, he mastered the language, becoming one of a handful of officers who were fluent in the second tongue of the western hemisphere. He stayed at West Point for six years in the course of which he became acquainted with its controversial young superintendent, Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur, who was trying in vain to stop the academy from still preparing for the War of 1812.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Ridgway’s skills as a writer and linguist brought him more staff assignments than he professed to want—troop leadership was the experience that counted on the promotion ladder. But Ridgway’s passion for excellence and commitment to the army attracted the attention of a number of people, notably that of a rising star in the generation ahead of him, George Marshall. Ridgway served under Marshall in the 15th Infantry in China in the mid-1930s and was on his general staff in Washington when Pearl Harbor plunged the nation into World War II.
As the army expanded geometrically in the next year, Ridgway acquired two stars and the command of the 82nd Division. When Marshall decided to turn it into an airborne outfit, Ridgway strapped on a parachute and jumped out of a plane for the first time in his life. Returning to his division, he cheerfully reported there was nothing to the transition to paratrooper. He quieted a lot of apprehension in the division—although he privately admitted to a few friends that “nothing” was like jumping off the top of a moving freight train onto a hard roadbed.
Dropped into Sicily during the night of July 9, 1943, Ridgway’s paratroopers survived a series of snafus. Navy gunners shot down twenty of their planes as they came over the Mediterranean from North Africa. In the darkness their confused pilots scattered them all over the island. Nevertheless, they rescued the invasion by preventing the crack Hermann Göring panzer division from attacking the fragile beachhead and throwing the first invaders of Hitler’s Fortress Europe into the sea.
In this campaign, Ridgway displayed many traits that became hallmarks of his generalship. He scored a rear-area command post. Battalion and even company commanders never knew when they would find Ridgway at their elbows, urging them forward, demanding to know why they were doing this and not that. His close calls with small- and large-caliber enemy fire swiftly acquired legendary proportions. Even Patton, who was not shy about moving forward, ordered Ridgway to stop trying to be the 82nd Division’s point man. Ridgway pretty much ignored the order, calling it “a compliment.”
FROM PATTON, RIDGWAY ACQUIRED ANOTHER COMMAND HABIT: the practice of stopping to tell lower ranks—military policemen, engineers building bridges—they were doing a good job. He noted the remarkable way this could energize an entire battalion, even a regiment. At the same time, Ridgway displayed a ruthless readiness to relieve any officer who did not meet his extremely high standards of battlefield performance. Celerity and aggressiveness were what he wanted. If an enemy force appeared on a unit’s front, he wanted an immediate deployment for flank attacks. He did not tolerate commanders who sat down and thought things over for an hour or two.
In the heat of battle, Ridgway also revealed an unrivaled capacity to taunt the enemy. One of his favorite stunts was to stand in the middle of a road under heavy artillery fire and urinate to demonstrate his contempt for German accuracy. Aides and fellow generals repeatedly begged him to abandon this bravado. He ignored them.
Ridgway’s experience as an airborne commander spurred the evolution of another trait that made him almost unique among American soldiers—a readiness to question, even to challenge, the policies of his superiors. After the snafus of the Sicily drop, Eisenhower and other generals concluded that division-size airborne operations were impractical. Ridgway fought ferociously to maintain the integrity of his division. Winning that argument, he found himself paradoxically menaced by the widespread conclusion that airborne assault could solve problems with miraculous ease.
General Harold Alexander, the British commander of the Allied invasion of Italy, decided Ridgway’s paratroopers were a God-given instrument for disrupting German defense plans. Alexander ordered the 82nd Airborne to jump north of Rome, seize the city, and hold it while the main army drove from their Salerno beachhead to link up with them. Ridgway was appalled. His men would have to fly without escort—Rome was beyond the range of Allied fighters—risking annihilation before they got to the target.
There were at least six elite German divisions near the city, ready and willing to maul the relatively small 82nd Airborne. An airborne division at this point in the war had only 8,000 men. Their heaviest gun was a 75 pack howitzer, “a peashooter,” in Ridgway’s words, against tanks. For food, ammunition, fuel, transportation, the Americans were depending on the Italians, who were planning to double-cross the Germans and abandon the war.
Ridgway wangled an interview with General Alexander, who listened to his doubts and airily dismissed them. “Don’t give this another thought, Ridgway. Contact will be made with your division in three days—five at the most,” he said.
RIDGWAY WAS IN A QUANDARY. He could not disobey the direct orders of his superior without destroying his career. He told his division to get ready for the drop, but he refused to abandon his opposition, even though the plan had the enthusiastic backing of Dwight Eisenhower, who was conducting negotiations with the Italians from his headquarters in Algiers. Eisenhower saw the paratroopers as a guarantee that the Americans could protect the Italians from German retribution.
Ridgway discussed the dilemma with Brigadier General Maxwell Taylor, his artillery officer, who volunteered to go to Rome incognito and confer with the Italians on the ground. Ridgway took this offer to General Walter Bedell Smith, Alexander’s American chief of staff, along with more strenuous arguments against the operation.
Smith persuaded Alexander to approve Taylor’s mission. Taylor and an air corps officer traveled to Rome disguised as captured airrnen and met Field Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the acting prime minister, who was in charge of the negotiations. Meanwhile, plans for the drop proceeded at a dozen airfields in Sicily. If Taylor found the Italians unable to keep their promises of support, he was to send a radio message with the code word innocuous in it.
In Rome, Taylor met Badoglio and was appalled by what he heard. The Germans were wise to the Italians’ scheme and had reinforced their divisions around Rome. The 3rd Panzer Grenadier Division alone now had 24,000 men and 200 tanks—enough firepower to annihilate the 82nd Airborne twice over. A frantic Taylor sent three separate messages over different channels to stop the operation, but word did not reach the 82nd until sixty-two planes loaded with paratroopers were on the runways warming their engines. Ridgway sat down with his chief of staff, shared a bottle of whiskey, and wept with relief.
Looking back years later, Ridgway declared that when the time came for him to meet his maker, his greatest source of pride would not be his accomplishments in battle but his decision to oppose the Rome drop. He also liked to point out that it took seven months for the Allied army to reach the Eternal City.
Repeatedly risking his career in this unprecedented fashion, Ridgway was trying to forge a different kind of battle leadership. He had studied the appalling slaughters of World War I and was determined that they should never happen again. He believed “the same dignity attaches to the mission given a single soldier as to the duties of the commanding general. . . . All lives are equal on the battlefield, and a dead rifleman is as great a loss in the sight of God as a dead general.”
IN THE NORMANDY INVASION, RIDGWAY HAD NO DIFFICULTY accepting the 82nd’s task. Once more, his men had to surmount a mismanaged airdrop in which paratroopers drowned at sea and in swamps and lost 60 percent of their equipment. Ridgway found himself alone in a pitch-dark field. He consoled himself with the thought that “at least if no friends were visible, neither were any foes.” Ten miles away, his second-in-command, James Gavin, took charge of most of the fighting for the next twenty-four hours. The paratroopers captured only one of their assigned objectives, but it was a crucial one, the town of Sainte-Mére-Eglise, which blocked German armor from attacking Utah beach. Ridgway was given a third star and command of the XVIII Airborne Corps.
By this time he inspired passionate loyalty in the men around him. Often it came out in odd ways. One day he was visiting a wounded staff officer in an aid station. A paratrooper on the stretcher next to him said, “Still sticking your neck out, huh, General?” Ridgway never forgot the remark.
For him it represented the affection one combat soldier feels for another.
Less well known than his D-Day accomplishments was Ridgway’s role in the Battle of the Bulge. When the Germans smashed into the Ardennes in late December 1944, routing American divisions along a 75-mile front, Ridgway’s airborne corps again became a fire brigade. The “battling bastards of Bastogne”—the 101st Airborne led by Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe—got most of the publicity for foiling the German lunge toward Antwerp. But many historians credit Ridgway’s defense of the key road junction of Saint-Vith as a far more significant contribution to the victory.
Ridgway acquired a visual trademark, a hand grenade attached to his paratrooper’s shoulder harness on one side and a first-aid kit, often mistaken for another grenade, on the other strap. He insisted both were for practical use, not for picturesque effect like Patton’s pearl-handled pistols. In his jeep he also carried an old .30-06 Springfield rifle, loaded with armor-piercing cartridges. On foot one day deep in the Ardennes forest, trying to find a battalion CP, he was carrying the gun when he heard a “tremendous clatter.” Through the trees he saw what looked like a light tank with a large swastika on its side. He fired five quick shots at the Nazi symbol and crawled away on his belly through the snow. The vehicle turned out to be a self-propelled gun. Inside it, paratroopers who responded to the shots found five dead Germans.
THIS WAS THE MAN—now at the Pentagon, as deputy chief of staff for administration and training—whom the army chose to rescue the situation in Korea when the Chinese swarmed over the Yalu River in early December 1950 and sent EUSAK (the Eighth U.S. Army in Korea) reeling in headlong retreat. Capping the disarray was the death of the field commander, stumpy Major General Walton (“Johnnie”) Walker, in a jeep accident. Ridgway’s first stop was Tokyo, where he was briefed by the supreme commander, Douglas MacArthur. After listening to a pessimistic summary of the situation, Ridgway asked: “General, if I get over there and find the situation warrants it, do I have your permission to attack?”
“The Eighth Army is yours, Matt,” MacArthur responded. “Do what you think best.”
MacArthur was giving Ridgway freedom—and responsibility—he had never given Walker. The reason was soon obvious: MacArthur was trying to distance himself from a looming disaster. Morale in the Eighth Army had deteriorated alarmingly while they retreated before the oncoming Chinese. “Bugout fever” was endemic. Within hours of arriving to take command, Ridgway abandoned his hopes for an immediate offensive. His first job was to restore this beaten army’s will to fight.
He went at it with incredible verve and energy. Strapping on his parachute harness with its hand grenade and first-aid kit, he toured the front for three days in an open jeep in bitter cold. “I held to the old-fashioned idea that it helped the spirits of the men to see the Old Man up there in the snow and sleet . . . sharing the same cold miserable existence they had to endure,” he said. But Ridgway admitted that until a kindhearted major dug up a pile-lined cap and warm gloves for him, he “damn near froze.
Everywhere he went, Ridgway exercised his fabulous memory for faces. By this time he could recognize an estimated 5,000 men at a glance. He dazzled old sergeants and MPs on lonely roads by remembering not only their names but where they had met and what they had said to each other.
But this trick was not enough to revive EUSAK. Everywhere Ridgway found the men unresponsive, reluctant to answer his questions, even to air their gripes. The defeatism ran from privates through sergeants all the way up to the generals. He was particularly appalled by the atmosphere in the Eighth Army’s main command post in Taegu. There they were talking about withdrawing from Korea, frantically planning how to avoid a Dunkirk.
In his first 48 hours, Ridgway had met with all his American corps and division commanders and all but one of the Republic of Korea division commanders. He told them—as he had told the staffers in Taegu—that he had no plans whatsoever to evacuate Korea. He reiterated what he had told South Korean president Syngman Rhee in their meeting: “I’ve come to stay. ” But words could not restore the nerve of many top commanders. Ridgway’s reaction to this defeatism was drastic: He cabled the Pentagon that he wanted to relieve almost every division commander and artillery commander in EUSAK. He also supplied his bosses with a list of younger fighting generals he wanted to replace the losers. This demand caused political palpitations in Washington, where MacArthur’s growing quarrel with President Harry Truman’s policy was becoming a nightmare. Ridgway eventually got rid of his losers—but not with one ferocious sweep. The ineffective generals were sent home singly over the next few months as part of a “rotation policy.”
Meanwhile, in a perhaps calculated bit of shock treatment, Ridgway visited I Corps and asked the G-3 to brief him on their battle plans. The officer described plans to withdraw to “successive positions.”
“What are your attack plans?” Ridgway growled. The officer floundered. “Sir—we are withdrawing.” There were no attack plans. “Colonel, you are relieved,” Ridgway said.
That is how the Eighth Army heard the story. Actually, Ridgway ordered the G-3’s commanding officer to relieve him—which probably intensified the shock effect on the corps. Many officers felt, perhaps with some justice, that Ridgway was brutally unfair to the G-3, who was only carrying out the corps commander’s orders. But Ridgway obviously felt the crisis justified brutality.
As for the lower ranks, Ridgway took immediate steps to satisfy some of their gripes. Warmer clothing was urgently demanded from the States. Stationery to write letters home, and to wounded buddies, was shipped to the front lines—and steak and chicken were added to the menu, with a ferocious insistence that meals be served hot.
Regimental, division, and corps commanders were told in language Ridgway admitted was “often impolite” that it was time to abandon creature comforts and slough off their timidity about getting off the roads and into the hills, where the enemy was holding the high ground. Again and again Ridgway repeated the ancient army slogan “Find them! Fix them! Fight them! Finish them!”
As he shuttled across the front in a light plane or a helicopter, Ridgway studied the terrain beneath him. He was convinced a massive Communist offense was imminent. He not only wanted to contain it, he wanted to inflict maximum punishment on the enemy. He knew that for the time being he would have to give some ground, but he wanted the price to be high. South of the Han River, he assigned Brigadier General Garrison Davidson, a talented engineer, to take charge of several thousand Korean laborers and create a “deep defensive zone” with a trench system, barbed wire, and artillery positions.
RIDGWAY ALSO PREACHED DEFENSE IN DEPTH to his division and regimental commanders in the lines they were holding north of the Han. Although they lacked the manpower to halt the Chinese night attacks, he said that by buttoning up tight, unit by unit, at night and counterattacking strongly with armor and infantry teams during the day, the U.N. army could inflict severe punishment on anyone who had come through the gaps in their line. At the same time, Ridgway ordered that no unit be abandoned if cut off. It was to be “fought for” and rescued unless a “major commander” after “personal appraisal” Ridgway-style—from the front lines—decided its relief would cost as many or more men.
Finally, in this race against the looming Chinese offensive, Ridgway tried to fill another void in the spirit of his men. He knew they were asking each other, “What the hell are we doing here in this God-forgotten spot?” One night he sat down at his desk in his room in Seoul and tried to answer that question.
His first reasons were soldierly: They had orders to fight from the president of the United States, and they were defending the freedom of South Korea. But the real issues were deeper—”whether the power of Western civilization, as God has permitted it to flower in our own beloved lands, shall defy and defeat Communism; whether the rule of men who shoot their prisoners, enslave their citizens and deride the dignity of man, shall displace the rule of those to whom the individual and his individual rights are sacred.” In that context, Ridgway wrote, “the sacrifices we have made, and those we shall yet support, are not offered vicariously for others but in our own direct defense.”
On New Year’s Eve, the Chinese and North Koreans attacked with all-out fury. The Eighth Army, Ridgway wrote, “were killing them by the thousands,” but they kept coming. They smashed huge holes in the center of Ridgway’s battle line, where ROK divisions broke and ran. Ridgway was not surprised—having met their generals, he knew most had little more than a company commander’s experience or expertise. Few armies in existence had taken a worse beating than the ROKs in the first six months of the war.
By January 2 it was evident that the Eighth Arrny would have to move south of the Han River and abandon Seoul. As he left his headquarters, Ridgway pulled from his musette bag a pair of striped flannel pajama pants “split beyond repair in the upper posterior region.” He tacked them to the wall, the worn-out seat flapping. Above them, in block letters, he left a message:
TO THE COMMANDING GENERAL
CHINESE COMMUNIST FORCES
WITH THE COMPLIMENTS OF
THE COMMANDING GENERAL
The story swept through the ranks with predictable effect.
The Eighth Army fell back fifteen miles south of the Han to the defensive line prepared by General Davidson and his Korean laborers. They retreated, in Ridgway’s words, “as a fighting army, not as a running mob.” They brought with them all their equipment and, most important, their pride. They settled into the elaborate defenses and waited for the Chinese to try again. The battered Communists chose to regroup. Ridgway decided it was time to come off the floor with some Sunday punches of his own.
He set up his advanced command post on a bare bluff at Yoju, about one-third of the way across the peninsula, equidistant from the I Corps and X Corps headquarters. For the first few weeks, he operated with possibly the smallest staff of any American commander of a major army. Although EUSAK’s force of 350,000 men was in fact the largest field army ever led by an American general, Ridgway’s staff consisted of just six people: two aides, one orderly, a driver for his jeep, and a driver and radio operator for the radio jeep that followed him everywhere. He lived in two tents, placed end-to-end to create a sort of two-room apartment and heated by a small gasoline stove. Isolated from the social and military formalities of the main CP at Taegu, Ridgway had time for “uninterrupted concentration” on his counteroffensive.
Nearby was a crudely leveled airstrip from which he took off repeatedly to study the terrain in front of him. He combined this personal reconnaissance with intensive study of relief maps provided by the Army Map priceless asset.” Soon his incredible memory had absorbed the terrain of the entire front, and “every road, every cart track, every hm, every stream, every ridge in that area . . we hoped to control . . . became as familiar to me as . my own backyard,” he later wrote. When he ordered an advance into a sector, he knew exactly what it might involve for his infantrymen.
ON JANUARY 25, WITH A THUNDEROUS ERUPTION OF MASSED ARTILLERY, the Eighth Army went over to the attack in Operation Thunderbolt. The goal was the Han River, which would make the enemy’s grip on Seoul untenable. The offensive was a series of carefully planned advances to designated “phase lines,” beyond each of which no one advanced until every assigned unit reached it. Again and again Ridgway stressed the importance of having good coordination, inflicting maximum punishment, and keeping major units intact. He called it “good footwork combined with firepower.” The men in the lines called it “the meat grinder.”
To jaundiced observers in the press, the army’s performance was miraculous. Rene Cutforth of the BBC wrote: “Exactly how and why the new army was transformed…from a mob of dispirited boobs…to a tough resilient force is still a matter for speculation and debate.” A Time correspondent came closest to explaining it: “The boys aren’t up there fighting for democracy now. They’re fighting because the platoon leader is leading them and the platoon leader is fighting because of the command, and so on right up to the top.”
By February 10 the Eighth Army had its left flank anchored on the Han and had captured Inchon and Seoul’s Kimpo Airfield. After fighting off a ferocious Chinese counterattack on Lincoln’s birthday, Ridgway launched offensives from his center and right flank with equal success. In one of these, paratroopers were used to trap a large number of Chinese between them and an armored column. Ridgway was sorely tempted to jump with them, but he realized it would be “a damn fool thing” for an army commander to do. Instead, he landed on a road in his light plane about a half hour after the paratroopers hit the ground.
M-1s were barking all around him. At one point a dead Chinese came rolling down a hill and dangled from a bank above Ridgway’s head. His pilot, an ex-infantryman, grabbed a carbine out of the plane and joined the shooting. Ridgway stood in the road, feeling “that lifting of the spirits, that sudden quickening of the breath and the sudden sharpening of all the senses that comes to a man in the midst of battle.” None of his exploits in Korea better demonstrates why he was able to communicate a fierce appetite for combat to his men.
Still another incident dramatized Ridgway’s instinctive sympathy for the lowliest private in his ranks. In early March he was on a hillside watching a battalion of the 1st Marine Division moving up for an attack. In the line was a gaunt boy with a heavy radio on his back. He kept stumbling over an untied shoelace. “Hey, how about one of you sonsabitches tying my shoe?” he howled to his buddies. Ridgway slid down the snowy bank, landed at his feet, and tied the laces.
Fifty-four days after Ridgway took command, the Eighth Army had driven the Communists across the 38th parallel, the line dividing North and South Korea, inflicting enormous losses with every mile they advanced. The reeling enemy began surrendering by the hundreds. Seoul was recaptured on March 14, a symbolic defeat of tremendous proportions to the Communists’ political ambitions. Ridgway was now “supremely confident” his men could take “any objective” assigned to them. “The American flag never flew over a prouder, tougher, more spirited and more competent fighting force than was the Eighth Army as it drove north beyond the parallel,” he declared. But he agreed with President Truman’s decision to stop at the parallel and seek a negotiated truce.
In Tokyo his immediate superior General Douglas MacArthur, did not agree and let his opinion resound through the media. On April 11 Ridgway was at the front in a snowstorm supervising final plans for an attack on the Chinese stronghold of Chörwön, when a correspondent said, “Well, General, I guess congratulations are in order.” That was how he learned that Truman had fired MacArthur and given Ridgway his job as supreme commander in the Far East and as America’s proconsul in Japan.
Ridgway was replaced as Eighth Army commander by Lieutenant General James Van Fleet, who continued Ridgway’s policy of using coordinated firepower, rolling with Communist counterpunches, inflicting maximum casualties. Peace talks and occasionally bitter fighting dragged on for another twenty-eight months, but there was never any doubt that EUSAK was in Korea to stay. Ridgway and Van Fleet built the ROK Army into a formidable force during these months. They also successfully integrated black and white troops in EUSAK.
Later, Ridgway tried to combine his “profound respect” for Douglas MacArthur and his conviction that President Truman had done the right thing in relieving him. Ridgway maintained that MacArthur had every right to make his views heard in Washington, but not to disagree publicly with the president’s decision to fight a limited war in Korea. Ridgway, with his deep concern for the individual soldier, accepted the concept of limited war fought for sharply defined goals as the only sensible doctrine in the nuclear age.
After leaving the Far East, Ridgway would go on to become head of NATO in Europe and chairrnan of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Eisenhower. Ironically, at the end of his career he would find himself in a MacArthuresque position. Secretary of Defense Charles E. (“Engine Charlie”) Wilson had persuaded Ike to slash the defense budget—with 76 percent of the cuts falling on the army. Wilson latched on to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’s foreign policy, which relied on the threat of massive nuclear retaliation to intimidate the Communists. Wilson thought he could get more bang for the buck by giving almost half the funds in the budget to the air force.
Ridgway refused to go along with Eisenhower. In testimony before Congress, he strongly disagreed with the administration’s policy. He insisted it was important that the United States be able to fight limited wars, without nuclear weapons. He said massive retaliation was “repugnant to the ideals of a Christian nation” and incompatible with the basic aim of the United States, “a just and durable peace.”
EISENHOWER WAS INFURIATED, BUT RIDGWAY STOOD HIS GROUND—and in fact proceeded to take yet another stand that angered top members of the administration. In early 1954 the French army was on the brink of collapse in Vietnam. Secretary of State Dulles and a number of other influential voices wanted the United States to intervene to rescue the situation. Alarmed, Ridgway sent a team of army experts to Vietnam to assess the situation. They came back with grim information.
Vietnam, they reported, was not a promising place to fight a modern war. It had almost nothing a modern army needed—good highways, port facilities, airfields, railways. Everything would have to be built from scratch. Moreover, the native population was politically unreliable, and the jungle terrain was made to order for guerrilla warfare. The experts estimated that to win the war the United States would have to commit more troops than it had sent to Korea.
Ridgway sent the report up through channels to Eisenhower. A few days later he was told to have one of his staff give a logistic briefing on Vietnam to the president. Ridgway gave it himself. Eisenhower listened impassively and asked only a few questions, but it was clear to Ridgway that he understood the full implications. With minimum fanfare, the president ruled against intervention.
For reasons that still puzzle historians, no one in the Kennedy administration ever displayed the slightest interest in the Ridgway report—not even Kennedy’s secretary of state, Dean Rusk, who as assistant secretary of state for Far Eastern affairs in 1950–51 knew and admired what Ridgway had achieved in Korea. As Ridgway left office, Rusk wrote him a fulsome letter telling him he had “saved your country from the humiliation of defeat through the loss of morale in high places.”
The report on Vietnam was almost the last act of Ridgway’s long career as an American soldier. Determined to find a team player, Eisenhower did not invite him to spend a second term as chief of staff, as was customary. Nor was he offered another job elsewhere. Although Ridgway officially retired, his departure was clearly understood by Washington insiders as that rarest of things in the U.S. Army, a resignation in protest.
After leaving the army in 1955, Ridgway became chairman and chief executive officer of the Mellon Institute of Industrial Research, in Pittsburgh. He retired from this post in 1960 and has continued to live in a suburb of Pittsburgh. At this writing he is 97. [Editor’s note: Ridgway died at age 98 on July 26, 1993.]
When Ridgway was leaving Japan to become commander of NATO, he told James Michener, “I cannot subscribe to the idea that civilian thought per se is any more valid than military thought.” Without abandoning his traditional obedience to his civilian superiors, Ridgway insisted on his right to be a thinking man’s soldier—the same soldier who talked back to his military superiors when he thought their plans were likely to lead to the “needless sacrifice of priceless lives.”
David Halberstam is among those who believe that Ridgway’s refusal to go along with intervention in Vietnam was his finest hour. Halberstam called him the “one hero” of his book on our involvement in Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest. But for the student of military history, the Ridgway of Korea towers higher. His achievement proved the doctrine of limited war can work, provided those fighting it are led by someone who knows how to ignite their pride and confidence as soldiers. Ridgway’s revival of the Eighth Army is the stuff of legends, a paradigm of American generalship. Omar Bradley put it best: “His brilliant, driving uncompromising leadership [turned] the tide of battle like no other general’s in our military history.” Not long after Ridgway’s arrival in Korea, one of the lower ranks summed up EUSAK’s new spirit with a wisecrack: “From now on there’s a right way, a wrong way, and a Ridgway.” MHQ
THOMAS FLEMING is a historian, novelist, and contributing editor of MHQ. He is at present working on a novel about the German resistance to Hitler.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1993 issue (Vol. 5, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: The Man Who Saved Korea.
Want to have the lavishly illustrated, premium-quality print edition of MHQ delivered directly to you four times a year? Subscribe now at special savings!