Success at Inchon marked the zenith of General Douglas MacArthur’s career–and a prelude to its rapid decline.

By Michael D. Hull

If ever there was a zenith in the life of General Douglas MacArthur, it was September 15, 1950. And if there ever was a prelude to the decline of this brilliant but arrogant and aristocratic commander, it was the same day.

On that September morning, MacArthur, as commander in chief of the U.S. Far East Command, executed one of the most successful amphibious invasions in history as United Nations forces came ashore at Inchon on the west coast of South Korea. Within a mere 11 days of the landing, the South Korean capital of Seoul had been recaptured, the Eighth Army had broken out of the Pusan perimeter, North Korean forces were fleeing across the 38th parallel and the general whom President Harry S. Truman called “God’s right-hand man” had taken his place in the pantheon of military immortals.

But such success bred a dangerous euphoria in Washington, D.C. There was little question in most minds that MacArthur should thrust into North Korea and reunite the peninsula under U.N. auspices. Yet when Truman raised the issue of potential Communist Chinese intervention. MacArthur, who claimed to understand the Asian mentality, flatly dismissed the president’s concerns, assuring Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff that the Chinese would not intervene in force–and that even if they did, he would slaughter them with his air power.

Patrick C. Roe, who was an intelligence officer with the 3rd Battalion of the 7th Marine Regiment in Korea, has written an informed, detailed and lucid account of the debacle that followed in The Dragon Strikes (Presidio Press, Novato, Calif., 2000, $34.95). In spite of warnings from Peking and intelligence reports of a massive Chinese buildup in Manchuria, MacArthur ordered the Eighth Army and U.S. X Corps up the west and east coasts of Korea toward the Yalu River on October 24. In so doing, MacArthur seriously misjudged the intentions and capabilities of his Asiatic adversaries in Korea, just as he had done when the Japanese invaded the Philippine Islands in December 1941.

By late October 1950, the Chinese had amassed some 180,000 troops against the Eighth Army, while another 120,000 confronted the X Corps in the east. The sledgehammer blow that fell in November, says Roe, drastically changed the course of the war–for the second time in half a year–driving the U.N. forces back below the Han River, threatening to expell them from South Korea and extending the war for 21Ž2 bitter years.

Roe believes that the initial encounters along the Chongchon River and at the Chosin reservoir in late November 1950 deserve to be included among the decisive battles of the 20th century, because they transformed the People’s Republic of China from a rogue regime of questionable legitimacy and doubtful stability into a major power. Moreover, the Chinese demonstrated to other Asian nations that the United States could be successfully challenged by less acknowledged nations such as their own.

MacArthur was correct, says Roe, when he radioed the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “We face an entirely new war.” After what General Omar N. Bradley called the worst intelligence failure since the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, MacArthur chose to go forward to determine Chinese strength with what he called a “reconnaissance in force.” In reality, it was an attempt at bluffing. The Chinese offensive in the west on the night of November 25 proved that the bluff had failed. Instead, MacArthur had been led into a trap by one of the most well-coordinated deception campaigns the Americans had ever encountered. As Peng Dehuai, commander of the Chinese First Field Army, told his lieutenants, “In order to hook a big fish, you must let the fish taste your bait.”

The risk that MacArthur’s advance entailed was enormous, Roe concludes. In October 1950, the United States had the equivalent of just 11 active infantry divisions and one armored division to meet its broad global commitments.

Ignoring orders from the Joint Chiefs (who displayed remarkable restraint and tact in their dealings with him) and the counsel of Great Britain, MacArthur committed seven of those divisions–almost two-thirds of the total U.S. ground forces–to an uncoordinated rush toward the border of a hostile nation that possessed an army of 5 million men in 253 divisions.

Intelligent, objective and highly readable, The Dragon Strikes is a genuinely rewarding addition to the body of literature that seeks to put the Korean War in perspective 50 years later.