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A Look at Efficacy of American Generalship During 3 Wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan

MG is a senior air warrior who is an alumnus of the Staff College and a notable writer on military history.

General MacArthur

General MacArthur


When World War Two ended the United States emerged as the dominant power in the world and it took upon itself the responsibility to defend the so-called "free world". On the face of it, the policy looked good but the means to enforce the policy were extremely shaky as the Americans in their zeal to oppose the Soviet Union and communism relied on regimes that were obscurantist and dictatorial( Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia). They also allied with military dictators( Vietnam, Philippines, Cambodia). Such a policy was bound to flounder and it sank like a stone in water.

The missionary zeal to contain communism led to President Ike Eisenhower floating many military pacts. All of them sank. It also intervened in two major wars ostensibly to stop the spread of communism. The first two wars were in Korea and Vietnam and led to an American defeat. The Americans fought a third war that lasted 20 years in an effort to contain Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan. There also it failed. With three massive defeats within a span of 75 years after the end of World War II, I shall focus on the competency of American military leadership and not on individuals. I shall examine how good or bad the military leadership was and whether they could have won the wars or deeper constraints defeated them with factors that had their roots in the political leadership.


Korea (1950-53)

The Korean War began in June 1950 when North Korea replete with weapons given by Joseph Stalin invaded the South. This necessitated an American response and president Truman called on the aging general Douglas MacArthur to lead the force to defeat the North Korean army.

General MacArthur was an old world soldier. His competency has been questioned now. He believed in the age old policy of the US army of having complete air superiority as well as cutting edge in artillery to beat the enemy. For this he wanted to be given carte blanche in all matters. The war was further compounded for the American military think tank with the intervention of communist China with 50,000 volunteers to aid the North Korean army which was on the run.

The Chinese offensive completely numbed the American military think tank and when president Truman asked the chief of staff what is the solution; general MacArthur give the following.

a) He advocated crossing the Yalu river which was the border between China and Korea and bomb China.

b) He further advised that nuclear bombs be dropped on China or on the Yalu river border with China. He calculated that as the half-life of a nuclear explosion was 50 years the Chinese would never be able to cross the radiation zone for the next half-century and peace would be secured.

President Truman had approved drop of two atomic bombs on Japan and had seen their destructive power. He was inclined to agree but he consulted Sir Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister and he flatly advised against it. He had good political reasons for it as using a weapon of such mass destruction only in Asia would damn the western world for the next 200 years.

President Truman was left with no choice but to dismiss MacArthur as the commander, and he was replaced by general Ridgway. The US forces now despite their best efforts could not push forward and whatever territory they had taken in North Korea was taken from them and a battle of attrition started on the border between North and South Korea at the 38th parallel. After three years of fighting with nothing to show, the USA agreed for a Armistice. No peace treaty was signed and now it is apparent that the three years of fighting was a meaningless exercise but sadly resulted in 2.5 million deaths. In hindsight, whatever the political limitations were, MacArthur's advice was pretty sound and had that been implemented China would never have risen up as a world power.

General William Westmoreland

General William Westmoreland

General Vo Nguyen Giap

General Vo Nguyen Giap

Vietnam (1962-75)

The Vietnam War has been discussed threadbare in various forums and everybody knows about it. After 13 years of fighting the Americans had to make a chaotic retreat from Saigon with the last helicopter leaving the roof of the US embassy. Much of the conflict escalated during the time of president Johnson who staged a fake incident known as the Tonkin gulf incident and escalated the war.

Johnson was ready to strike but not make the enemy bleed. Despite recommendations of the chief of staff committee to bomb the supply lines from China to North Korea, president Johnson blinked in eyeball to eyeball confrontation. Thus the American army was fighting in South Vietnam with one arm tied behind its back.

Even when China went nuclear in 1964, Johnson was advised to bomb the Chinese nuclear sites. He again developed cold feet. We do not know what really was in his mind because he let the Chinese off the hook. The war in Vietnam also affected the morale of US army which had almost 30% black troops fighting in Vietnam. They were not happy as to why they were fighting there. This was articulated by Muhammad Ali who refused to serve the draft and was prepared to go to prison. The will to fight was already lost as an anti war sentiment buildup in America and Johnson had no choice but to announce he would not run again.

It was left to president Nixon to authorize the retreat in a face-saving negotiation but then he and Kissinger can be termed as the 5th columnists in American history as they had already decided that the time had come to placate China and as a price Vietnam had to be surrendered.

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The lack of a political will and fear of an escalation of war with China spelled the death knell of the American effort in Vietnam resulting in a ignoble retreat.

4 terrorists who were at Guantanamo are now cabinet ministers

4 terrorists who were at Guantanamo are now cabinet ministers

Afghanistan( 2001-21)

Afghanistan is the latest American defeat and its roots can again be traced back to what happened in Vietnam. Here also the American's lacked the will to go the whole hog and there were many leaders in the pantheon of American political leaders who either were in league with the Taliban or had connections with Pakistan. Despite the chief of Staff committee warning that the Taliban and its leadership had been given a home in Pakistan, no action was taken. The sanctuaries in Pakistan, are one of the main reasons for the American defeat, as the Pakistanis very cleverly played a double game. President Trump realized the perfidy of Pakistan when he said that Pakistan has played the game of deceit.

The sad part of it is that even after Osama bin Laden was given a safe haven by Pakistan, it did not dawn on the American political leadership that to win the war in Afghanistan they had to defeat and capture the training camps in Pakistan. It is on record that the entire leadership of the Taliban was in Pakistan and the war was being directed from there.

The American leadership in this case was faulty and devoid of any imagination, as there were many generals who did not want any action against Pakistan. Their reasons must be investigated. In such a scenario the war could never have been won and 2400 American troops were just used as fodder for nothing.

The first mistake was committed by President Bush when he turned his attention to Iraq and launched the invasion there without having completed the task in Afghanistan. God alone knows what was his motive and if the Americans were not going to bomb the sources of the Taliban then why they did not retreat 15 years back. Why did the Americans wait for 15 years and go out in utter humiliation?

This defeat has been worse than in Vietnam. Here the defeat has been against a terrorist organization and the Americans have been negotiating with the very men who bombed and killed 3000 people in America and for two decades had been declared as terrorists.


From these three defeats one can conclude that the US armed forces are not entirely to blame and much of the blame rests on the political leadership which itself was not clear what is to be done. There is a possibility that big business dictated the course of the political thought and all the Americans were looking forward was to making a pile of money by making use of the lucrative Chinese market. What America needed was a firm leader with a clear cut horizon but we can now say that no leader of any stature emerged and the men who led America have signed the eclipse of America as a global power.


Macarthur Korean war generals-Stephan R Taffe ( Modern War Series-Amazon)

The Vietnam war DK Smithsoniam ( illustrated-Amazon)


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 11, 2021:

Thanks, Ken, very valid comment. The defeats cannot be put at the door of the US Armed Forces.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 11, 2021:

Thanks, Bill, nice you commented. I have trained with the US Army and Air Force and they are a wonderful bunch but you can't expect the military to fight with a hand tied behind its back.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 11, 2021:

Thanks, Tom, come to think of it MacArthur's solution was a good one but and it would've destroyed the Chinese for the next hundred years but then it requires a lot of courage so MacArthur was sacked. You are right the Americans and have lost almost everywhere and yet they're not learning anything.

tom on September 11, 2021:

yes i agree ,macarthur temproary defeat by north koreans and chinese ,korea stalemate beause ussr and china not bombed,us feared escalation,but dont forget macarthur beat japanese,his casualties less than ike,bradley and patton,nogood general since mac,westmoreland 1970 visited ima ,played cycle polo,he died,read william manchesters american caesar ,macarthur,us militarysexual assault a major problem lost iraq,nam ,afghanistan ,failed in cuba

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 11, 2021:

I am in complete agreement with you! I shudder to think what our next great blunder will be.

Ken Burgess from Florida on September 11, 2021:

The military was capable the politicians were culpable and compromised. America's politicians are incompetent when it comes to military decisions and foreign occupation. They have a 100% failure rate since the end of WWII of every occupation.

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