A lot of people don’t like Marines or the Marine Corps which is fine as long as they don’t ascend to positions of power where they can exercise their prejudice at the expense of the nation’s readiness. The arrogance that often accompanies power and prejudice prevents even the most highly elevated or appointed public official from anticipating the public backlash that is inevitable when they (again) try to disassemble the Marine Corps.
President Harry Truman was one of those dimwits that wasn’t smart enough to keep his mouth shut about his personal prejudices. In 1949 he fired off a memo to California Congressman Gordon McDonough who was petitioning to have the Corps represented on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Truman wrote, “For your information, the Marine Corps is the Navy’s police force, and as long as I am President, that is what it will remain. They have a propaganda machine that is almost equal to Stalin’s.”
McDonough sent the letter to Clay Nixon, head of the Marine Corps League, a professional organization comprised of former and active duty Marines, and Nixon gave copies of the letter to all in attendance at the League’s annual convention in Washington. At the height of the Cold War, the insult to the Marine Corps and the comparison to Stalin fired up the faithful, and the backlash on Truman was sudden and complete. Within days he wrote an apology to Marine Commandant Clifton Cates, stating “I am profoundly aware of the magnificent history of the United States Marine Corps, and of the many heroic deeds of the Marines since the Corps was established in 1775. I personally learned of the splendid combat spirit of the Marines when the Fourth Marine Brigade of the Second Infantry Division fought in France in 1918.”
Despite the apology, the Marine Corps blood was in the water and the sharks were circling. In October, 1949, JCS Chairman General Omar Bradley wrote, “I predict that large-scale amphibious operations will never occur again.” In the same year, Truman’s Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, wrote Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Richard L. Connally, saying, “Admiral, the Navy is on its way out. There’s no reason for having a Navy and a Marine Corps. General Bradley tells me amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do, so that does away with the Navy.”
Things looked glum for the Marine Corps until June of 1950 when North Korea invaded the south. Within days, Republic of Korea forces had been rolled back 250 miles from the 38th Parallel and had their backs against the sea at the port city of Pusan. General Douglas MacArthur, who’d commanded Marine forces in the Pacific during World War II, was charged with retaking the peninsula.
MacArthur, who’d see enough killing in both world wars, was being urged by civilian and military leaders to reinforce Pusan then break out and grind his way back up to the Demilitarized Zone, but he had other plans. MacArthur looked at a map of the peninsula, tapped his corncob pipe on the port city of Inchon, and said, “If I only had the 1st Marine Division under my command again, I would land them here and cut off the North Korean armies from their logistic support and cause their withdrawal and annihilation”. Two months later that is exactly what he did; U.S. Forces landed at Inchon on September 15th, and by October 1st, most North Korean forces below the DMZ had been destroyed or pushed back above the 38th Parallel.
MacArthur had no loved lost for the Marine Corps but he wasn’t a fool; he recognized not only the unique ability of the Marine-Navy team to come from the sea and project power against weakness, but also that a plan like the Inchon landing required boldness and daring that has been the hallmark of the Corps. Unfortunately, current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hasn’t the foresight that MacArthur had.
Gates has revised the same tired arguments opponents of the Corps have used in the past and is seeking to grossly reduce the size of the force. Gates has recently said, “We don’t need a second land army,” and echoing Truman and Bradley, said he “is unsure just where American Marines would be asked to storm a beach in the future.”
Well, one tired cliché deserves another, so Bob, here’s some Santayana, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Gates might smugly think that picking on the smallest service is going to be easy going, but in his arrogance, he has no idea what he is walking into. Lieutenant General “Brute” Krulak explained the nation’s love affair with the Marine Corps best in 1957 when he wrote, “The United States does not need a Marine Corps. However, for good reasons which completely transcend cold logic, the United States wants a Marine Corps.” Gates had better remember that quick and go find another place to cut the defense budget.
Next week: Balancing the budget on the backs of veterans.