Marshall, MacArthur and the 38th Parallel

On 25 June 1950, in an attempt to unify the Korean peninsula, North Korean forces swept across the 38th parallel, and the line of latitude demarcating the border between the two Koreas. Desperate fighting by U.S. and South Korean forces eventually stemmed the advance at the city of Pusan (now Busan) in the south east of the country. A daring major amphibious landing, at Inchon, well behind the North Korean lines handed the strategic advantage to the United Nations forces, led by General Douglas MacArthur. As a result of this reversal in fortunes, United Nations forces were in a position to recapture Seoul, the capital of South Korea as well as to push the invading North Koreans back to, and beyond, the border.

Last week (1st October) marked the 67th anniversary of one of the most controversial moments of MacArthur’s career and a milestone in the study of war and the idea of “limited” war. Recklessly, to some, and entirely within his remit and military ethos, to others, MacArthur’s pursuit of the retreating North Korean forces across the 38th parallel, the border between the two Koreas, was one that made perfect sense in many ways. MacArthur’s drive to destroy the North Koreans, however, exceeded the mandate of his United Nations’ sanctioned authority and his move north brought U.S. troops forces to within miles of mainland China. Perhaps inevitably, this drew the Chinese into what had been, largely a “local” conflict albeit one with significant Cold War considerations. General Marshall, at this point, was serving as Secretary of Defense and had been in office just a few weeks (he was sworn in on 21 September).

MacArthur’s pursuit of a beaten enemy, in pursuit of total victory, was entirely consistent with his military experience, especially against the Japanese. Within the new strategic environment, however, of the Cold War such actions had deeper and more substantial consequences. The Chinese involvement ensured that the war went on for another two bloody years and ended with the restoration of both Koreas as independent nations. It led, as MacArthur famously commented to a “different war” and one that saw U.S. troops facing up to Chinese soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army as well as Soviet aircraft in the skies above North Korea. Much has been written about MacArthur’s subsequent dismissal for ignoring orders and certainly he knew of the risks inherent in his actions. On 27 September, he’d been notified by Truman that a crossing of Yalu could only be undertaken if there was no threat whatsoever of either Chinese or Soviet intervention. Marshall’s position was a difficult one, supportive of Truman’s decision to relieve MacArthur but only reluctantly, as Marshall understood the need for operational flexibility on the battlefield above all else. The lessons of the crossing of the 38th Parallel would be learned, however , and seen in the next major cold war-in-Asia chapter, in Vietnam a decade later.


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