Magazine article Army

Eisenhower Avoids a Land War in Asia

Magazine article Army

Eisenhower Avoids a Land War in Asia

Article excerpt

Never fight a land war in Asia. It's an old warning. Many Americans have said it. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur cautioned young President John F. Kennedy back in 1962. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates highlighted it again as recently as 2011 when he spoke to West Point cadets during the tenure of President Barack Obama. Just don't do it. Don't even think about it.

Even Hollywood knows the deal. In the beloved film The Princess Bride, screenwriter William Goldman managed to milk a joke out of the famous saying. Well he should. Back in 1954, then-Cpl. Goldman was typing up documents in the Pentagon. He heard the line over and over from bitter Korean War veterans. Like MacArthur and Gates, they'd tried a land war in Asia and they didn't like it one bit. Nobody was joking, either.

The U.S. president in 1954 certainly knew all about avoiding land wars in Asia. He wanted nothing to do with them. The pre-eminent strategic leader of his generation, Dwight D. Eisenhower had commanded the great Allied invasion of Europe in World War II. Before he took that responsibility and rose to five-star rank, Maj. Eisenhower had spent the latter half of the 1930s working for MacArthur in the Philippine Islands, then an American colony. He'd wrestled with too much land mass, too many enemies and way too few U.S. troops. America's strengths, then and now, lay in technology, in substituting firepower for soldiers. We preferred to rely on oceangoing fleets and long-range air forces, not boots on the ground. Ground wars in Asia favored the ever more numerous home teams.

When the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, brought America into World War II, newly promoted Brig. Gen. Eisenhower faced the impossible task of figuring out how to reinforce MacArthur's outnumbered, outgunned, surrounded defenders in the Philippines. Our fleet was at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Most of our airplanes were burnt-out wrecks dotting Hawaiian and Philippine airdromes. The U.S. Army had little to send and no way to get it there. Longtime infantryman Eisenhower personally knew MacArthur and many of his officers and sergeants. Smart as Ike was, he couldn't cook up a way to save them. After a few desperate months of combat, the Imperial Japanese Army overwhelmed the gallant Americans and Filipinos. That Asian land war sure failed miserably.

By the time the Philippine garrison surrendered, that wasn't Eisenhower's fight anymore. He went on to victories over the Germans and Italians in North Africa and Sicily. He got the campaign started in rugged Italy, then moved to England to prepare for what he termed in his war account the "Crusade in Europe." B eginning in Normandy in the high summer of1944, American, British, Canadian, Free French and Free Polish contingents, greatly aided by strong Russian forces from the east, gradually crushed the life out of the odious Nazi German regime. For the second time in a quarter-century, with a lot of help, Americans won a land war in Europe.

On the far side of the world, America, Britain, Australia and New Zealand relentlessly fought their way toward Japan. The U.S. military hopped from island to island across the broad Pacific Ocean, leaving the ground war in Asia proper-China and Burma-to the illarmed Chinese multitudes and British Commonwealth troops, especially the hard-fighting Indian army, aided by a few American advisers, special operations forces and a lot of air power. Now and then, senior U.S. generals and admirals considered landing divisions and corps on the China coast. They let it pass. America avoided the dreaded Asian ground war and defeated Japan by amphibious landings on key islands, a choking submarine blockade at sea and devastating incendiary air raids on Japan itself, then finally by unleashing nuclear weapons.

With the war over, Eisenhower left the prospect of Asian land campaigns behind. As U.S. Army chief of staff, he oversaw the precipitate discharge of millions of wartime soldiers. …

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