The Limits of American Generalship: The JCS's Strategic Advice in Early Cold War Crises

By Markel, Wade | Parameters, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

The Limits of American Generalship: The JCS's Strategic Advice in Early Cold War Crises


Markel, Wade, Parameters


Last spring, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Yingling reignited the perennial debate regarding American generalship with his article, "General Failure." He joined a number of critics in blaming America's senior military leadership, especially Army leaders, for the situation in Iraq. In his view, US generals failed the nation by not anticipating the nature of the war, thus failing to prepare the military for the war in which it is now engaged. Worse, he asserted that they failed to conduct counterinsurgency operations with competence, poorly integrating the political, military, economic, social, and information domains, if at all. In short, Yingling believed that America's generals had waged the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time. (1)

One may stipulate that everything Colonel Yingling says is true, however, and still note that generals who succeeded according to his criteria are indeed rare in American military history. Historiography reveres George C. Marshall, but if President Franklin D. Roosevelt had followed his advice, the United States would have curtailed Lend-Lease aid to Great Britain in favor of an American military buildup, and the Allies might have launched a crossChannel attack in 1943 as the first major western offensive of the war. Ulysses S. Grant simply executed the military strategy President Abraham Lincoln had been urging on his reluctant generals since the fall of 1862, but when it became his responsibility to deal with the challenges associated with post-Civil War Reconstruction he was unable to institute Lincoln's vision and left the social and political order of the American South essentially unchanged from the antebellum era. Whatever happens in Iraq, it is highly unlikely that a similar critique will be uttered. In fact, Iraq is not the first war America has fought in which a brilliant conventional campaign captured the enemy capital, only to be followed by stalemate. That distinction belongs to the Mexican-American War, in which Winfield Scott's campaign to seize Mexico City left American forces mired there for months until Nicholas Trist's freelance diplomacy saved the day. (2)

Given this record, it might be better to inquire as to what can reasonably be expected of American generals rather than lament their shortcomings. In that vein, this article will focus on the Joint Chiefs of Staff's (JCS) strategic advice in three crises: the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the decision to commit US forces to combat in Vietnam in 1964. The Joint Chiefs of Staff represent the pinnacle of America's military leadership. During the periods in question, they collectively served as the principal military advisers to the President, a role now held singly by the JCS's Chairman. Examining that advice permits us to examine the quality of strategic thought at the highest military levels. Moreover, collectively the Joint Chiefs were responsible for identifying the key military challenges to American security and preparing US forces to meet them. Finally, these three crises were the defining moments of the early Cold War, at first leading directly to the US decision to wage the Cold War and then, at the end, to a national desire to find another framework.

This examination illustrates both the utility and limitations of military advice. It also demonstrates the tendency to expand the military's jurisdiction. During the Korean War, the JCS generally confined their efforts to the overall management of US military resources in support of national objectives, keeping the Korean conflict in proper perspective within America's Cold War military strategy. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, however, the JCS appeared to have expanded the definition of military advice to include all matters related to war and peace. They pressed President John F. Kennedy hard for an air strike against the deployed Soviet missiles, even though an attack carried with it a considerable risk of nuclear war by the JCS's own estimates. …

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