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Lessons in Strategy and Leadership: MacArthur at Inchon

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This chapter introduces General Douglas MacArthur through the story of his victory at Inchon. Find out how MacArthur's life can instruct your own leadership.
This chapter is from the book

General Douglas MacArthur stood at the bow of the Mount McKinley, the flagship of Task Force 90, facing the coast of South Korea in the darkness ahead. It was 2:30 a.m. on September 15, 1950. Operation Chromite, MacArthur's audacious amphibious invasion of the port city of Inchon, was scheduled to begin at dawn.

MacArthur's confidence throughout the planning of Chromite, which he had conceived to wrest control of the Korean War and liberate South Korea from the North Korean invaders, had been complete and seemingly unshakable. Yet, in the tense hours before dawn, he obviously felt the full weight of leadership. "Within five hours, 40,000 men would act boldly, in the hope that 100,000 others manning the defense lines of South Korea would not die," he later wrote. "I alone was responsible for tomorrow, and if I failed, the dreadful results would rest on judgment day against my soul."

For MacArthur, it was a portentous moment in an extraordinary life. The five-star general (one of only five Army officers who attained the rank) was standing at the pinnacle of a career that had stretched more than half a century. At age 70, MacArthur was the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, a position that made him the de facto leader of Occupied Japan and its 82 million citizens. Simultaneously, he was the Commander in Chief of the United Nations Command, a position that made him the military leader of the allied forces in the Korean War, which to this point had been a bitterly fought defensive action.

With Chromite, MacArthur hoped to quickly transform the war through a decisive victory, and as anyone who lived through or studied the Korean conflict well knows, it was a resounding success. The invasion of Inchon reaffirmed MacArthur's reputation as a brilliant strategist. The plan, on which he had been forced to wager his power and reputation to obtain approval, was flawlessly executed. With the precision of a diamond cutter, MacArthur applied military pressure at the single most unlikely point and created a shining victory that turned the course of the Korean War.

With the success of Chromite, the General's career reached a new zenith. For those few weeks in the autumn of 1950, the entire world seemed to be ringing with praise for Douglas MacArthur. Although it would not last, there were few for the moment who would have contested Winston Churchill's assessment: "In trading space for time and in the counter-attack MacArthur did a perfect job."

With benefit of hindsight, we can see that Chromite's overwhelming victory also contained the seeds of MacArthur's downfall. It compelled the Communist Chinese to enter the war en force. Further, the power and influence that MacArthur gained in its aftermath acted as an accelerant in his ongoing conflict with President Harry Truman. In April 1951, this conflict would result in MacArthur's ignominious recall and a national controversy.

The Lessons of Inchon

The story of Operation Chromite is a good place to briefly introduce a few of the many lessons that MacArthur offers contemporary students of leadership. By 1950, MacArthur had had a half-century-long military career that was astonishingly rich in both achievement and diversity of experience. He brought the accumulated weight and integrated application of his experience, learning, and intuition to the conception, planning, and execution of the invasion at Inchon.

Chromite itself dated to the earliest days of the war. Prior to the outbreak of the Korean War, there had been skirmishes on and around the 38th Parallel, the artificial borderline between North and South Korea imposed by the Allies in 1945. But South Korea was deemed to have a strong military, and some observers even believed that its outspoken nationalist government was more likely to invade North Korea than vice versa. Thus, on June 24, 1950, when the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) swarmed across the 38th Parallel, South Korea and its allies were taken by surprise. By June 28, the South Korean capital of Seoul had fallen, and the defending army was in a state of collapse. On the next day, MacArthur, who was then leading the postwar occupation and revitalization of Japan, flew to Korea to see the situation first hand.

The general and his party landed 20 miles south of Seoul at an airport that had been bombed by the North Koreans just hours before. He traveled by car to the Han River on Seoul's south side, to a point where enemy mortar shells were exploding approximately 100 yards away. Here, he stopped to examine the fighting and the deportment of the troops. This personal reconnaissance on a battle's front line was a MacArthur trademark. "I cannot fight them if I cannot see them," he first declared in World War I.

During his one-day visit, MacArthur's observations of the South Korean troops led him to the immediate conclusion that the army of the Republic of Korea (ROK) was defeated and that the introduction of U.S. ground forces would be necessary to stop the North Koreans from completely overrunning South Korea. Standing on the Han, facing the loss of the entire Korean Peninsula, MacArthur then did something else that was entirely in character. He began planning his campaign strategy.

This almost immediate leap from observation to strategic planning was also a MacArthur trademark. Before President Truman committed ground troops to Korea and before he had formally assigned MacArthur command of the U.S. forces in Korea, MacArthur was already thinking through the defensive strategy and logistics that would be required to maintain a foothold in South Korea. Further, and in yet another MacArthur trademark, the General's mind just as quickly moved from defense to offense.

Later, MacArthur described his thought process while standing on the bank of the Han River. He said, "[I]n these reflections the genesis of the Inchon operation began to take shape—a counter-stroke that could in itself wrest victory from defeat." Thus, the conception of the Inchon invasion was firmly rooted in the famous precept that guided MacArthur's approach to command: "In war, there is no substitute for victory."

Just three days later, the General launched the planning effort for Operation Bluehearts, the first iteration of his counteroffensive. The importance that MacArthur placed on speed of movement was obvious in Bluehearts; the invasion was initially scheduled to begin on July 22, less than a month after the start of the war. "The history of failure in war can almost be summed up in two words: Too Late," he wrote.

In fact, in early July, the larger logistical challenge of mobilizing for the Korean War and the need to reinforce the existing defense of South Korea in order to maintain a foothold on the Peninsula forced a frustrated MacArthur to postpone Bluehearts. But, in the two months of bitter fighting that followed, he led an aggressive and costly defense designed to first, delay and then, stalemate the North Koreans. Throughout that critical period and in keeping with his primary precept, MacArthur was also actively planning the assault that would enable a two-pronged counter-offensive aimed at enveloping and destroying the enemy army. He told the Joint Chiefs of Staff:

Every human effort in this command is now geared to the overriding first essential—to halt the enemy advance. [The enemy] is utilizing all major avenues of approach and has shown himself both skillful and resourceful in forcing or enveloping such roadblocks as he has encountered. Once he is fixed, it will be my purpose fully to exploit our air and sea control and, by amphibious maneuver, strike behind his mass of ground force.

Toward that end, Macarthur renamed the invasion plan Operation Chromite and set a new date for mid-September. To many of MacArthur's peers and superiors, Chromite's target, the port city of Inchon, hardly seemed an auspicious choice. Inchon's 30-foot tides, second only to the Bay of Fundy, are so extreme that it would be accessible to the invasion's landing craft on only two days in September 1950. The daily fluctuations further limited access to three-hour windows. Any delay and/or unexpected resistance from the North Koreans could easily strand the invaders. Also, Inchon was many miles behind the front lines. If the North Koreans could stop the existing UN forces from breaking out at Pusan, they could isolate and overwhelm the invasion force.

These difficulties were exactly why MacArthur was so adamant in his choice of Inchon. "In war, surprise is decisive," said the General. He was convinced that the North Koreans would never expect or prepare for such an attack, so it would succeed.

In a series of meetings, conferences, and communiqués, MacArthur used all of his much-vaunted communication skills to gain approval for Chromite. The crucial meeting came on August 23, when according to MacArthur, the Army Chief of Staff and Chief of Naval Operations flew from Washington to Tokyo to "not so much discuss as to dissuade" him from attempting the landing at Inchon.

First, MacArthur listened to the numerous arguments against Inchon and to presentations of alternative plans for an invasion at Kunsan, a port further to the south and closer to the UN Forces at Pusan. He then launched, without notes, into what was by all accounts a convincing and compelling argument that stretched on for 45 minutes.

An avid student of the lessons of military history, MacArthur compared Chromite to British General James Wolfe's capture of Quebec in the French and Indian War almost 200 years before. Wolfe's equally unexpected plan called for 5,000 men to scale sheer 170-foot cliffs, on which the French had only light defenses, to gain position behind the fortified French city. The French lost the battle that followed on the Plains of Abraham, the city, and eventually, Canada itself. "Like Wolfe, I could take them by surprise," MacArthur declared.

Next, the General refuted the objections to Inchon. He said that the Navy was underestimating its own capabilities; he had "more confidence in the Navy than the Navy had in itself." He also eliminated the Kunsan option as one that would only extend the existing front and not trap the NKPA.

MacArthur reiterated Inchon's position as the proper place to cut the NKPA's supply lines. In the strongest terms, he declared the urgency of the situation and urged his superiors to act decisively:

Make the wrong decision here—the fatal decision of inertia—and we will be done. I can almost hear the ticking of the second hand of destiny. We must act now or we will die.

MacArthur concluded his argument with a direct statement of responsibility and accountability. He promised to personally oversee the invasion and withdraw quickly if the plan went awry. "The only loss then will be to my professional reputation," he said. "But Inchon will not fail. Inchon will succeed." On September 8, the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved Operation Chromite.

MacArthur's confidence was a leadership trait that was evident throughout his career, but it was rarely sheer bravado. His choice of targets and operational plans were always informed by military intelligence and reconnaissance. "Battles are not won by arms alone," he said.

Prior to Inchon, information collected from prisoner-of-war interrogations suggested that the NKPA had approximately 1,000 poorly trained troops in that area and confirmed that no attack was expected. MacArthur also had the benefit of direct reconnaissance derived from covert missions. Two weeks before the invasion, Eugene Clark, a Navy lieutenant attached to MacArthur's G-2 (Intelligence) staff, was dispatched to Inchon, where he reported on the islands and conditions in the channel and harbor. Clark's information on tides, enemy strengths, mines, and other defenses confirmed Inchon's vulnerability. It was also used to target and destroy enemy fortifications prior to the landing. While MacArthur was waiting aboard the Mount McKinley, Clark was turning on the lamp at the Palmido lighthouse that would guide Task Force 90 up Flying Fish Channel to Inchon.

The fact that MacArthur was actually aboard the flagship was also in keeping with the General's approach to leadership. Throughout his life and after, MacArthur has been criticized for being both too close to the front lines of battle on some occasions and too far away on others. In reality, he tended to want to be close to the front.

MacArthur believed in visible leadership as a motivational force. Perhaps more importantly, he wanted to be close enough to personally observe the battle in high-risk operations such as Inchon and to be able to quickly adjust his plans when necessary. MacArthur often labeled such an operation a "reconnaissance in force," and he ensured adaptability and speed in decision-making by being present on the scene. Thus, on the day of the invasion, MacArthur commandeered a barge for an even closer look at the action. On September 17, he went ashore and drove east through Inchon into the combat zone itself.

As it turned out, there was no need to adjust Chromite. By the end of the invasion's first day, the U.S. Marines had captured a secure foothold at Inchon—roughly 150 miles behind the bulk of the NKPA and the hotly contested front lines of the Korean War.

The Inchon invasion was a catastrophic surprise to the North Koreans. As U.S. troops and supplies streamed ashore, the NKPA's supply lines were cut from behind, and the enemy army found itself trapped. When the North Koreans turned to face the threat to their rear, the pressure eased on the combined ROK, U.S., and UN forces, which had been bottled up behind the Pusan Perimeter, their final 100-mile-by-50-mile foothold in the southeastern corner of the Korean Peninsula. South Korea's defenders launched a full-fledged offensive and broke out.

Caught between two pincers, just as MacArthur had planned, the North Korean army was soon decimated. In the month of September, the UN Command recorded 130,000 enemy captured and 200,000 enemy casualties. It was estimated that only 25,000 NKPA troops made it back above the 38th Parallel.

The initial goal of the war, the liberation of South Korea, was accomplished in short order. On September 29, MacArthur formally restored Seoul to the Republic of Korea President Syngman Rhee. By the final week of October, the UN forces, under the command of MacArthur, had driven north of the 38th Parallel. In fact, they occupied the North Korean capital of Pyongyang and had reached as far as Chosan, a city hard on the Yalu River—the border between North Korea and Communist China.

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