Was the United States at war or not?

Saturday, December 19th, 2020

What the American people at the end of 1950 could not understand was, T. R. Fehrenbach explains (in This Kind of War), was the United States at war or not?

It had massive forces in the field, killing, being killed, but life went on much as before. Men were being called from factory and field, but there was still “peace.” There was war, obviously, but still there was not war as Americans had come to understand it.

Americans had been brought up to avoid war as the plague, but once in it, to pull all the stops. It had been almost a hundred years since they had fought a war on the far frontier or held the border for civilization, and the taste of those campaigns was still foul in their mouths.

They had been taught for generations that the use of war for reasons of national policy was wrong, and now that their government followed such a course, in the path of imperial Britain, they felt only anguish and frustration.


It is given to the President of the United States, with the advice and consent of the Senate, to conduct the foreign policy of the Republic. From the time of Athens and Republican Rome, no representative parliament has ever had much success with dealings beyond the water; there have been historians who claim that continued involvement of a people beyond its own frontiers inevitably produces Caesarism.

The jury on this question must be reported to be still out. At least, no Caesars were produced by the Korean conflict. Both potential Caesars were, in fact, humbled, one at the hands of his superiors, the other by his people. But first they collided, and the shock was felt around the world.


After what he had seen in the trenches, war could never again be a mere profession to Douglas MacArthur. He would continue to be a professional soldier, but forever afterward war to him would be an awful act, to be entered on only for the most transcendental of purposes.

In this feeling MacArthur was one with most of the nonmilitary intelligent men of his age. He had a profound hatred of war, but any war upon which he embarked must henceforth be a crusade. In no other way could the suffering be justified.

It would occur to few of that generation that wars fought for a higher purpose must always be the most hideous of all. It is desperately hard for men to accept that there is a direct path from the highest ideals to the torture chamber — for no man who accepts with his whole heart can fail equally to reject with his whole being.

In his feeling for war, MacArthur was a typical American of his school. He was one with Woodrow Wilson, whose pronouncements deeply influenced him, and he was one with Franklin Roosevelt. War was to be entered upon with sadness, with regret, but also with ferocity.

War was horrible, and whoever unleashed it must be smitten and destroyed, unto the last generation, so that war should arise no more.

When war is entered upon for the highest moral purpose, there can be no substitute for victory, short of betrayal of that purpose, and of the men who die.


It was no accident that of all American military men, only MacArthur and Eisenhower, untypical of their caste, should be seriously considered for the Presidency, and that of the two only Eisenhower, more in the mainstream of American social tradition, should receive the office.


For now, in early 1951, two points of view concerning war entered collision course. One, MacArthur’s, was that of Wilson, Roosevelt, George Marshall, and most of the older generation. War must never be an extension of politics; it must be jihad.

Such men recoil at the thought of nuclear war, but in general prepare for nothing else. A crusade, by its very nature, cannot be limited.

But in Korea, in 1950–1951, the United States was not fighting a holy war. Momentarily, and at MacArthur’s urging, it had lost sight of its original goal and proceeded into the never-never land.

President Truman and his advisers, wrapped tightly now in the embracing U.N. cloak, would not enter the twilight zone again.

Now troops were being used as a counterpawn on the broader table of diplomacy, for a specific, limited purpose: the holding in check of expansionist Communism. The troops remained, fighting, because State argued that abandonment of Korea would be a political error irredeemable in Asia, even while the Pentagon, concerned for Europe, scraping the bottom of its strategic troop barrel, talked of ways to end the war “with honor.”

To each group, the men about the President, and the men about MacArthur, the viewpoint of the other seem immoral. Collision was inevitable and necessary.


The Supreme Commander, Collins said, saw three possible courses of American action.

One was to continue the war in Korea as before, under limiting restrictions. This meant no large-scale reinforcement of U.N. troops, no retaliatory measures against Red China, such as bombardment of Manchurian bases, naval blockade, or the use of Nationalist Chinese forces.

A second course was to enlarge the conflict by the bombing of the Chinese mainland, blockading the coast, and setting Chiang Kai-shek free, with American support, to fight both in Korea and in South China, giving Communist China more than it had bargained for.

The third course would be to get the CCF to agree to remain north of the 38th parallel, and to make an armistice upon that basis, under U.N. supervision.

MacArthur then told Collins he personally favored the second course. The first course, to him, was identical with surrender. He would, however, agree to the third, if it could be managed.


He recognized that MacArthur, however, had a perfect right to make his own views known to his chief. But the problem soon arose that MacArthur began to make his views known to everyone.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    How dare MacArthur bring the voting public into the discussion!

  2. Cynewulf11 says:

    He could bring the voting public into the discussion, but as an officer subordinate to his Commander-In-Chief, couldn’t reasonably expect or demand the President to tolerate being undercut.

  3. Chip says:

    Yes, and the tax-paying public too. Which includes the soldiers and their parents. And many or most of the soldiers were presumably below the voting age at that time.

  4. Bomag says:

    What’s the hindsight path in Korea?

    Not let the Soviets into the Pacific theater?

    Not even fight Japan?

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