Sixty years ago this summer, the United States was figuratively caught with its pants down on the other side of the world. What we have come to know as the Korean War began on 25 June 1950, when six North Korean infantry divisions and three border constabulary brigades swept across the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. Approximately 100 Soviet-built T-34 tanks supported the communist solders.
Five years earlier, the United States was at a pinnacle in terms of world power after having contributed vast amounts of manpower and national treasure to defeat determined German and Japanese enemies. But then came the Cold War, as both the Soviet Union and the United States continued to vie for supremacy. "Godless communism" became the new foe, and the administration of President Harry S. Truman opted for a policy of containment, that is, seeking to limit the expansion of communist power. The policy was notably successful in Italy and Greece, not nearly so in Asia, where Mao Tse-tung's communists prevailed on mainland China.
While all this was going on, U.S. armed forces were allowed to atrophy. Indeed, it seemed to be politically advantageous to cut and keep on cutting. The services had been unified in 1947 with the creation of a new Department of Defense. James Forrestal, who had been Secretary of the Navy during World War II, was head of the new establishment. Rivalry for dwindling dollars created dramatic rifts between the services, particularly with efforts to eliminate the Marine Corps and bring naval aviation under the aegis of the newly created Air Force.
In March 1949 Forrestal, after being under heavy pressure to cut costs, was forced out as Secretary and two months later committed suicide. His successor was Louis A. Johnson, who had been a founder of the American Legion and later Assistant Secretary of War prior to World War II. More to the point, he had been the chief fundraiser when Truman successfully ran for the presidency in 1948. His reward was to replace Forrestal in Truman's Cabinet. In so doing, he took on the President's desire to hold down defense spending and charged zestfully forward with his budgetary meat-ax. In the bodily metaphor, he claimed to be trimming fat. Critics charged that he went much further, chopping away muscle and digging down toward the bone.
The prevailing philosophy was that the country had overwhelming power with its nuclear weapons, so conventional forces were becoming passé. The Army could do the land fighting, the Air Force could do the bombing, and the Navy would be reduced to transporting what troops were needed to the scene of action. At a time when the Navy already felt rubbed raw by the attacks on its aviation arm, Johnson poured salt in the wounds. The keel for what was to be the Navy's first supercarrier, the United States (CVA-58) was laid on 18 April 1949. Five days later, Johnson ordered the construction canceled. The symbolism of killing a warship named for the nation could not have been more dramatic.
Less visible but even more important was the cutback in Navy and Marine Corps manpower and assets. By the late 1940s ships were often undermanned, and many were in mothballs rather than in the active fleet. All the battleships had been decommissioned except the Missouri (BB-63), and she remained in service only because she was named for President Truman's home state. The newest aircraft carriers, the Midway (CVB-41) class, deployed to the Mediterranean, because that was the area near the Soviets' backyard and thus considered the primary concern. The Seventh Fleet in the western Pacific was a pathetically weak shadow of the force that had been omnipotent in World War II only a few years earlier. Army troops in the Far East were largely serving as occupation forces, not front-line fighters, in conquered Japan.
One more ingredient figured in the thin line of defense in the western Pacific. On 12 January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson made a speech at the National Press Club in Washington. In discussing American strategic interests in the Far East, Acheson offered only limited support for the new government of President Syngman Rhee in South Korea. Though he didn't say so specifically, an interpretation of his words was that South Korea was not worth fighting for. The North Koreans begged to differ, as they demonstrated with their massive assault in late June.
At that point, stung with embarrassment and continuing concern about containing communism, President Truman did a dramatic about-face. Under the banner of the United Nations, the United States began fighting back. The carrier Valley Forge (CV-45) began launching air strikes, the first in combat for jet-powered aircraft in the history of the Navy. The escort carrier Sicily (CVE-118) was hurried out from San Diego so that her load of Marine Corps F4U Corsairs could provide close-air support for troops on the ground. The Missouri steamed around from the East Coast. Efforts were soon under way to bring warships out of mothballs and send them to the war zone as soon as their crews were trained and ready.
As for Louis Johnson, his energetic zeal of cost-cutting was not only halted but thrown into dramatic reverse. The political points he had hoped to make with his campaign of deprivation now counted heavily against him. In September 1950, less than three months after the Korean War had begun, he was out on his ear. He had been in office less than a year and a half.