MacArthur’s Korean War Generals

MacArthur’s Korean War Generals

Stephen R. Taaffe

University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, 2016, 280 pages

Book Review published on: March 24, 2017

Author Stephen Taaffe follows up his superb examination of World War II in Marshall and His Generals with another insightful analysis of a U.S. war and the role the senior leadership played in the outcome. MacArthur’s Korean War Generals examines the performance of the senior leaders during the first year of the Korean War. Taaffe asserts that there was serious leadership deficiencies in the conflict’s first year, and to truly understand the conflict and the army’s performance in it, you must understand the commanders. Taaffe convincingly proves this point.

The author’s approach is unique. He provides a balanced analysis of the senior leadership from Gen. Douglas MacArthur down through the regimental commanders of each division. He writes about each commander’s background, personality, leadership style, and their complicated relationships with the other commanders, highlighting both their strengths and weaknesses. The well-documented research shows a lack of confidence and support between some commanders and petty jealousies and misunderstandings among others, all of which impacted the war in Korea in the first year. Taaffe analyzes how these elements affected not only their ability to exercise command but also their decisions. Arguing that an army is no better than its leadership, Taaffe provides an unvarnished assessment of how the commanders performed in the crucible of combat. Having just finished fighting World War II many of the Korean War commanders were what Taaffe categorizes as “second stringers.” He convincingly shows that commanders with little or no experience leading large units in combat had a steeper learning curve than those that did have combat experience. In the end, some of the commanders learned and adapted while others could not.

Taaffe writes in a straight-forward, easy-to-read style. He has an excellent understanding of combat command and what it takes for a leader to be successful. He has a keen insight into how the commander’s decisions affected the tactical and operational fighting. His analysis of leaders is insightful and he places blame squarely where his analysis of the evidence shows it rests. For example, he explains how MacArthur lacked confidence in the commander of the Eighth Army Lt. Gen. Walton Walker. “As a result Walker was always looking over his shoulder and wondering if his next mistake or misstep would end his career.” In Taaffe’s analysis, the result was “Walker put his career above the welfare of the army in his charge, with tragic results.”

What the author concludes is the “American Army’s biggest twentieth century defeat” was not just a product of poor training and lack of resources but the ability of the army’s senior leaders to exercise command. The author asserts that “leaders who excel in peacetime do not always possess the necessary attributes to deliver victory to the battlefield in wartime”; a sobering analysis. Those interested in the Korean War are sure to want MacArthur’s Korean War Generals on their bookshelf. I highly recommend this book to all readers but especially those interested in leadership, combat command, and the Korean War. Taaffe’s insights will cause readers to reevaluate their understanding of the war as well as their assessment of the army’s senior leadership at the time.

Book Review written by: Robert J. Rielly, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas