Why America’s National Security Establishment Keeps Falling Short

Why America’s National Security Establishment Keeps Falling Short

There’s always much talent among the country’s high-powered foreign policy enthusiasts, but also much delusion in their attempts to unilaterally shape the destiny of other nations by force.

The last months of 1953, and the early ones of 1954, are a Groundhog Day of disappointments. After summer’s Korean Armistice Agreement, Americans came to realize what it was like to fail at war. Yet for a lifetime to come, they would wake again, and again, and again to discover that they had failed once more, and for the same reasons. The time loop that has led to four failed wars in a row continues, largely unrecognized.

In Korea, fighting had stopped on July 27, roughly along the lines where it had begun three years earlier. A peace conference was supposed to follow. Instead, China, the prime opponent, laid down conditions in mid-September. Subsequent talks went nowhere. Worse, only 4,482 of the 8,177 American prisoners thought to be held by North Korea and China were returned.

Beyond Western Europe, where the NATO alliance was coalescing, Americans realized they would be on their own against Soviet Russia and Communist China. U.S. troops, under the banner of the United Nations, had intervened in Korea by late June 1950. Except “UN coalition forces” turned out to have been far less than expected. So testified General Douglas MacArthur, first head of the UN Command, who called them “token forces at best.”

“Failure” in Korea meant that the war had ended up unrecognizably, disastrously far from the mission declared at the start. Initially, during the summer of 1950, South Korea had been rescued from Kim Il-sung’s invasion at the cost of 5,394 Americans dead. Four months after Kim’s Soviet-choreographed attack, however, a U.S.-led counter-invasion to “liberate” North Korea ended up with 28,345 more Americans lost. In this light, the war was a catastrophe.

Seventy years ago, on January 26, 1954, the Senate ratified a mutual defense treaty with Seoul. By then, a new slogan had entered U.S. politics, taken from a general’s memoir: Never Again: would the United States allow itself to be trapped in a limited, losing war in the back of beyond?

Nonetheless, Korea was to be followed by Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. After 2021’s debacle in Kabul, we can see that three key influences have afflicted every conflict: delusional objectives, a belief that victory was to be easy, and the fact that the officials who got the United States entangled in the first place were considered celebrities. An array of lesser influences also exists in each case: recurring hopes placed in “coalition forces,” misplaced faith in high tech, and a belief in the malleability of foreign cultures. Obtuse historical analogies get added to a movie script that Americans have been unable to rewrite.

“Liberating North Korea”

Today, foreign policy experts forget that the U.S. mission in Asia had, by October 1950, ballooned from just defending South Korea. It had shifted to not only “liberating” the North but to “liberalizing“ it as well. MacArthur promised “complete victory” by Christmas, and his staff planned a victory parade in Tokyo.

That October, Kim Il-sung’s army was reeling after MacArthur’s brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon weeks earlier. From his Tokyo headquarters, MacArthur told Congress and the Pentagon that the United States could do more than just rescue South Korea. Ten million North Koreans could be saved from communism as well. China wouldn’t intervene, he added. Should it try, his B‑29 Superfortresses would turn the Yalu River, which divided China from North Korea, into “history’s bloodiest stream.” Defense Secretary George Marshall and the Joint Chiefs had their doubts, as did President Harry Truman, yet they approved a counter-invasion.

The purpose was to build a united, prosperous, and democratic Korea and to do so within half a year. The dams and power plants of the North were to be used for reconstructing the devasted South. A unified, democratic Korea seemed feasible. After all, the Marshall Plan was recasting Western Europe while West Germany and Japan had become well-tutored democracies.

However, no one involved had a clue about Korea. Exhibit A is the career of Donald Nichols. This thirty-six-year-old motor pool sergeant with a sixth-grade education attained immense responsibility. At least he had learned Korean, which helped him to influence South Korean dictator Syngman Rhee. As a result, much of the Fifth U.S. Air Force was at Nichols’ disposal, plus whatever troops he required. The list of “country experts” was thin.

As U.S. forces advanced up the peninsula toward the Yalu River, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was slipping 300,000 battle-hardened veterans into the northern mountains under the cover of night and fog. History’s greatest ambush was sprung in late November, causing the longest-ever U.S. military retreat back to the 38th Parallel.

MacArthur was a larger-than-life figure celebrated as the “American Ceasar” of victory in the Pacific and Japan’s occupation. Few dared to refute his bold decisions. Secretary of State Dean Acheson labeled him a political “sorcerer” after Inchon, and most Americans revered MacArthur. For a fateful time, the country went along and backed the counter-invasion.

“Containing China”

Ten years after the laments of the winter of 1953-1954, elite opinion had shifted. Pledges of “Never Again” were forgotten. Instead, memories of a very partial victory—the rescue of South Korea—shaped the decision to escalate in Vietnam. To be sure, it would be done “step-by-step” so as not to provoke China again.

It is forgotten that President John F. Kennedy used the dreadful phrase “light at the end of the tunnel” in October 1963 to promise success in South Vietnam. Upholding its government in Saigon, he told newsmen, would block Mao Zedong from devouring all of Indochina, plus Thailand and Malaysia. If South Korea could be held against a conventional Communist attack, his thinking went, surely Green Berets and SEALs could defend South Vietnam against Soviet and Chinese-backed guerrillas.

When Lyndon Johnson came to office six weeks later, the aims of U.S. intervention began to expand. They became as grandiose as in Korea. His officials at the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Pentagon believed South Vietnam to be primed for economic development, with democracy to follow. They spoke of a Marshall Plan and a public works program modeled on the Tennessee Valley Authority. And perhaps a Marshall Plan could even include North Vietnam if only its leader, Ho Chi Minh, gave up his dream of uniting the nation.

Another war of murderous naivete escalated, stoked by fanciful objectives and visions of easy victory.

This time, policymakers and military planners expected helicopters to be the decisive high-tech wizardry. Hueys, Cobras, and Chinooks did, in fact, provide radically mobile and dispersed airborne assault capacities unknown to the French, who had lost their own Vietnam war in 1954. General Paul Harkins, an early U.S. commander in Vietnam, promised to crush the Viet Cong guerrillas “by Christmas” of 1963. National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, forty-two, recently a Harvard professor, expected U.S. casualties to be roughly comparable to the annual traffic-related toll in Washington, DC.

Yet hopes fizzled. Washington landed army and marine divisions in 1964 and began an air war over North Vietnam in February 1965. However, bombing a preindustrial society proved no more conclusive than against North Korea.

Again, a coalition was assembled. The Pentagon labeled it the Free World Military Assistance Force, which, in theory, included 68,889 men. Yet Johnson muttered that it was smaller than the “token” coalition in Korea.

That third consistent reason for failure—the influence of celebrated, irrefutable decisionmakers—became a byword of the Vietnam War.

Kennedy and Johnson’s national security cadre got stamped eternally as “the best and the brightest” by reporter David Halberstam. Secretary of Defense Robert MacNamara knew little of the world. Yet, as the recent president of Ford Motor Company and star of the Fortune 500, he crowed that “any problem can be solved.” Bundy had his own certainties, though he concluded by 1965 that “this damn war is much tougher“ than he had anticipated.

Cheerleading came from General William Westmoreland, the daunting commander of U.S. operations in Vietnam from 1964 to 1968. He was Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” for 1966, which lauded him as the “Guardian at the Gate.” And who was to rebut Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Maxwell Taylor, whom the New York Times said existed “somewhere between Virgil and Clausewitz”?

As in Korea, no one at the top knew enough about the Vietnamese. McNamara bemoaned that ignorance decades later.

When Richard Nixon’s presidency began in 1969, another eminent professor came down from Harvard for his first Washington job. By autumn, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger was fuming, “I refuse to believe that a little fourth-rate power like North Vietnam doesn’t have a breaking point.”

Kissinger and Nixon knew as little about the hard men in Hanoi as MacArthur and Truman had of those in Beijing. Therefore, the war continued, despite a spurious peace deal in 1973, to ultimately extract a toll of 53,849 American dead by April 1975 when the world saw helicopters evacuating U.S. personnel from a Saigon rooftop.

“Realigning” the Middle East

America’s first clash with Iraq occurred sixteen years later and can’t be described as a “war.” The Pentagon might as well be shuttered if an authentic, half-million-strong U.S.-led coalition in 1991 couldn’t trounce within hours an army of Iraqi conscripts strung out in the Kuwaiti desert. By the time U.S. forces finally did charge into Iraq in early March 2003, the notion of a “best and brightest” in Washington had lost all sense of irony.