Thursday, March 27, 2014

Korea: Funding the Mission

The Korean War, at least from the American side, was a conflict operated on a proverbial shoestring budget. To be sure, the total defense budget increased significantly during the first half of the 1950's, but those funds were directed toward strengthening defenses in Europe against a possible Soviet attack, toward defending the American homeland against strategic attack, and toward developing a strategic nuclear arsenal. The land war in Korea, or so it seemed to the soldiers fighting there, was an afterthought in terms of funding men and equipment.

Not only did the Army face a shortage of soldiers during the Korean War, but the organization of those soldiers was such that the conflict was manned largely by short-term draftees, while many experienced infantrymen were stationed in Europe. The greenness of the United States Army not only robbed combat operations of the expertise and insight which come with experience, but also created distrust when large bodies of short-term conscripts were managed by career officers. William Donnelly writes:

The Army’s manpower dilemma during the Korean War’s last two years was unlike its most serious manpower problem during World War II, which was more a matter of distributing the resources provided by full national mobilization, and in particular, providing sufficient numbers of men for the infantry. The Korean War manpower dilemma instead was a foreshadowing of problems the service would face in the Vietnam War. Again, decisions by senior civilian and military leaders created a war in a secondary theater fought primarily by noncareer soldiers who served for only two years of active duty, and who became increasingly distrustful of career soldiers. Vietnam, too, would see the serious erosion of readiness in units not committed to the battlefield, but unlike Korea, the Army did not enjoy a period where the manpower dilemma was cushioned by a major mobilization of the reserve components. The Army during Korea, however, was spared the tremendous change and conflict in American society that was underway as major ground forces arrived in Vietnam, change and conflict that intensified during the war, in part because of growing opposition to the war among the American people. Finally, another manpower dilemma in another war lacking the traditional measures of progress showed that problems in the service’s institutional culture — “oversupervision,” a reliance on evaluation by statistics, and ticket-punching — had worsened during the years after the armistice in Korea.

With both a shooting war in Korea, and a global Cold War overshadowing the planet, the political leaders in Washington could easily justify tax increases to fund defense. The immediacy of Korea made obvious the need for infantry and equipment, but the emphasis drifted to strategic needs with regards to the Europe, North America, and NATO. Historian Russell Weigley writes:

Congress enacted three wartime tax increases, and the combined impact of the rate increases and an economic boom stimulated by the war was to raise federal revenues from $36.5 billion in fiscal year 1950 to $47.6 billion in the next fiscal year, $61.4 billion in fiscal 1952, and $64.8 billion in fiscal 1953. Expenditures for national security purposes rose from $13 billion in fiscal 1950 to $22.3 billion, $44 billion, and $50.4 billion, respectively, in the following three fiscal years. These increased defense expenditures went first, naturally, into creating the necessary instruments to fight the war in Korea. Frightened by the unreadiness the Korean War demonstrated, however, and by the its unarguable evidence that the deterrent powers of the country's atomic weaponry had not been complete, government and military leaders generally agreed that the growing funds available for national security must be used to seek a larger security beyond the immediate demands of the war.

After WWII, the Army's reduction in force and accompanying decreases in defense spending, while appropriate for the circumstances, left the United States with few extra infantrymen for Korea when the conflict began in June and July of 1950. Those U.S. soldiers who were first put into combat in Korea were inexperienced, poorly led, and disorganized. They were men who'd been doing the relatively easy duty of occupying Japan, a task, which by mid-1950, consisted of simply being present. They were not prepared for intense combat, and neither were the officers who led them. It was clear that the Army would have to quickly upgrade and reorganize its forces in Korea.

While the Army did succeed in making a significant and sufficient improvement in its forces in Korea, this pressing need was still obscured by an emphasis on preparing a globally strategic force, a nuclear arsenal, and stationing trained and equipped troops in Europe. Much of what happened in the U.S. defense establishment during the Korean War era had little to do with the Korean War. Historians Allan Millett and Peter Maslowski write:

Amply funded and skillfully managed, the Korean War rearmament program nevertheless had its intrinsic confusions, since it was two mobilizations for two wars. The real war in the Far East required fast and large reinforcements in men and materiel, especially after the Chinese intervention. The Department of Defense, however, had a more compelling concern, the possibility of a war with the Soviet Union. The administration's military, diplomatic, and intelligence advisers estimated that by 1952 the Russians would have an optimum opportunity to initiate a general war with the United States and its NATO allies. By that time the Soviets were likely to have sufficient nuclear weapons - including hydrogen bombs - and aircraft to carry them to launch an attack on the continental United States. Just the threat of such an attack might so intimidate the United States that it would not use its own nuclear weapons to meet a Soviet conventional attack on Western Europe, where the Russian forces still outnumbered Western forces on an order of three to one in manpower and weapons. Even if the Soviets did not actually attack, the threat of such an attack might bring Soviet-leaning neutrality to most of Europe. The Truman administration accepted the "year of maximum danger" concept, but its dilemma extended far beyond 1952. It had to weigh the immediate demands of proxy war with the Communists against the long-term requirements of deterring general war.

Veterans of the Korean War can feel, and rightly so, that they were asked to fight a war as an afterthought. Much of the military and the civilian defense organization was devoted to Cold War strategizing, while infantrymen were asked to do the fighting, bleeding, and dying without the measure of funding, the quantities and quality of equipment, and the amount of trained experienced officers which might be desired for actual combat.