Limited War, Joint Chiefs of Staff and

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Limited War, Joint Chiefs of Staff and. During the Cold War, the American military became involved in two major if limited wars or police actions: Korea (1950–53) and Vietnam (1964–72). Before the large‐scale commitment of American military forces to these Asian nations, the military leadership, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), was conservative in estimating the strategic importance of both areas, hesitant about U.S. involvement, and disagreed over the form of involvement. The impetus came from other agencies such as the State Department, and JCS endorsement was based upon psychological rather than military grounds. However, after the introduction of American forces in each case, military leverage on the policymakers increased; and as the wars dragged on, JCS identification with the policy became closer.

In the Korean War, the JCS supported a policy labeled as “no win” by the field commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, many congressmen, and a significant part of the public. In the Vietnam War, the JCS advocated a policy that continually raised the stakes in a desperate attempt to achieve some form of victory. During Korea, President Harry S. Truman fired the recalcitrant field commander and relied heavily on the JCS. During Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson fired Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara “when he became soft,” and again began to depend heavily on the JCS.

The joint chiefs played a role in keeping with the American tradition of civil‐military relations. In Korea, the JCS took part in every major decision from the first involvement to the dismissal of MacArthur and the move toward a negotiated settlement. Both Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson in their memoirs have nothing but praise for the JCS's conduct during the conflict.

JCS advice was solicited throughout the American involvement in Southeast Asia. The battlefield tactics of Gen. William C. Westmoreland, Vietnam commander 1964–68, may have been questionable, but his support for administration objectives was never doubted. His successor, Gen. Creighton Abrams, also loyally supported Washington policy.

The JCS did become involved in bureaucratic struggles with the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Throughout, the joint chiefs always wanted to expand the war in Vietnam and make it more extensive than did most of their civilian counterparts. The resultant infighting led to actions by both sides that could have upset the civil‐military balance. Initially, no member of the JCS was summoned to President Johnson's Tuesday White House lunches where U.S. bombing policy was established. After negative reaction in Congress and the press, Gen. Earle G. Wheeler, chairman of the JCS, was invited.

The JCS recommended and supported the U.S. military withdrawal from Korea (1949) that helped precipitate the Communist invasion. In 1950, the chiefs urged the president to allow MacArthur to cross the 38th parallel, then refused to curb the field commander's provocative tactics, which ultimately led to massive Chinese intervention and near annihilation of American forces. Beginning in 1961, the JCS, accepting the ill‐conceived domino theory, urged the commitment of significant numbers of American ground troops into Vietnam. Early in the Johnson administration, the JCS importuned the chief executive to bomb North Vietnam and recommended a strategy of provocation. Once troops had been committed and the bombing begun, the JCS urged the introduction of more troops and heavier bombing despite evidence that both were ineffective in getting the North Vietnamese to accept American war aims.

Responsibility is a two‐edged sword. The joint chiefs can claim credit for some of the successes of both wars. The decision of the Truman administration to seek a negotiated settlement in Korea rather than attempt a military victory over the Chinese was aided by JCS support. Likewise, the actions that apparently helped convince the North Vietnamese to accept a negotiated settlement—the mining of Haiphong Harbor in May 1972 and the massive bombing of Hanoi in December 1972—were originally conceived by the JCS.
[See also Civil‐Military Relations: Civilian Control of the Military; National Security Act (1947).]


Harry S. Truman , Years of Trial and Hope, 1956.
Matthew Ridgway , The Korean War, 1956.
Townsend Hoopes , The Limits of Intervention, 1969.
Dean Acheson , The Korean War, 1971.
Lyndon B. Johnson , The Vantage Point, Perspective of the Presidency, 1963–1969, 1971.
David Halberstam , The Best and the Brightest, 1972.
Maxwell Taylor , Swords and Plowshares, 1972.
Richard Nixon , The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, 1978.

Lawrence J. Korb