A Return to the Pacific Islands: Robert Gates and America’s Asian Military Posture

On February 25, 2011, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York. The speech was a farewell address, since Gates planned on retiring in a matter of months. During the presentation, the outgoing Defense Secretary spoke on a range of issues, including the need for the U.S. Army to advance the careers of innovative, non-traditional officers. He also spoke about the challenges of maintaining U.S. military superiority during an era of congressional budget cuts. But Gates’ most important comments related to U.S. military policy in Asia. Specifically, he said the U.S. must never again fight a large-scale ground war in Asia. “In my opinion,” said Gates, “any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined….” This statement, tucked discreetly into the middle of Gates’ speech, could have huge ramifications for the U.S. military posture in the far western Pacific and across Asia.

Gates went on to admit that the last sixty years of U.S. military engagement in Asia has been costly in both national treasure and American lives. Furthermore, the land wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan failed to achieve either a lasting peace or American political objectives.

In Korea, the U.S. now faces a standoff with a nuclear-armed North Korea. Any conflict on the Korean peninsula would likely escalate into a nuclear war, resulting in the deaths of millions of Koreans. In Vietnam, upwards of four million Vietnamese and nearly 60,000 Americans died during ten years of intense ground combat. That conflict ended when the entire Indochinese peninsula fell to the Communists in the spring of 1975. As for Iraq, the U.S. failed to establish a stable government in Baghdad; and the country is still plagued by sectarian tensions that threaten to tear it apart. And then there is Afghanistan, where a corrupt regime is supported by the presence of U.S. soldiers and Marines. The future of the government in Kabul is hardly secure, especially after the U.S. pulls out.

Gates confessed that America has a dismal track record of fighting and winning land wars in Asia and the Middle East. Granted, Korea could be considered a partial success; but in the other three wars, the U.S. did not achieve its strategic goals.

At West Point, Gates expressed a long-held American fear of fighting on the Asian mainland. That fear rested on two beliefs: 1) that an American army would be overwhelmed by the Asian masses (what was referred to in the early twentieth century in racist terms as the “Yellow horde”) and; 2) that the Asian mainland itself, with its diseases, difficult terrain, tropical climate, and vastly different peoples, would stymie the effective deployment of U.S. troops, American firepower, and U.S. technology.

There are several examples in history when American policymakers rejected U.S. military intervention on the Asian mainland. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover did not militarily challenge the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Hoover recognized that Manchuria lay far from U.S. centers of power, its resources and people contributed little to the U.S. economy, and an American expeditionary force might end up stranded and surrounded by a menacing enemy.

Hoover’s successor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, verbally protested the Japanese attack on China proper in 1937, but he took no military action to halt the Japanese Imperial Army’s advance into China’s coastal provinces. Roosevelt correctly concluded that the U.S. would have a hard time matching Japanese ground strength in China. Plus, China was not nearly as important to U.S. interests as Western Europe, where Hitler posed an increasing threat to the U.S.’s closest allies, France and Great Britain.

The U.S. fought World War II in the Pacific in a manner designed to avoid major ground combat operations on the Asian mainland. The island-hopping campaigns across the Central and Southwest Pacific between 1942 and 1945 utilized America’s naval and air superiority to defeat the Japanese at Midway, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. FDR vetoed the deployment of U.S. ground forces to China and Indochina in order to avoid a major land war with the Japanese Imperial Army, which had the bulk of its troops fighting in China. The president also wanted to avoid a conflict with Mao’s Zedong’s Communist armies. The difficulties experienced by Allied units in the Burma Theater in the 1940s only reinforced the belief among U.S. policymakers that a big land war in Asia would be disastrous for American interests.

President Harry S. Truman continued the U.S. policy of avoiding a major land war in Asia when he rejected Republican Party calls for American ground intervention in the Chinese Civil War. Truman faced sharp criticism for his decision, especially from such right-wing firebrands as Congressman Richard M. Nixon and Senator Joseph McCarthy. But Truman made the right decision, even though he would be forever tagged with “losing China” by the hardliners in Congress and the U.S. media. Of course, China has never been, nor will it ever be, America’s to lose.

The U.S. policy of avoiding a major land war in Asia had a corollary in the Pentagon’s pre-1950 emphasis on maintaining the U.S.’s island positions in the far western Pacific. The Department of Defense determined that U.S. air and naval forces based on the series of islands extending from Japan south to Formosa and the Philippines would adequately protect U.S. economic and military interests across the region. Furthermore, these island bases would be enough to secure Japan – America’s major colonial possession and trading partner in Asia. During the early Cold War years, American leaders understood that neither Red China nor the Soviet Union possessed the naval power to challenge the U.S.’s western Pacific defensive line. Any Communist flotilla that attempted to attack Japan, Okinawa, Guam, Formosa, or the Philippines would be quickly sunk by the U.S. Pacific Fleet and the U.S. Air Force’s fighter-bombers.

As late as January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson reiterated America’s commitment to a policy of non-intervention on the Asian landmass. Yet, only five months later, President Truman reversed that long-held policy and ordered U.S. ground troops to Korea to stop Kim Il Sung’s North Korean People’s Army from seizing the entire Korean peninsula.

Truman intervened in Korea for a variety of reasons. One reason had to do with the Republican Party. The president hoped intervention in Korea would blunt the American right-wing’s criticism of him for supposedly being soft on Communism in the wake of Mao’s victory in China. Truman also believed an American show of force in Korea would slow global Communism’s expansion, which at the time appeared unstoppable. Truman also thought that he could keep Mao’s China, with its seemingly bottomless manpower pool, out of the war. Unfortunately, the Chinese intervened in Korea in November 1950, and Truman had a large-scale Asian land war on his hands. After two million Communist deaths and 33,000 U.S. killed in action, the war ended in July 1953 in a draw.

The Korean War taught different lessons to different people. General Matthew Ridgway, who commanded U.S. forces in Korea after MacArthur’s dismissal in April 1951, believed the U.S. needed to avoid land wars in Asia because the U.S. could never attrite enough Asians to win a future conflict. In 1954, Ridgway played a key role in dissuading President Dwight D. Eisenhower from intervening against the Vietminh in Tonkin.

On the other hand, General Maxwell Taylor, who also served in Korea, believed the U.S. could fight and win in Asia because of its superior firepower and technology. According to Taylor, U.S. firepower would decimate the massive Asian land armies thrown against any U.S. expeditionary force; while American technology would overcome Asia’s environmental obstacles.

When President Johnson considered whether or not to intervene with ground forces in South Vietnam in the spring of 1965, he listened to Taylor rather than Ridgway. As a result, Johnson committed the U.S. to its second major land war in Asia in little over a decade.

In Vietnam, America’s worst fears came true. American firepower and technology failed to push the Vietcong and North Vietnamese out of the rice paddies and jungles of South Vietnam. In the end, the Vietnamese Communists, with the help of millions of peasants, defeated the United States.

Unfortunately, the Pentagon ignored the lessons of the Vietnam War. Instead, the American military establishment, and the Republican Party, blamed the U.S.’s defeat in Vietnam on the Democratic Party, the U.S. media, intellectuals, and the anti-war movement.

Not having learned the true lessons of Vietnam, and still believing in the omnipotence of American firepower and technology, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush committed the U.S. to two more land wars in Asia in 2001 and 2003.

Under Gates, U.S. forces now appear to be returning to their pre-1950 military posture in Asia, a posture that emphasized naval and air operations rather than ground combat. America’s costly forays onto the Asian land mass are coming to an end. Gates acknowledged during his West Point speech that the shift in military emphasis will determine how America fights its next war. “The most plausible, high-end scenarios for the U.S. military,” Gates said, “are primarily naval and air engagements whether in Asia, the Persian Gulf, or elsewhere.”

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