This paper will discuss the leadership styles of Air Force officers during the Korean War. It will be seen that these officers were faced with unique challenges that required them to act with a large degree of ingenuity in the process of making decisions. Further, although there were a number of setbacks in the course of the Korean War, it will be seen that the Air Force officers of the period were predominantly “forward-thinking” in their ideas on air war strategy.
Both the United States Air Force and the United States Far East Air Force were essentially unprepared to meet the circumstances that propelled them into action on the Korean front in 1950. At that time, the primary interest in air war preparedness was centered on the capability to retaliate against Russia in case of an atomic attack, a sentiment expressed by the Secretary of the Air Force, W. Stuart Symington, in his comment that bombers equipped with atomic weapons would provide both a deterrent and “the one means of unloosing prompt, crippling destruction on the enemy if war broke out.” However, it soon became clear that the use of atomic bombs would not be suitable in the developing Korean conflict.
Before this realization was met, however, there was a controversy among air war planners regarding the atomic bomb issue. The vice-commander of the Strategic Air Command, General Thomas S. Power, felt that the United States came dangerously close to using such weapons in Korea, noting that he had been ordered to be prepared for such a possibility. Nevertheless, there were strong feelings among the Air Force leaders that using atomic weapons would be unwarranted for a number of reasons. Among these were the fact that the weapons should be saved in case of a major confrontation with the Soviet Union; the fact that there were no suitable targets for atomic warfare in Korea; and the strong resistance among the American people and their allies regarding the use of such weapons against human lives.
In the meantime, air power in the Korean conflict became more essential while at the same time little was being done to make the Air Force become better prepared for that eventuality. The United States Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff continued to feel that air power preparedness needed to be concentrated on the possibilities of atomic warfare with Russia, whereas General Stratemeyer, the commander of the Far East Air Force “accorded the war he was fighting a higher priority than readiness for a theoretical future war against the Soviet Union.” Even when it was generally acknowledged that anti-atomic air power was becoming essential in Korea, it was apparent that the Air Force was lacking in both manpower and resources. As a result of these circumstances, the Air Force found itself in a position in which its various needs had to be met quickly and with limited assets. The result was that “everything had to be hastily improvised.”
This situation placed an unusual burden on the Air Force officers who were in a leadership position during the early years of the Korean War. The need to react quickly to the problem at hand without being fully prepared was triggered in June of 1950 when President Truman met with Secretary of State Dean Acheson and General Hoyt Vandenberg, a leading officer with the U.S. Air Force. At this meeting, General Vandenberg recommended the use of atomic weapons; however, President Truman vetoed the idea unless circumstances changed and the Russians entered the war.
Once the decision was made to use air power in the Korean conflict, plans were carried out with great haste. General MacArthur was immediately informed of the decision, who in turn presented orders to General Earle Partridge, the air commander, to begin massive bombing raids against the North Koreans. With the haste in planning that occurred in the initial air strikes, it is not particularly surprising that the U.S. Air Force met with early failures. The Air Force was first delayed with bad weather which made visibility of the North Korean targets impossible. Even when the air cleared, the U.S. Air Force was thwarted by unexpected ground resistance in which “virtually every plane received hits.”
General MacArthur’s haste in planning for the air offensive can be seen as being partially responsible for some of the problems encountered by the Air Force. Essentially, MacArthur failed by placing too much emphasis on the capabilities of America’s air power, without taking enough regard of the capabilities of the enemy in terms of ground power. In this regard, it can be seen that, although innovation and ingenuity were valuable elements in terms of leadership among the Air Force officers in the Korean War, nevertheless, MacArthur in his capacity as controller of the Far East Air Force may have relied too heavily on the tactic of improvisation. As such, MacArthur depended too much on “imagination and intuition, which took the place of first-hand, up-to-date knowledge of the military situation, a tough, realistic appraisal of Chinese Communist capabilities, and a sound evaluation of air power under conditions existing in Korea.”
Even in the hasty circumstances under which the early air strikes in Korea were planned, there were serious controversies over the degree to which the Air Force should be employed. General LeMay of the Strategic Air Command, for example, felt that the decision to hold back on massive fire raids “cost the United States the chance of an early, and by implication cheap, victory.” However, many other Air Force leaders disagreed adamantly with the concept of massive bombing, including the influential General Vandenberg.
Despite these feelings, it can be seen that earlier restrictions on Air Force power were lifted as the war in Korea went on, with the introduction of such tactics as napalm bombing, psychological warfare through the dropping of leaflets, and a “scorched earth policy” near the Yalu bridges in which the Far East Air Force was ordered to destroy “every means of communication, every installation, factory, city and village.”
It is interesting to note that, as the Air Force leaders developed an improvisatory style of leadership in handling the unprecedented circumstances that faced them, they also developed a style of treating the issues through euphemism, a style that has continued to be employed ever since. In this regard, the author David Detzer has commented that the planning of air strikes in the Korean War marked the beginning of such euphemistic phrases as “get them out of the way” (for “kill them”) and “surgical bombing,” among others, all of which allow “military decision-making to remain aloof from reality.”
It was such an attitude on the part of the air war planners that enabled them to place too much emphasis on massive bombings in the hope of bringing an early end to the Korean crisis. The leading officers were almost oblivious at times to the fact that such massive fire raids did not bring the success that they had hoped for. Because of this, General Stratemeyer of the Far East Air Force had to convince MacArthur at one time to refrain from sending out a second saturation bombing directly following a failure in a raid near Waegwan. As the war went on, however, the Air Force leaders began to develop more effective strategies for the employment of air power, making strategic bombings on such targets as roads, railroads and dams, all of which were more suitable for bringing the war under U.S. control.
The leadership style of improvisation needed to be tailored in its approach to personnel. In the early period of the war, morale problems arose among Air Force men who were being worked to exhaustion in a war that they did not understand. As a result, Generals Stratemeyer and Vandenberg devleoped a rotation system which improved morale but created a drop in air power efficiency. Further, the leadership approach in terms of its “forward-thinking” also needed to be amended when applied to the operations of personnel. This can be seen, for instance, in the complaints of such pilots as Lieutenant-Colonel Gabreski who felt that the technical innovations of the new Sabre fighter plane caused too much clutter and too many opportunities for malfunction. In the early phases of the air offensive, it soom became clear that the enemy’s MIG fighters were far superior to those of the U.S., as seen in the testimony of such Air Force pilots as Captain Howard Tanner. Such reports from the front caused renewed efforts among leading Air Force planners to develop efficient technology for its fighters and bombers. In the end, the leadership styles that were characteristic of most Air Force officers can be seen as arising out of necessity. The unique circumstances of the Korean conflict occurred at a time when atomic weapons and the Cold War were developing into serious strategic concerns. It rapidly became apparent that the ways of warfare employed in the Second World War needed to be adapted to the leadership styles necessary in the modern age. By the time of the Vietnam War, many of these tactics had been standardized. In the Korean War, however, the air war leaders were faced with the need to employ both innovation and improvisation as methods in their leadership style.
Collins, J. Lawton. War in Peacetime: The History and Lessons of Korea. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969.
Detzer, David. Thunder of the Captains: The Short Summer in
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Goulden, Joseph C. Korea: The Untold Story of the War.
New York: Times Books, 1982.
Hoyt, Edwin P. The Bloody Road to Panmunjon. New York:
Stein and Day, 1985.
MacDonald, Callum A. Korea: The War Before Vietnam.
New York: The Free Press, 1986.
Middleton, Harry J. The Compact History of the Korean War.
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Callum A. MacDonald, Korea: The War Before Vietnam (New York: The Free Press, 1986), 248. ↑
Ibid., 226. ↑
Harry J. Middleton, The Compact History of the Korean War (New York: Hawthorn Books, Inc., 1965), 95. ↑
MacDonald, 230. ↑
Ibid., 227. ↑
David Detzer, Thunder of the Captains: The Short Summer in 1950 (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1977), 102. ↑
Joseph C.Goulden, Korea: The Untold Story of the War (New York: Times Books, 1982), 76. ↑
Ibid., 77. ↑
J. Lawton Collins, War in Peacetime: The History and Lessons of Korea (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1969), 217. ↑
MacDonald, 233. ↑
Ibid., 234. ↑
Detzer, 103. ↑
Middleton, 96. ↑
MacDonald, 230. ↑
Ibid., 244. ↑
Edwin P. Hoyt, The Bloody Road to Panmunjom (New York: Stein and Day, 1985), 59. ↑