Saturday, 13 July 2024

    Marshall, Eisenhower and Ukraine

    On January 25th, 1942, USS Sargo (SS-186 (under the command of LtCmdr Tyrell Jacobs)) pulled into Surabaya, Indonesia after finishing a short war patrol, offloaded her remaining torpedoes, loaded 1 million rounds of small-arms ammunition, and headed to Mindanao, the Philippines to provide some ammunition to the US and the Philippine Armies. She then picked up 24 maintenance specialists from the B-17 wing and evacuated them from the Philippines. Jacobs, after three patrols in which he fired a great many torpedoes but sank no ships, turned over command, and ended the war working on, and significantly improving, US torpedoes.

    As for his mission, Sargo was carrying ammunition as a consequence of the actions of one Army officer, Brigadier General Dwight Eisenhower. 

    In June 1941 Col. Eisenhower had been appointed as the Chief of Staff to the Third Army and he was in that post when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. On December 12th now Brigadier General Eisenhower received a call from Gen. George Marshall’s office to come to Washington, the General wanted to see him; Eisenhower headed to Washington; he never returned to Third Army.

    When he arrived in Washington on the 14th (by train, his flight having been grounded) he went directly to the War Department building on Constitution Ave. Marshall met him and immediately began to talk about the situation in the Pacific and then, after giving Eisenhower a thorough rundown, he asked Eisenhower: What should be done?

    Eisenhower asked for a few hours to think about it and Marshall agreed. Eisenhower went and sat a desk and began to chew on what he had just been told.

    Marshall, of course, had already arrived at an answer; this was, in part, a test. When Eisenhower returned to Marshall’s office as the sun was going down, he handed him some typed up thoughts. The answer was, in a sense, two sided: on the one hand, Eisenhower said that it was impossible to get reinforcements to the Philippines in time to save US forces or Philippine allies. The Navy, the nation, did not have the combat power to fight through to the Philippines, we didn’t have the ships, nor did we have long range aircraft in an adequate numbers, or airfields, or a long list of men and supplies and ammunition.

    At the same time, there was a need to make an effort because would-be allies, and the people of Asia – the Chinese, the people of the Philippines and Indonesia, would all be watching the US response. 

    As Eisenhower noted: “They may excuse failure but they will not excuse abandonment.”

    Marshall had already arrived at the same conclusion. Every effort was made to get aid to the Philippines, but Marshall and Eisenhower knew what was going to happen. At the same time, Gen. MacArthur accused Washington and the War Department of sacrificing the army on Bataan. As historian Steven Ambrose noted, that was basically correct. Eisenhower’s effort was to draw out the fight as long as possible, but he and Marshall knew it was only going to end one way.

    Indeed, his main focus became not the resupply of the Army but the building of US bases in Australia for the future offensives in the western Pacific. Bataan and Corregidor must be held to last as long as possible, but the real effort would take time to develop. (In one of the more curious footnotes, Eisenhower spot promoted a reserve Army Colonel, Patrick Hurley, to Major General, and sent him to Australia with $10 million in cash, to do what he could to get aid to the Philippines, as well as start to buy up land in Australia to build US Army bases. Interestingly, Hurley has previously been the Secretary of War under President Hoover.)

    What has that got to do with today? 

    The key point is that key decision-makers need to be hard realists. Years after this event, Eisenhower said of Marshall that he had “an eye that seemed to me awfully cold.”

    We need such an eye. 

    Consider where we now stand: a 2 year old stalemated war in Ukraine, a war in the Mid East that is over 4 months old, and worries that it will spread into Lebanon, a recidivist Iran fueling the Houthi army, and behind it all a power-hungry Chinese leadership with a China that is showing signs of economic strain that may undermine their global dreams just as they seem within reach, and this may make them more willing to gamble. Meanwhile, US power is stretched thin, our weapons lockers are almost empty and there is reason to doubt that we can both refill them to the appropriate level, while at the same time provide aid to Ukraine; though it would seem that Europe, with a collective GDP 10 times that of Russia should be able to provide the bulk of the aid to Ukraine. But the real troublemaker here is China. And it would seem that the only one who can deter China is the US. And isn’t that what we want to do: deter China?

    Interestingly, Eisenhower also described what we need, at least in a general sense: “Ships! Ships! All we need is ships!… Also ammunition, anti-aircraft guns, tanks, airplanes…”

    But to get there it would seem we need to make some hard choices. As Marshall and Eisenhower knew, those choices can be unpleasant. The problem of course is that failure to make hard choices early results in the need to make even harder choices later.