In more than a decade on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, American forces have never been routed. American combat units have suffered extensive casualties, but they have never disintegrated into a helpless mass of individual soldiers, capable of nothing more than a desperate flight for safety.
This achievement should not be taken for granted. Today, the armed forces grapple with a trillion dollars of defense cuts that are impairing readiness. And today is an appropriate time to reflect on the costs of unpreparedness: It was on this day in 1950 that American forces suffered the first of a series of tragic and embarrassing defeats in Korea. The hollow force that broke on contact in Korea resulted from President Truman’s consent to an exhausted nation’s demands for a peace dividend after World War II.
Seven days after the invasion of South Korea, the men of the 1/21st infantry battalion arrived from Japan, where they had been part of the American occupation force. Four days after their arrival, they became the first Americans to face North Korean troops in battle. Two of the battalion’s four companies were still aboard ships traveling from Japan to Korea, leaving only 403 men in the foxholes overlooking the road from Osan to Suwon. Commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Smith, the poorly equipped, understrength unit became known as Task Force Smith.
The U.S. military had the technology necessary to stop a North Korean armored assault, but that firepower was not in the hands of Task Force Smith. The artillery available to support the task force couldn’t pierce the armor of the advancing T-34 tanks. One lieutenant fired 22 bazooka rounds at the approaching T-34s, with no appreciable effect. None of the occupation forces in Japan had the newer launchers with larger rockets that could punch through T-34 armor.
Within hours, a mass of North Korean infantry enveloped Smith’s position. Casualties mounted. No reinforcements were available. Command and control of the unit broke down, with some men unaware that a retreat was underway. "It was every man for himself," recalled one officer. There was no reason to expect any better from these poorly trained soldiers. Small groups began a disorganized trek southward toward a divisional headquarters. Most arrived starving and exhausted. The unit as a whole suffered 155 killed and wounded.
The mauling of Task Force Smith became a sad model for many engagements that followed. "An uncertain and unhappy American infantry unit would be hustled into a defensive position, its officers unwilling or unable to conceal their own confusion and dismay," writes military historian Max Hastings. The results were predictable. Soon, American and South Korean forces were cornered on the southeastern tip of the peninsula, defending what became known as the Pusan Perimeter.
The initial setbacks in Korea resulted from President Truman’s decision to dismantle the vast and methodical war machine that had broken the resistance of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Truman cut the defense budget by 45 percent in 1946. Two years later the defense budget bottomed out at a mere 12 percent of its wartime peak.
Both old habits and intense public pressure contributed to Truman’s decisions. After both the Civil War and World War One, powerful American forces withered away. After the Japanese surrender in 1945, a war-weary public demanded the most rapid possible return to normalcy.
During the Second World War, almost 18 million Americans served in uniform, each for an average of 33 months. More than 70 percent served overseas, for an average of 16 months. Four hundred thousand Americans made the ultimate sacrifice—more each month than the number killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.
Confident that the Soviet Union would be a partner for peace in the postwar era, Americans did not perceive any significant threats in the first years after the war. Within the Truman administration, this interlude of naïveté lasted only a matter of months. In February 1946, George Kennan’s Long Telegram from Moscow electrified the administration with its warning that the Soviet Union was "committed fanatically to the belief that … the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure."
Truman took a number of steps to forestall Soviet aggression, including the Marshall Plan (1948), the relief of Berlin during the Soviet blockade (also that year), and the establishment of NATO (1949). Yet Truman refused to ask Congress for the funds necessary to preserve American military prowess. An awareness of the growing threat did not dispel the allure of seeking security on the cheap.
The sudden invasion of South Korea, and the humiliation that followed, forced Truman’s thinking to change. The president approved a new strategy laid out in the classified directive known as NSC-68. Defense spending tripled within two years, before stabilizing at a somewhat lower level after the war. For the next 35 years, the United States would retain a peacetime force unprecedented in its history. The Soviet Union tried many approaches to subverting American power. But it never attempted a frontal assault in Western Europe or in East Asia.
After the end of the Cold War, Americans once again demanded a peace dividend. Their president complied. The scale of reductions in the 1990s was modest compared to the scale of Truman’s, yet steep enough to require major augmentations after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In tandem with his plans to end wars "responsibly," President Obama has ordered sharp cuts to the defense budget. The White House currently projects that in 2017, the year Obama steps down from office, defense spending will be down to 3 percent of GDP, matching the all-time low briefly achieved before 9/11. Spending will be higher than it was before 9/11—mainly as a result of increases in overhead. Yet defense will comprise just 13.9 percent of the federal budget: another all-time low.
It would be advisable to prepare for rougher weather even if the national-security outlook were sunny. But the outlook is far from sunny. Russia’s unexpected aggression in Ukraine and the surge of Islamic extremism in Syria and Iraq have added to existing threats from North Korea, Iran, and a rising China. Yet the degradation of U.S. military readiness continues. Sixty-four years later, America has yet to learn the lesson of Task Force Smith.