U.S. Army General Charles A. Willoughby is most likely the worst intelligence chief the U.S. Army has ever had. Alongside General Douglas MacArthur, whom he served as head of intelligence during the Korean War, Willoughby is responsible for one of the biggest military disasters in U.S. military history: The rout of the 8th U.S. Army and its South Korean allies in November/December 1950 from the Yalu River on the border between North Korea and China down to below the 38th parallel bisecting the Korean Peninsula. The “Big Bugout” – as the retreat was called – covered some 120 miles in ten days and cost the lives of thousands of American and South Korean soldiers.
The Korean War started in June 1950 when communist North Korea invaded South Korea. Battle-hardened North Korean forces equipped with Soviet weaponry – in particular the T-34 tank – quickly routed South Korean forces and the understrength U.S. troops stationed there. The North seized Seoul and bottled up UN forces on the southeastern tip of the Korean Peninsula in the so-called Pusan Perimeter, where they were in danger of being annihilated or pushed off the peninsula. In response, Douglas MacArthur, the overall commander of UN forces at the time, launched a daring surprise amphibious assault on the city of Incheon in September 19, which liberated Seoul in a few days and partially cut North Korean supply lines, forcing the North Korean Army to give up the fight at Pusan and retreat back across the 38th parallel.
Following the North Korean retreat, General Douglas MacArthur received the go-ahead from then-Secretary of Defense George Marshall in September 1950 to “proceed north of the 38th parallel” although U.S. President Harry S. Truman had warned MacArthur previously that he could only advance as long there was no chance of “entry into North Korea by major Soviet or Chinese Communist forces.” Convinced that the Chinese and Soviets would not intervene, MacArthur ordered his troops to cross the parallel in October in pursuit of the retreating North Korean Army. On October 15, McArthur assured Truman that the chances of Chinese or Soviet intervention were “very little.” Only about 50,000-60,000 Chinese troops might have crossed the Yalu River, he told Truman, and should they “try to go down to Pyongyang it would be the greatest slaughter in the history of mankind.”
The North Korean capital, Pyongyang, was captured on October 19 and MacArthur ordered his troops all the way up to the Yalu River. This occurred despite multiple intelligence sources reporting the presence of a sizeable Chinese intervention force ready to ambush UN forces and cut their supply lines. MacArthur and his intelligence chief, General Charles A. Willoughby, dismissed these reports. A faithful acolyte and sycophant of the general, Willoughby knew what MacArthur wanted. Throughout his long career as an intelligence officer on the general’s staff he had discerned that it was always important that “his intelligence reports blend seamlessly with what [MacArthur] intended to do in the first place,” according to David Halberstam in The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War. Consequently, Willoughby “doctored the intelligence in order to permit MacArthur’s forces to get where they wanted to go militarily, to the banks of the Yalu,” Halberstam states.
Willoughby, also known as Lord Willoughby, or Baron von Willoughby because of his German origins and veneration of Prussia, was not the problem but merely the symptom of a larger problem in how MacArthur handled intelligence. In short: the general was focused on limiting and controlling the sources of intelligence, not allowing contrary or dissenting opinions, and simultaneously surrounding himself with yes-men, “who would not disturb the dream world of self-worship in which he chose to live,” according to the historian William Stueck.
“You control intelligence, you control decision-making,” was one of the general’s old truisms.
Willoughby, who had served on MacArthur’s staff since the late 1930s, was MacArthur’s only trusted intelligence source. Like no other staff officer, Willoughby reinforced the general’s already held views on how to conduct the war and strengthened his interpretations of North Korean and Chinese intentions. (MacArthur had denied the CIA a role in preparing intelligence estimates for U.S. forces in Korea.)
The role of Willoughby as sycophant-in-chief turned head of intelligence is unsurprising. Willoughby worshipped MacArthur. (During World War II and the Korean War he worked on a flattering biography of the general.) In a 1947 letter to MacArthur, Willoughby wrote:
There is no contemporary figure comparable to yours… Ultimately [people] have been attached to a great leader, to a man and not an idea, to a Marlbrough, to a Napoleon, to a Robert E. Lee. Underneath it all, these are age old dynastic alliances… A gentleman can serve a grand-seigneur. That will be a good ending to my career… and as I scan the world, the grand-seigneurs are leaving the arena, fighting a bitter rear guard action against the underman, the faceless mob driven by the Russian knouts.
Willoughby had a conspiratorial mind which intertwined with his fanatical anti-communism and hero worship of MacArthur to distort realities on the ground in Korea to fit his analytical conclusions.
“The key to the importance of Willoughby was not his own self-evident inadequacies; it was that he represented the deepest kind of psychological weakness in the talented, flawed man he served, the need to have someone who agreed with him at all times and flattered him constantly,” David Halberstam writes.
“Anything MacArthur wanted, Willoughby produced intelligence for… In this case Willoughby falsified the intelligence reports… He should have gone to jail,” said the chief of operations of the 10th Corps of the 8th Army, Lieutenant-Colonel John Chiles.
In October 1950, Willoughby’s unwillingness to confront the reality that China was ready to intervene in the war with large forces made him dismiss reports of significant clashes with Chinese forces, instead stating that the Chinese units encountered by UN forces were small and attached to North Korean forces.
When Chinese forces ambushed and defeated the U.S. 8th Cavalry Regiment at the end of October and early November (only to disappear again in order to lure UN troops further north), Willoughby admitted that the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) was operating in North Korea. However, he downplayed their numbers as well as their fighting capabilities. In intelligence estimates on November 10 and 15, though, he did warn that an all-out attack was possible and that China was ready to “throw the book” at UN forces in Korea.
At the end of November, when UN forces set out on their final push to the Yalu River, Willoughby estimated that there were between 40,000-70,000 Chinese troops in the North. The real number was over 300,000. “What he was doing in those days was fighting against the truth, trying to keep it from going from lower levels to higher ones where it would have to be acted on,” a U.S. Army officer serving in Korea said. MacArthur, at the same time, told the troops advancing that “they will get Christmas dinner at home.”
Carleton Swift, a CIA officer working at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, said about Willoughby:
It as if he was always right, had always been right. Certitude after certitude poured out of him. It was as if there was an exclamation point after all of his sentences… Worse, you couldn’t challenge him. Because he always made it clear that he spoke for MacArthur and if you challenged him you were challenging MacArthur… So that made it very hard for intelligence in the field to filter up to higher headquarters on something that he has made up his mind on.
At the end of October 1950, after the first clash between U.S. and Chinese troops had already taken place, Willoughby emphasized in an intelligence estimate that “the auspicious time for [Chinese] intervention has long since passed; it is difficult to believe that such a move, if planned, would have been postponed to a time when remnant NK forces have been reduced to a low point of effectiveness.”
The result was that UN forces were totally unprepared when the PVA 13th Army Group finally struck on November 25. Over 450,000 Chinese launched a massive frontal attack against UN forces, which were caught spread out and with overextended supply lines far in the North. Thousands would die in the ensuing bloody retreat. The collapse of UN forces resembled “the collapse of the French in 1940 and the British at Singapore in 1942,” the eminent military historian Max Hastings writes. It was the longest retreat in the U.S. Army’s history. Indeed, American soldiers were still retreating by the end of December. In January 1951, Seoul was captured by the Chinese and North Koreans. “It was by far the worst military debacle the U.S. armed forces suffered in the entire twentieth century,” Bruce Riedel adds. Thousands were killed, wounded, or captured. Morale of the fighting force hit rock-bottom. MacArthur panicked and considered the use of nuclear weapons to cut North Korean and Chinese supply lines.
“The grim fate that awaited the Soldiers and Marines of the Eighth United States Army and X Corps was the result of informational, institutional, and personality factors that distorted Willoughby’s judgment and effectiveness,” Justin M. Haynes dryly notes in a study for the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. The study singles out Willoughby as the officer most responsible for the failure of the Yalu offensive and the ensuing military disaster. “His inaccurate intelligence picture contributed to General MacArthur’s flawed understanding of the nature of the Chinese Communist intent,” the study finds. “Willoughby correctly identified the potential threat of a Chinese Communist intervention in Korea in late 1950, yet failed to acknowledge the significance of China’s strategic warnings, operational preparations for war, and tactical confirmation of their intentions.”
Nonetheless, once the Chinese attacked, Willoughby (and MacArthur) was quick to deny all responsibility for the disaster and told the press that he had known about the real size of the PVA and their intentions all along. During a press conference in late 1950, he responded to a question about why MacArthur had ordered the Yalu offensive if the general had known of the presence of the PVA by saying, “We couldn’t just sit passively by. We had to attack and find out the enemy’s profile.” Even at the time, some reporters derided him for these comments. In the U.S. Army, many despised him. “I was always afraid he would be found murdered one day, because if he was, I was sure that they would come and arrest me, because I hated him so much…” said William J. McCaffrey, who fought at the bloody Battle of the Chosin Reservoir in late 1950.
When a new American commander, General Matthew Ridgway, took over the war from Douglas MacArthur in 1951, one of his first actions was to diversify intelligence collections and analysis. “More than most senior American commanders of his era, Matt Ridgway had a passion for intelligence,” David Halberstam writes. Among other things, he brought in the CIA to challenge Willoughby’s intelligence estimates. It would, however, take until September 1951 for Willoughby to share previous estimates and briefs on Korea with his civilian counterparts. Following that, the accuracy of intelligence that UN forces had access to markedly improved. Willoughby retired from his post in the same year.
Despite his role in the Yalu river disaster, U.S. Army General Charles A. Willoughby was never officially reprimanded and controversy ensued as to what his real responsibilities for the defeat were. Indeed, Willoughby remains a member of the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame established by the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Corps to this day.
A version of this article has previously been published in the November 2017 issue of The Diplomat Magazine.