Karl R. Bendetsen Oral History, November 21, 1972

Oral History Interview with
Karl R. Bendetsen

General counsel, Department of the Army, 1949; Assistant Secretary of the Army, 1950-52; Under Secretary of the Army, 1952. more

New York City, New York
November 21, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Additional Bendetsen Oral History Transcripts]

This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened 1981
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri

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Oral History Interview with
Karl R. Bendetson

New York City, New York
November 21, 1972
by Jerry N. Hess


HESS: Mr. Bendetsen, at the conclusion of our last interview we had reached a point in time, January of 1950, when you were appointed as Assistant Secretary of the Army. At the time you became Assistant Secretary, what was your evaluation of the strength and degree of preparedness of our armed forces, and of the Army in particular?

BENDETSEN: Mr. Hess, the then posture of our armed forces to meet a war emergency was woefully inadequate by any rational measure, in my considered opinion. I will now briefly describe the nature of my duties as they had been from the fall of 1948 (when I joined Secretary Gray at his invitation) until January 1950 when I was appointed and confirmed as Assistant Secretary of the Army. The only change was a change of title. Thereafter my duties both expanded and increased, notably in the cases of the Panama Canal and the wartime (Korean conflict) seizing


of the railroads of the United States. (I will later discuss both.) This narration will provide you and the readers with an evaluation of the basis for my conclusion, just stated, concerning the inadequacy of our armed forces.

My duties did relate to the strength of the Army, the Army’s budget preparation, long-range, intermediate-range and short-range planning and programming, in close coordination with the general staff of the Department of the Army. I did have consequent opportunities to gather detailed knowledge, not only of the Army forces structure, but those of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps as well. In addition, I was a member of the Management Committee of the Department of Defense, whose duties extended to all aspects of the entire National Military Establishment. This Committee had been appointed by the Secretary of Defense, Mr. Louis Johnson, with the approval of President Truman.

This Committee had as its chairman General Joseph T. McNarney, an able, highly intelligent career officer of the United States Army, who had


been Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army during most of World War II, serving directly under General Marshall. However, General McNarney, following the unification of the armed forces into the National Military Establishment pursuant to the National Security Act of 1947, had transferred from the United States Army to the United States Air Force. He was a four-star General of the Army at that time and became a four-star General of the Air Force.

The Management Committee of the Department of Defense, under his chairmanship, consisted of those Assistant or Under Secretaries, respectively, of Army, Navy and Air Force, who were most directly concerned with defense management, forces structure, deployment, procurement, research and development, apportionment of funds, budget preparation and planning. Our mission was to find ways and means to obtain greater defense efficacy, so to speak, per dollar of input.

This was a classic mission more on the order of management consulting, inasmuch as we had no direct


power other than to recommend, but not to decide. Our efforts were supplemented by the management consulting firm of Heller and Associates of Cleveland, Ohio who had been engaged directly by the Secretary of Defense, Mr. Johnson. We did make numerous recommendations including many with regard to what became known as "cross-servicing." That is to say, to assign to one of the three departments, Army, Navy or Air Force as the case may be, the task of not only serving itself in an administrative, housekeeping, supply, or other support function, but as well the needs of the forces of the other two departments and their components.

As you would expect, such considerations often generated a great deal of heat, and our mission was to try our best to generate light rather than heat so that decisions once made would have some meaning rather than amount only to lip service. These experiences taken together necessarily provided me with an appraisal of the adequacy of our military establishment to fulfill assigned roles and missions in the light of national security and foreign policy,


etc. I have gone to some length in laying the foundation for my answer in the thought that this perhaps would be of some pertinence to your question and my response.

There is no question in my mind but that the military forces of the United States were entirely inadequate to deal with any actual emergency entailing operations of any significant degree. Vast and rapid supplementation would have been required. Such could not have been made immediately available. The subsequent unprovoked attack by North Korea in June of 1950 proved that this appraisal was accurate.

As you may recall, the entire defense budget authorization and appropriation request for fiscal year 1950, ending June 30, 1950, was somewhere in the vicinity of 11 billion dollars. Among the other missions of the Defense Management Committee directed by Mr. Johnson was to try to find a billion dollars of savings during that year, despite the rather low level of the aggregate authorization when viewed in the perspective of the years immediately succeeding as well as now. The three services were already living


"off the shelf" so to speak. No "savings" could be made; only further reductions of forces already deficient.

Have I answered your question to sufficient degree, Mr. Hess?

HESS: Yes, you have.

BENDETSEN: If not, I would be glad to expand to any degree that you think would be appropriate and desirable.

HESS: Well, a companion question to our general discussion was: Did there seem to be an awareness, or a lack of awareness in the Pentagon at the time that the Communists might test our strength at some point in the world?

BENDETSEN: There was indeed an awareness that the Soviet Union would test our containment policy and test our determination. Certainly the Soviets attempted to do that in Iran earlier, and Mr. Truman’ s forthright reaction averted a crisis. It is fortunate that the


crisis was averted. I would have to say that we did not then have military means to have dealt with this crisis, other than to have resort to our then meager atomic weapon stockpile. I hasten to add that such resort was never considered.

Certainly there was a keen awareness from our experience in Greece where General Van Fleet was sent by President Truman and where there was a very effective show of determination with slender resources. These were successfully applied to a wealth of Soviet-supported guerilla forces through which the Soviets were seeking to subvert the Government of Greece and establish a satellite Communist regime there.

HESS: The trouble in 1946 was in Iran; the trouble in 1947 was Greece and Turkey; and of course, the Marshall plan in ‘47 and ‘48. Just how likely did it seem to you and to others in the Pentagon that the trouble spots might shift to Asia as they did in 1950?

BENDETSEN: Mr. Hess, to some of us, so very likely that, as I will later relate, we took some definitive steps not only with relation to your question but


toward providing urgently the basis for the degree of preparedness essential to our policy of containment. However, I have not yet fully responded to your overall awareness question.

During Mr. Forrestal’s tenure as the first Secretary of Defense there was an awareness that the Soviets were indeed testing our determination to stand by the continuity of West Berlin during the first Berlin crisis.

Was there a specific awareness in the Pentagon that the Soviet tests of our determination might shift from Europe and the Middle East to Asia? There were indeed some in the Pentagon (I was one of them), who clearly felt that this was a very likely eventuality. It is never the Communist method to reveal in advance its intentions. This has been made perfectly clear from the beginning of its creation by Lenin. It continues to be clear today, although many naive persons exercise wishful thinking and as apologists assert that the Kremlin fears the U.S.A. and claims its actions are merely defensive!


The Soviets have no timetable and will not risk the heartland (Mother Russia). The Soviets have a total and inexorable strategy--to exercise political domination (and occupation where it suits them) over the earth. We had no strategy. Soviet strategy is applied through client states fomenting "just" wars of "liberation," plus surprise packages of tests of our determination so as to throw us off balance, and in that way without risk to their heartland, gain much toward furthering the imperialist expansionist ambitions of that regime. Soviet strategy remains intact today. And so it would not be unusual to suppose that individuals who had long studied and observed Communist methods (as I have for many, many years, in the thirties, during World War II and afterwards) would have expected some testing in Asia as a very likely point.

After all, the perimeter of our defenses on that side of the world lay in the Far Pacific, and still do. Additionally, the United States had withdrawn over half of its defensive forces from


the Far East. This action was virtually an invitation to the Soviets to send the North Koreans to attack. It provided an almost perfect way to expose the United States as a paper tiger. Our units in Korea were bobtailed. Ground force infantry regiments had two instead of three battalions. The battalions had two companies instead of three, which meant that they were devoid of reserves. Artillery battalions had only two batteries each instead of three. Although we virtually dominated the air, no air force can hold ground. Thus we did not hold. Our losses were catastrophic, the heroic determination of our military notwithstanding. We were almost pushed into the sea. The Pusan perimeter was a tenuous and tiny salient. Some of us were not surprised that the Soviets, then using the Chinese as a client state, would choose to target South Korea or possibly Vietnam where the situation was also tenuous. But South Korea was a defensive key. We made a gigantic effort and saved face by repulsing the aggressor to the line of departure of


his initial attack. We lost face again by pursuing the enemy forces without being "prepared for success." We were repulsed again in the North and withdrew into what became the Pamunjon stalemate.

HESS: Do you recall the speech that Dean Acheson, Secretary of State, made at the National Press Club, I believe in January of 1950, in which he drew an imaginary line of our defense perimeter down from Japan over to Formosa and then down, leaving Korea outside of our defense perimeter? Do you recall that?

BENDETSEN: I recall that with great clarity, Mr. Hess. There was a very logical explanation for this declaration by Mr. Acheson, the then Secretary of State. It will be recalled that in 1949 the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended to the Secretary of State, that the military forces then stationed in South Korea be substantially reduced. The rationale of the Secretary of Defense in making this recommendation was to the effect that if indeed the policymakers


at the civilian level of the Government of the United States believed that the South Korean government was vital to the defense of the United States, it would either be essential that forces be withdrawn and reduced in Europe in order to maintain the forces then stationed in Korea, or that the defense budget be increased with enough additional appropriations to support forces both in Europe and Asia at least to the levels which then were in existence in Europe and Asia. The then budget would not permit this. No increase was forthcoming so the JCS put the choice to the Secretaries of Defense and State.

The "trip-wire" notion had gained considerable pr