Harry S Truman – a brief summary

From Missouri farming stock, Harry S. Truman was at one time the least popular US president on record, yet is now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s more successful leaders. Truman never went to university, the last US President not to have done so. Nonetheless he was a widely read and largely self-taught man, modest in his demeanour and habits.

Harry S TrumanThe ‘S’ in Harry S Truman actually stood for nothing, for he had no middle name, but, following the example of Franklin D Roosevelt (D for Delano), Truman felt the additional S gave his name a degree of gravitas or respectability.

After a series of menial jobs and work on his father’s farm, Harry S Truman went to the Western Front in the First World War as a member of the Missouri National Guard. He had cheated his way through the sight test, so anxious was he to go. The war brought out the leader in Truman, who was a popular and successful artillery officer.


In 1919 he married Bess Wallace, also from Missouri. Various business ventures came to nothing and the Trumans fell into debt. It was only through the sponsorship of a local contact that Truman found his niche in public office. Tom Pendergast, a wealthy ‘fixer’ for the Democratic Party, was to secure Truman’s nomination for minor elected roles and, in 1934, as a senator for the state. By this time he had become a keen advocate of President Roosevelt’s New Deal, befriending the President’s close advisor Harry Hopkins.

Vice President

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Dwight Eisenhower – a summary

Born in Texas into a family of German immigrant pacifists, Dwight Eisenhower, the third of seven boys, was brought up in Kansas. He attended the West Point Military Academy, graduating in 1915. Although he rose to the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel during the First World War, during which he spent most of his time training tank crews, he never saw any action; a drawback, as he saw it, that caused him embarrassment and was later used against him.

Dwight D EisenhowerAfter the war Eisenhower continued to work in the tank arm, befriending George Patton and sharing his views on the importance of mobility. While stationed in France, he wrote a guide to the battlefields of the Great War, as it was still known.


From 1933 he worked with General Douglas MacArthur, moving with him to the Philippines in 1935, where he stayed until 1939. More senior staff work ensued and in 1941 he was made Brigadier General. When the USA entered the Second World War Eisenhower worked in the War Plans Office, which he eventually headed.

Despite his lack of frontline experience he was made US Theater Commander in Europe in June 1942. As such, he had overall command of the Torch landings in North Africa in November, and thereafter the Anglo-American armies which invaded Italy. In December 1943 he became Supreme Allied Commander for Europe – a role in which his deft political skills were more important than his military ones. Somehow he managed to operate successfully between such egos as Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Patton and Bernard Montgomery. He emerged from the war a full five star General, highly regarded by all sides.

Following the liberation of Nazi-occupied France, Eisenhower favoured a ‘broad thrust’ into Germany rather than the quicker but riskier narrow front favoured by Montgomery.

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Syngman Rhee – a summary

Syngman Rhee, first president of South Korea and uncompromising leader during the Korean War, was in fact born in the North. Born 26 March 1875, his family were of modest means and economic hardship forced their relocation to Seoul in 1877, when Rhee was only 2. He had four siblings and, following an early Confucian upbringing, was primarily educated by Christian missionaries. Exactly when Rhee became a Christian is unclear, though he was later to claim it was when he was in prison as a young man.

Syngman RheeCertainly Syngman Rhee was forthright in his opinions. In 1896 he was among a group of radical young men who formed the ‘Independence Club’ – a nationalist organization critical of the role of Japan in Korea’s affairs. Two years later he was arrested and imprisoned for sedition. He spent six years incarcerated, during which he wrote copiously. When a more liberal government took power in 1904 he was released and fled in exile to the USA.


Once there he continued his studies in earnest, focusing on history and politics and securing a PhD from Princeton. By now a prominent Korean Nationalist, his advice was sought by Theodore Roosevelt’s negotiating team on the Treaty of Portsmouth, which ended the Russio-Japanese War. Yet he was unable to secure anything like Korean independence on the back of this.

In 1910 he returned to Korea for just over a year, in a management role with the YMCA. It quickly became clear that the Japanese authorities would not tolerate his political activism and so he again went into exile. This time he moved to Hawaii, which would be his base for thirty years.

In absentia

In 1919 he was elected in absentia as Head of the Korean Provisional Government. In fact, this was nothing more than a pressure group, largely based in China. Although he moved to Shanghai for a few years in 1920, his relations with others in the group waned. He was ousted in 1925 – accused of abuse of power – and returned to Hawaii.

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Matthew Ridgway – a summary

Hailing from a military family, Matthew Ridgway spent his entire childhood away at school or on army bases. It was little surprise that he applied for West Point on completing his schooling, gaining entry at the second attempt. He went on to teach Spanish and hence missed active service during the First World War.

Matthew RidgwayThe 1920s saw Matthew Ridgway in a series of junior infantry commands spanning most of those areas where the USA had an interest. Thus he served in the Philippines, China and Nicaragua, as well as in mainland USA. His recognition and rise to senior rank, however, was in a staff capacity. Throughout the 1930s, he undertook a number of important administrative roles, culminating in a senior position in the crucial War Plans Division. It was during this period that his talents came to the notice of General George C Marshall, who pushed Ridgway forward.


Consequently Ridgway was promoted to Brigadier General in January 1942 and by June he was promoted again and given an airborne division to train. This was the 82nd, which would become one of the army’s most elite formations. Ridgway led his paratroopers in tough fighting in Sicily and Normandy, jumping with them into battle. In September 1944 he was given command of the entire US Paratroop Corps, just in time for the disastrous Allied airborne assault at Arnheim. Brushing off defeat, his troops were to gain fame during the Battle of the Bulge and would be at the vanguard of the Allied advance into Germany.


After the war Ridgway held theatre-level commands in the Philippines, the Mediterranean and the Caribbean before his appointment to command the 8th Army in Korea. Taking over after General Walker’s death, Ridgway restored the morale and capability of the UN forces, eventually stabilizing the situation and gaining the upper hand over the Chinese.

MacArthur’s dismissal in April 1951 saw Ridgway promoted to full General and commander of all UN forces in Korea. Although Korea may have represented the epitome of Ridgway’s combat career, he went on to serve as Army Chief of Staff under President Eisenhower. This was a difficult period, as Ridgway opposed Eisenhower’s build-up of the navy and air force at the expense of the army.

He retired from public service in 1955 but built a successful second career in corporate management, serving at board level in several large companies. He remained interested in military matters, advising President Johnson against deeper involvement in Vietnam.

Matthew Ridgway was married three times and lived to the age of 98. He died 26 July 1993. One of America’s most highly regarded generals, he is buried in Arlington, Virginia.

Korean WarAndrew Mulholland

The Korean War: History In An Hour published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.

Douglas MacArthur – a brief summary

Born on an army base in Arkansas, Douglas MacArthur came from a proud military lineage. His father had been a Union general in the American Civil War and MacArthur sought to follow in his footsteps. Highly gifted academically, he qualified for West Point in 1899. Despite the bullying culture he found there, MacArthur worked hard and scored 98 per cent when he passed out, serving as First Captain during his final year.

Douglas MacArthur smokingHe took up a position in the prestigious engineering corps and his first assignment, in 1903, was to the Philippines, then a US colony. This was followed by an extensive tour of Asia accompanying his father, who remained a senior army officer and had pulled strings to secure his son’s appointment as his secretary. They returned in 1906, Douglas MacArthur having become fascinated by the continent and convinced of its importance for US foreign policy.

Rainbow Division

From 1912 until America joined the First World War in 1917, MacArthur worked in Washington, first with the Chief of Staff and then in establishing the army’s Bureau of Information. It was during this period that his remarkable administrative talents began to be noticed. However, the arrival of war persuaded him that he should attempt to obtain a posting to France. The 42nd ‘Rainbow Division’ – a mixed unit composed of National Guard regiments from across the USA – was his idea. He, therefore, secured a position as its Chief of Staff. Despite the staff role, MacArthur served with distinction and bravery throughout his time in the trenches. He was decorated by both America and France.

After the war he was appointed Superintendent of West Point, where he was able to introduce reforms to tackle some of the bad practice he had experienced for himself. In 1922 he married and was transferred to the Philippines. Promoted to Major General in 1925, he commanded IV and then III Corps. Depressed after separating from his wife in 1927 (they divorced in 1929), he threw himself into the leadership of the 1928 US Olympic Committee.

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Edward Almond – a summary

Edward Almond was one of the more controversial of America’s twentieth-century generals. A Virginian by birth, Almond was to attend that state’s prestigious Virginia Military Institute, before joining the US Army as an infantry officer and serving in the 4th Division on the Western Front in 1918. Despite his brief period on the frontline he saw extensive action, commanding a machine gun battalion.

Edward AlmondAlmond had reached the rank of brevet Colonel by the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Between the wars, after a spell teaching at a military institute in Alabama and a brief tour of duty in the Philippines, he took up a series of staff roles. He worked in intelligence with the General Staff in Washington and then with the VI Corps in Rhode Island.

World War Two

During the Second World War Almond was promoted to Brigadier General and spent the first half of the war training his command – the all black 92nd Infantry Division. Almond led the division in the Italian campaign from 1944 until the defeat of Germany. The conduct of his unit – the last all black division in a previously segregated army – has been subject to controversy ever since. Some have attributed its poor performance to arrogance and racism on Almond’s part, while others have cited other factors such as neglect from the high command. He is alleged to have advised the Army against using black soldiers in combat roles as a result of this experience.

Almond also suffered personal tragedy during the war: both his son and son-in-law were killed in action.

After the war, Almond spent a year back in the USA, before transferring to General Douglas MacArthur’s Far East Command in Tokyo. There he was promoted to the rank of Major General and entered MacArthur’s inner circle, serving as Chief of Staff.

Korean War

Intimately involved in the planning for the Inchon invasion during the Korean War of 1950 to 1953, Almond was rewarded with the command of the X Corps, which MacArthur had tasked with the assault. When the X Corps was later switched to the east of the country, Almond’s troops fared markedly better than their colleagues in Walton Walker’s 8th Army during the surprise Chinese attack at the close of 1950. Yet Almond argued repeatedly with his subordinate, General O. P. Smith, whose Marine division did most of the tough fighting. He continued in command until July 1951, by which time the war had stagnated.

Back in the USA again, Almond spent the remainder of his military career leading the Army War College in Pennsylvania. He retired from army service in 1953, but kept up his interest in military affairs by serving on the board of his old college, the Virginia Military Institute.

Edward Almond died on 11 June 1979, aged 86, and is buried at Arlington cemetery, Virginia.

Korean WarAndrew Mulholland

The Korean War: History In An Hour published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.

Peng Dehuai – a summary

One of Communist China’s most capable military commanders, Peng Dehuai was in direct command of her forces in Korea for most of the war.

Peng Dehuai Peng Dehuai was of peasant stock, born in Hunan province on 24 October 1898. After a rudimentary education he worked as a labourer between the ages of 10 and 16, before signing up as a foot soldier for a local warlord. Two years later he joined the newly established KMT (Kuomintang), campaigning in Wuhan and working his way up through the ranks. Peng was clearly a competent soldier, but he was also politically committed. In particular, his lifelong interest in improving the lot of the Chinese peasant positioned him to the left of the KMT movement and led him to abandon it for Mao’s Chinese Communist Party in 1928.


Initially Peng kept this switch of allegiance quiet, ensuring that his KMT regiment stayed in camp rather than hunting down Communist guerillas. But in November of that year he openly defected to Mao’s army with his entire command. Having personally saved Mao’s life, Peng gained prominence within the Communist movement and became one of its most senior commanders. In 1931 he was instrumental in the establishment of the Jiangxi Soviet and its subsequent defence against KMT forces. He also captured the capital of Hunan, now at the head of an army of 25,000. In 1934–5 Peng’s troops took part in the famous Long March, and by the time of Japanese intervention in 1937, he was second in command of Communist forces.

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Paik Sun-yup – a brief summary

Born 23 November 1920, just south of Pyongyang in what is now North Korea, Paik Sun-yup had a colourful military career, during which he was to emerge as South Korea’s most distinguished general.

Paik Sun-yupHis early life was one of hardship. His mother was widowed at a young age and she struggled to bring up Paik and his two siblings, taking whatever work she could find. After school in Japanese-controlled Korea, Paik studied to become a teacher. Yet at the age of 19 he had a change of heart and travelled to Mukden in Manchuria – a Japanese puppet state at the time. There he enlisted in the army, where he trained to become an officer in the Manchukuo Imperial Army.

By now Japan was deeply embroiled in war in China, though Paik spent most of his early military career in the far north of Manchuria, suppressing communist guerillas. The experience was to contribute to his deep-seated hostility towards communism. As the Second World War drew to a close, Paik was posted to northern China, where his unit fought against Mao’s forces. With peace at hand, he returned to his family in Pyongyang.

His new found contentment was not to last, however. Known for his anti-Communist sentiments, it soon became dangerous for Paik to live in the North. He, therefore, travelled to Seoul, where he joined the nascent South Korean Army as a Lieutenant. By the time of the invasion in 1950, he was in command of the 1st Division of the ROK Army, one of its best formations. During those early months of the war, Paik managed to hold together the semblance of a command, and his greatly reduced division made a significant contribution to the defence of Pusan.

Only two months later, Paik’s troops were to be the first to enter Pyongyang, his home town. By April 1951 he was in command of the  ROK I Corps, which was roughly handled by the Chinese upon their intervention later that year. After a successful spell with the II Corps he was appointed Chief of Staff in July 1952. Paik’s work in this role was to be central to the upgrading of the ROK Army. He ended the war as South Korea’s first full General.

With peace came a successful diplomatic and then ministerial career. Paik served as South Korean Ambassador in Taiwan, France and Canada, and as the country’s Transport Minister. He now lives in quiet retirement.

Korean WarAndrew Mulholland

The Korean War: History In An Hour published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.