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Biographies: General Matthew Bunker Ridgway

The role of General Matthew Bunker Ridgway in the Korean War is a study of incredible military success. After Nathanael Green’s retrieval of patriot fortunes in the South during the Revolutionary War, there is no record of any American commander who took a war that was on the threshold of defeat and by personal will and intelligence turned it to success. General Ridgway’s command genius in Korea was the culmination of a career that both the U.S. Army and himself had tracked for success since he graduated from West Point in 1917. 

Ridgway was one of that unique cadre of brilliant younger generals who had been blooded as division commanders in World War II, but who were not called to duty in Korea until General Douglas MacArthur was replaced. Only James Gavin of that select group was left out of what became Ridgway’s success. James A. Van Fleet, Mark W. Clark and Maxwell Taylor formed a tableau of the best and brightest of the old war-horses who would, with Ridgway’s urging, encourage a new cadre of professional battalion and regimental commanders that would turn the Korean War around.

Ridgway was well established as a lieutenant general and deputy Army chief of staff for plans in Washington in the early winter of 1950. It was a winter of military discontent for the nation as the greatest retreat in the history of the nation was underway as the Chinese pushed United Nations (U.N.) troops southward. The Eighth U.S. Army, under command of General Walton H. Walker, was seriously considering evacuation of all forces from the Korean Peninsula. The glory of MacArthur’s brilliant invasion behind the enemy at Inchon and his thrust deep into North Korea was soon dissipated as the Chinese intervened. The dimensions of the war became the core of debate among MacArthur, President Harry S. Truman, and the U.N. allies of the United States. The demand for more divisions, the suggestion that Nationalist China be brought into the war, and the prospect for using atomic weaponry all fueled the controversy. However, it was the issue of enlarging the Allied objective to include unification of the two Koreas and possible invasion of China itself that harmed MacArthur.

In Washington, Ridgway was abashed at the propensity of MacArthur for quarreling with orders. To the amazement of his timid peers at Army staff headquarters, Ridgway had commented that removal of an obstreperous commander was not too far-fetched a method of dealing with the matter. Just before Christmas, Ridgway was startled to find that he was to replace Walker, who had been killed in a jeep accident. Following a briefing by MacArthur in Tokyo, Ridgway took physical command of the Eighth Army. He had been assured that the command was his to do with as he wished. MacArthur, of course, was not dissuaded from pursuing the larger agenda for the war that he had established for himself.

Visiting several divisions, the new commander was astonished at the confusion and despair that he found. There was a decided lack of morale and purpose, shoddy discipline, and an atmosphere of defeat. For the dour, almost puritanical, and disciplined hard paratrooper, problems meant opportunity. He quickly spelled out a training regimen that would restore the will of the units. He firmly believed that individual and unit discipline encouraged an esprit that had been lost or unknown. He replaced the retreat mentality with a mindset that made taking the offensive the priority. He was startled at seeing how road-bound the Army was. To Ridgway, ever the infantry Soldier, this ran counter to everything basic to effective combat. Showers, changes of clothing, hot meals, mail deliveries, distribution of stationery so that troops could write home, all served to lift spirits. Training between echelons ensured that field Soldiers could count on artillery support when and where they needed it. He turned his attention to Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units to ensure that the best immediate care of the wounded would be available. He sent word to General J. Lawton Collins that he wanted the best and smartest available battalion and regimental commanders sent to him for assignment. Hidebound, unyielding divisional commanders were now confronted with finding a place in their units for these new men. Ridgway quietly ticketed divisional and corps commanders for reassignment out of the theater, always replacing them with new men to match the new will of his army. Old generals were given promotions and commendations and glad-handed out of Korea while Ridgway turned his attention to slashing at the enemy, punishing the adversary and eschewing the old objective of territorial gain. Chief of Staff General Collins was encouraged and elated by the transformation despite a dour assessment from the once-euphoric MacArthur. By the end of January 1951, the allies were on the move, hitting both Chinese and North Koreans head-on and winning as they moved relentlessly northward. MacArthur, recognizing that his concept of total victory was fast becoming remote, was not encouraged by the prospect of a stabilized front on the 38th Parallel. Within four months, Ridgway had proven good on his word when he arrived in Korea and declared “We’re going the other way.” The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in Washington found they could deal directly with Ridgway and thereby circumvent MacArthur, who was becoming increasingly bitter and vocal about being restrained from gaining total victory. This did not prevent the old general from reaping credit for Ridgway’s successes in the field, however. His notion of escalating the war was revived as the enemy was pushed north of the 38th Parallel, and his statements to the press and to opponents of the administration continued to run counter to national policy on the conduct of the war. The climax of mutual discontent came April 11, 1951, when Truman peremptorily removed MacArthur from command and thereby from the Army. Ridgway was immediately named to replace him as U.N. commander.

Certain now of gaining his fourth star, Ridgway thought he was in position to name his successor as commander of the Eighth Army. Washington had made the choice for him, however. They selected General James Van Fleet, who had commanded brilliantly both the 82nd Airborne in Europe and against Communist insurgents in Greece after World War II. Like another paratroop general, General James Gavin, Van Fleet was extremely popular with his men and universally regarded as a dynamic, heroic combat commander. He was a particular favorite of Truman who perhaps saw something of himself in the rugged, no-nonsense openness of the man. Ridgway, a taciturn, almost dour man, abstemious in behavior, had all the qualities of both men as well as their respect; but he did not have the same popularity. Personally he didn’t like either man. He didn’t want them in Korea, but now that he had Van Fleet he determined to keep tight control of Eighth Army operations even if it meant a constant commute from Tokyo.

The Army was now in good shape and comfortably established on a line running approximately parallel with the 38th demarcation line. These perimeters or “lines” were named after states and cities such as Wyoming, Kansas and Toledo. The stability encouraged Washington and the U.N. allies to entertain possibilities of an Armistice. The expectation was that advantageous territorial positions would be sustained while the enemy would be contained. Van Fleet wanted to launch a new initiative to include a Marine landing from the sea in the northeast. Ridgway was inalterably opposed to the plan but he did give permission to launch bombing raids against Communist airfields in North Korea. Despite an onslaught of MiG-15 fighter planes based in Manchuria, the Air Force prevailed in knocking out the infrastructure of the airfields. The Army was less certain about the result, however, since runways could be restored rapidly and air reconnaissance was limited because of smoke and haze from Chinese brush fires. The frustrated Van Fleet was soon to be in the middle of the greatest single battle of the war. From April 22-30, the Chinese and North Koreans struck in massive force, ostensibly with Seoul as the objective. Eighth Army elements found themselves in desperate straits as Republic of Korean divisions disintegrated under pressure, thereby placing allied units in jeopardy. The British Brigade was isolated and virtually surrounded before Van Fleet’s forces could relieve the pressure. The enemy attack was defeated and lines stabilized despite heavy Allied casualties. A great blow had been delivered to the enemy, and Ridgway noted Van Fleet’s leadership.

He also turned his attention to another matter when he cabled Washington of his intention to desegregate the Eighth Army by disbanding all segregated regiments. The men in these units would be transferred to other regiments, thus effectively integrating the Army. This proposal had first been suggested by General William Kean of the 25th Division, one of whose regiments was all black. Ridgway stated that it seemed “un-American and un-Christian for free citizens to be taught to downgrade themselves . . . as if they were unfit to associate with their fellows or to accept leadership themselves.” Ridgway developed the procedure and the proportions of numbers of blacks in each unit to be attained. Virtually every general officer favored the plan, as did the Joint Chiefs of Staff; but it was months before total integration became reality. Ridgway’s May 14 directive was a large step toward achieving equality in the military.

The Chinese and North Koreans had regrouped by mid-May while Van Fleet was again denied authority to launch an attack using the Marines in a sea invasion near Wonsan to the east. On May 16, the Communists launched a new attack with some 175,000 men, this time east and away from the original Seoul corridor of a month earlier. Again elements of the ROK collapsed as 40,000 men left their positions. Ridgway again made his way to command headquarters. He would not give Van Fleet carte blanche control of all units. He relented in releasing the 187th Regimental Combat Team, an airborne unit being held as a decoy in reserve, and deploying elements of the 3d Infantry Division to fill gaps and reinforce weakened sectors. By May 30, the attack was repulsed with appalling enemy losses approaching 80,000 casualties. It was the second defeat of the Communists in two months. They were becoming physically and materially exhausted. They had, however, delivered severe blows of their own against a tired Eighth Army.

With Ridgway’s permission, Van Fleet, on June 3, launched an offensive of his own. The going was very slow. Many units were exhausted, and the new rotation of troops policy had taken effect, causing the loss of Veterans. On June 9, Van Fleet and Ridgway agreed to halt the advance. Washington was concerned about discontent developing in the United States. Human losses began to register. In fact, 21,300 Americans had been killed by June 25, 1951. The possibilities of gaining an Armistice seemed propitious. Ridgway had also come to realize that a decisive victory was out of the question. Also, U.N. allies became chary about American intentions in the war. On June 30, they got some relief from their worries as Ridgway was authorized to make an overture to negotiate a settlement. He made a radio broadcast to that effect, suggesting a meeting to take place on a Danish hospital ship in Wonsan Harbor. Both China and North Korea responded positively but chose to meet instead in Kaesong, which was very near the 38th Parallel. This would compromise Ridgway’s territorial position, but pressure to take advantage of the enemy’s willingness to negotiate compelled him to accept Kaesong as the site. However, a breakdown occurred almost immediately over the desires of Syngman Rhee for greater territorial advantages north of the 38th Parallel, the demarcation of a demilitarized zone, and the non-repatriation of tens of thousands of prisoners of war (POWs), whom Rhee sought to use for political advantage.

The war entered a new phase-Ridgway understood that any renewed offensive would demand huge resources in men and materiel without which there could be no decisive defeat of the enemy. As negotiations dragged on into 1952, the stalemate interrupted only by skirmishes and sporadic artillery and mortar fire, Ridgway’s noble work came to an end. In May he was named commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Europe succeeding General Dwight D. Eisenhower who would soon become president. General Mark Clark took over the Far East command.

Ridgway returned to Washington to become Army chief of staff as Eisenhower was being inaugurated. From 1953 until he retired in 1955, Ridgway suffered what he called “the toughest, most frustrating job of my whole career.” He had celebrated arguments with Defense Secretary Charles E. Wilson and with Admiral Arthur Radford, chairman of the JCS, over the downgrading of the Army’s role in the new defense posture. Years later, he continued to present his views, arguing against the abolition of Selective Service, the admission of women into the military academies, and the concept of an all-volunteer armed force. He was particularly outraged by a 1979 order from the Pentagon which tried to abolish the distinctive red beret worn by the airborne troops. “Our airborne is an elite corps, envied and feared by our foes and admired by our friends, proud of its achievements and its uniform, proud of the airborne image in the public eye and proud of the red beret,” he declared in his request for a revocation of the order. Ridgway also became an early and strong critic of U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

In 1986, Ridgway was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 1991, General Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal. In 1992, the U.S. Mint struck a bronze medal in his honor, the obverse stating a line he must have liked: “American Soldier.”

Ridgway died in retirement at Fox Chapel near Pittsburgh, July 26, 1993, one day shy of the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice ending the Korean War. He was 98. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia, July 30, 1993. 

Jack J. Cardoso

Appleman, Roy E. Ridgway Duels for Korea (1990). 
United States Army in the Korean War Vol. 2, South to the Naktong, North to the Yalu (GPO, Washington: 1981). 
Blair, Clay. The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953 (1987). 
Cumings, Bruce, ed. Child of Conflict: The Korean-American Relationship, 1943-1953 (1983). 
Goulden, Joseph C. Korea: The Untold Story of the War (1982). 
Hermes, Walter G. Truce Tent and Fighting Front, Vol. 4, United States Army in the Korean War (1966). 
Kaufman, Burton. The Korean War: Challenge in Crisis, Credibility, and Command (1986). 
Rees, David. Korea: The Limited War (1964). 
Ridgway, Matthew B. The Korean War (1967). Also. Current Biography (1947), pp. 540-542. 
Whelan, Richard. Drawing the Line: The Korean War, 1950-1953 (1990).

Reprinted with permission from The Korean War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Stanley Sandler and published by Garland Publishing, Inc.