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The Korean War (Crossing the 38th Parallel)

Leader: Truman Date: June 27, 1950


The US originally intervened in Korea to prevent NK, who was tightly knit with the Soviets and China, from invading into resistant South Korea. The US successfully pushed back the North Koreans (which is generally seen as a good move, ok at best), but fatally decided to continue with this push across the 38th parallel into North Korean territory.

The theme of this entire period is Cold War and anti-soviet communism. The Truman Doctrine had just 2 years earlier been put into place where the Truman administration made it a priority to contain Soviet expansion.

This has a huge effect on the decision making of internal groups, and really fosters this idea of "us vs. them", and allows blanket justification under this umbrella of righteousness and communist resistance.

It was fine to point out this resistance to Soviet expansion, but in my opinion it probably should have been explicitly stated that no militaristic actions could be justified with this doctrine. This may have made it much harder to justify militaristic advancement.

Stereotyped conceptions of Russia and China

It was believed that Soviets, NK and China were all very closely knit. Specifically there was a stereotype that China was a weak nation that heavily relied on support from the Soviet Union. It was believed China had an incredibly weak army and was only relevant because of it's alignment with the SU. They believed strongly (and possibly correctly so) that the SU did not want an all out war, and this China would have to follow suit and allow an invasion unmet with resistance in order to follow suite with their puppet masters.

This was not only a stereotype in the government but in general public as well.

Janis brings up the fact that it is generally dangerous to take these "ideological presuppositions" for granted and they should always be thought about very critically, in fact often completely disregarded... but this is hard to do in a group that values so heavily it's cohesion.

The objective assessment of relevant information and rethinking necessary for developing more differentiated concepts can emerge only out of the crucible of heated debate, which is anathema to the members of.a concurrence seeking group. pg. 61

Ignoring explicit warnings

There was even information about a large gorilla group just beyond the border, and China had even warned that they would resist any advancement into North Korean territory. These warnings were ignored, and this ignorance was justified with this narrative that China couldn't possible resist the force that MacArthur had on the border (which was also fleeting).

Every piece of solid evidence here pointed to a defeat, yet high level feelings and abstract models pointed at a success.

Resistance from an in group was snuffed by Acheson

George Kennan was a leading expert on the Soviet bloc and continuously tried to invoke this heated debate, and made many realistic predictions that stated the US should not cross the 38th parallel and occupy NK.

Kennan had a very different conception of the intentions of Chinese leaders and their relationship with the SU, and made a report with the State Department's policy planning staff headed by Paul Nitze.

Acheson abruptly absorbed the report and stopped it from getting to the president.

Kennan resigned shortly after in frustration.

Acheson the Mind Guard

Truman's left hand man here took it upon himself to muffle any voices that disagreed with the president's decision to move forward with the invasion into NK lines. He justified doing so by saying he did not want to disturb the president with dissonance.

In reality, this dissonance, while generally uncomfortable at first, is crucial for making good decisions.

MacArthur the Incompetent

MacArthur was the general on the ground in Korea. I consider his actions to be war mongering and completely misaligned with the original objectives of his deployment.

He was disregarding information on the ground (there was a report of Chinese soldiers advancing) and continued to voice his opinion that the US would win an escalation battle.

The Decision Making System used

The system here for making a decision was essentially this:

  1. Surround myself with good people that I trust
  2. Make sure they all agree with each decision

This obviously has some flaws. We as humans optimize systems, and in this case we don't optimize for good decisions (which would be the hardest line to follow) we optimize for a cohesive group. This means creating a group that are most similar and will agree as often as possible.

Lessons to be learned from Truman

I find it most interesting to look at how Truman acted as a leader in this situation and what blunders he made during these discussions.

To preface this section, we should note that coming into this administration many people vouched for Truman saying he was very level headed and great at making decisions under pressure. He even states himself often that he is very open minded.

The way he acts paints a very interesting picture though.

Truman was promoting his own agenda under the guise of open mindedness. He was constantly saying he wanted to hear what everyone had to say, while underwriting it with his own opinion on the matter. This is an issue only the leader, the individual in the room with the real power, has to worry about.

By voicing his own opinion like this, he set the mood of all the discussions. Disagreements with a certain plan became disagreements with him. If he hadn't done this, it's possible people would have been less worried to bring up competing strategies and theories.

He should have kept his opinions to himself, and simply nurtured healthy discussion and argument, while only voicing his opinion on the matter at the end when a decision was to be made to keep everything impartial.

Neustadt's take on it all

Truman walked in stpe with his advisers... More realism and less apetite in Washington might have suggested [a good natural defense line at the waste of the Korean peninsula s victory enough]. pg. 74

Final Thoughts

In the conclusion, Janis write:

The most prominent symptoms were excessive risk taking based on a shared illusion of invulnerability, stereotypes of the enemy, collective reliance on ideological rationalizations that supported the belligerent escalation to which the group became committed, and exclusion of experts with dissident views who would have questioned the group's unwarranted assumptions. pg. 74

This final statement made me wonder how stressful and uncomfortable it really must have been to invite experts with dissonant views. If you were to be so open to opposing views, it would become obvious that it could get hard to juggle. How do you decide which views are valid enough to consider? How do you keep track of each argument for and against a decision, weight each one accurately and more importantly come out with a sound decision?

It's definitely easier to just not deal with it, and go along with what sounds right at the moment.

This must be what Chamath Palihapitiya was talking about on The Knowledge Project when he said he always excitedly follows a line of thought, making sure to take time to step back and rebase. This would allow you to really evaluate each opinion and view from the inside out. Rather than trusting someone else's judgment, you can base it on your own.

TIL that leading up to Pearl Harbor the US lost track of Japanese aircraft carriers, observed the Japanese consulate burning documents, had reports of submarines off the shore of Hawaii and had reports of a cluster of aircraft 137 miles north of Oahu and yet only realized an attack was under way when bombs began to drop.