“Halsey Acted Stupidly”

1 Mar

I finally forced my son to watch The Hunt for Red October with me, one of my favorite movies, and (of course) he ended up loving it. However, one of the quotes sent me down a rabbit hole which proves to me that “hindsight is 20/20.”

As an amateur historian (got the training, not paid to do it), there’s a conversation where Ramius (Sean Connery) asks Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) what books he writes for the CIA. Jack replied, “I wrote a book about Admiral Halsey called “The Fighting Sailor,” it’s about naval combat tactics.” To which Ramius thinks a moment and says, “I know this book. Your conclusions were all wrong. Halsey acted stupidly.”

Fleet Admiral William Halsey with Admiral John McCain, Sr. (Senator McCain’s grandfather)

This line is delivered while they’re waiting for the torpedo to destroy them, so it’s intended as a joke in the movie, but it does bring up the question, “Was Halsey acting stupidly?” I found this great article where someone outlines in detail why Halsey was NOT stupid and thought it was brilliantly explained. If you don’t have the patience for the whole story, it revolves around the Battle of Leyte Gulf, 1944, fight for the Philippines in WWII. American Admiral Halsey gets suckered into chasing after some Japanese carriers which turn out to be decoys. He sends a message to organize Task Force 34 and support 3rd Fleet, which was supposed to be protecting the army landings. 3rd Fleet CO hears this message, thinks Halsey is covering the landings, and proceeds to sail away after other targets.

Except TF34 doesn’t exist yet, and due to another mistake, the ships didn’t form up. So a smaller task force (“Taffy 3”) of 6 American Escort Carriers, protected by 3 Destroyers and 4 Destroyer Escorts has to take on the MAIN JAPANESE BATTLE FLEET with 4 Battleships, 6 Heavy cruisers, 2 Light Cruisers, and 11 Destroyers. Here’s the amazing thing–the Americans win–in the most lopsided naval battle in history. (Sidenote: one of those destroyers was called the USS Johnston, no relation.)

Now many historians (including amateur ones like Clancy) argue that Halsey should have seen through an obvious feint, or at least, ensured there was actually ships going to TF34. People forget they can only go off the information they have AT THAT TIME. Japanese carriers were a real threat to Halsey’s battle line. If they were real, that meant he had found the main Japanese battle fleet, and was steaming towards the guns. He believed his flank was covered by 3rd Fleet and he had to engage the Japanese before they threatened the army landings under General MacArthur (another controversial figure).

A more recent example would be the lack of WMD’s (weapons of mass destruction) in Iraq. It was the main reason for invading Iraq in 2003 during George W. Bush’s administration, Our spies said Iraq had WMD’s, our allies said they had them, Saddam Hussein himself said they had them… and yet when America takes over the country, no WMD’s. Suddenly, America’s justification for overthrowing Hussein vanishes, and people wonder if it’s was all just a charade to invade in the first place. Did President Bush know they didn’t exist? We won’t know the answer to that (if ever) for another couple decades, but if you take away the real threat that Iraq threatened to drive Israelis into the sea, it’s easy to criticize in hindsight without considering what Bush knew AT THAT TIME.

It’s easy to criticize in hindsight, but in the real world, you don’t have that advantage. You never have all the information. Another example, one part of the FBI knew that Osama was planning the 9/11 attacks, but couldn’t convince their superiors it was legit. All you have is the information in front of you. So maybe we can cut some folks some slack when they make a mistake. Accountable, sure, but understandable.

Am I giving Halsey and Bush too much credit? Does the “the evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones?” (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2.) What do you think? Let me know in the comments below!

2 Responses to ““Halsey Acted Stupidly””

  1. Bon Repos Gites March 1, 2021 at 8:11 am #

    Hindsight is an exact science but I can’t quite see the Battle of Leyte Gulf belongs on the same line of sight as Iraq 2003 😉

  2. Silk Cords March 1, 2021 at 8:59 am #

    It’s not a screw up if you win, LOL. Seriously even the best have bad outings. Hannibal is a good example there.

    The WMDs is a trickier thing. A whole different subject really. Personally, we know he had them. Just ask all the Kurds and Iranians he gassed. I suspect his stockpiles were lower than reported though and he snuck the rest to Syria thinking he’d get them back eventually. That’s where Syria got the gas it was using in it’s civil war. Just a theory, but there was a book by a former Iraqi general that supposedly details something along those lines.

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