During the Cold War, the USMC fought in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, and the Persian Gulf. They were also involved in smaller-scale operations, such as interventions in both Lebanon and the Dominican Republic, NEOs from Cyprus and Cambodia, the Mayaguez Incident, and Lebanon. The USMC also stood prepared to wage a third world war against the Soviet Union by reinforcing Norway and Denmark's Jutland Peninsula.
The USMC drastically downsized as part of the demobilization following World War II, going from a peak of 485,053 personnel during the war to 107,000 by the late 1940s. Some politicians, including President Harry S. Truman, wanted to disband the USMC, as they thought that amphibious operations were obsolete in the atomic age and that the army could absorb the USMC's mission. However, the performance of the USMC in Korea in 1950 quelled this debate.
Marines took part in the desperate fighting along the Pusan Perimeter. They also spearheaded the amphibious landing at Inchon that turned the tide in the war in September 1950. Marines subsequently helped liberate Seoul in bloody house-to-house fighting. General Douglas MacArthur then ordered the Marines to seize Wonsan in an unopposed amphibious assault and simultaneous drive north to the Yalu River. The drive to the Yalu, however, brought Chinese intervention, and in late November 1950, some 100,000 men of the Chinese 9th Army Group cut off the 1st Marine Division near the Changjin (Chosin) Reservoir in bitter winter weather. Despite the desperate situation, in one of the great military withdrawals in all history, the Marines fought their way south, bringing out their wounded, dead, and equipment. The USMC later participated in United Nations Command (UNC) offensives, defense against the 1951 Chinese Spring Offensive, and UNC counteroffensives.
Following the Korean War, the USMC enjoyed a period of relative calm punctuated by smaller operations. In July 1958, following a request by the Lebanese government, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent Marines to Beirut. The Marines maintained general order there before being withdrawn in mid-October. The April 1965 Dominican Intervention saw the Marines evacuate more than 3,000 U.S. citizens during political upheaval there. Subsequently, more than 8,000 Marines and additional U.S. Army troops enforced the peace.
Marines also served as advisors to the Republic of Vietnam (RVN, South Vietnam). The USMC deployed its first operational unit, the Medium Helicopter Squadron 362, to Vietnam on 15 April 1962. The 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade deployed to Vietnam as the first USMC ground combat unit on 8 March 1965. The Marines were deployed to the northern provinces of South Vietnam. Marines played a crucial role in defeating the January 1968 Tet Offensive, especially in retaking Hue. They also held the Khe Sanh base during a prolonged siege by Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) troops. The Marines were active in pacification programs, especially with their innovative Combined Action Platoons. Marine units began withdrawing from South Vietnam in 1970. All USMC ground and air operations in Vietnam ceased in June 1971. The final Marine role came in April 1975, when Marine units assisted with the evacuation of Americans and South Vietnamese during the fall of Saigon to communist forces.
The early 1970s marked a period of recovery for the USMC, which had been badly bruised during the decade-long Vietnam involvement. Once again, the USMC prepared for traditional amphibious operations missions. However, Marines did evacuate U.S. citizens from Cyprus in July 1974 and from Cambodia in April 1975. Conflict with Cambodia continued with the capture of the U.S. ship Mayaguez and its crew on 12 May 1975. President Gerald R. Ford ordered in the Marines, who retook the ship three days later.
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan sent Marines to Lebanon to monitor the evacuation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). However, attacks on the Marines culminated in the 23 October 1983 suicide truck bombing of the office building holding the Marine headquarters. The blast killed 239 Americans, 220 of them Marines. Reagan pulled all American forces out by late February 1984 in large part because of this devastating attack. The USMC participated in Operation urgent fury, the U.S. invasion of Grenada in October 1983 ordered by Reagan. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988), Reagan deployed Marines to help protect oil tankers in the Persian Gulf against attack, a mission that lasted from 1986 to 1989.
Marines also participated in the 1989 Panama invasion, Operation just cause, securing key installations, seizing critical bridgeheads, controlling vital crossroads, and processing 1,200 captured Panamanians.
When Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait on 2 August 1990, President George H. W. Bush deployed the Marines to protect Saudi Arabia from an Iraqi incursion (Operation desert shield). During the ground offensive (Operation desert storm), in an advance on Kuwait City in the Battle of Khafji, Marine units easily repulsed two Iraqi armored columns in the largest tank battle in USMC history. Two Marine brigades feigned an amphibious landing from ships in the Persian Gulf, which fixed Iraqis in eastern Kuwait and facilitated the Coalition's western envelopment. Undoubtedly, the USMC played an important role during the Cold War.
Jonathan P. Klug
Alexander, Joseph H. Sea Soldiers in the Cold War: Amphibious Warfare, 1945–1991. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995.; Kindsvatter, Peter S. American Soldiers: Ground Combat in the World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003.; Millett, Allen R. Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps. New York: Free Press, 1991.