The Principles of War Podcast
Chinese Deception operations

93 – Chinese Deception Operations on the Yalu River, 1950

What role did Chinese deception operations play on the Yalu River in 1950?    This is part 2 of our look at Chinese deception and US self deception on the Yalu River in the Korean War.

How did a dismounted and logistical challenged force with minimal air support outmaneuver UN force on the Yalu River in 1905?  The PLA was able to achieve operational and tactical surprise with deception operations.  This episode looks at PLA deception operations then and contemporary PLA deception doctrine today.

Marshall Peng achieved surprise whilst moving 11 Armies across the Yalu (A PLA Army was the equivalent of the US Corps).  The US was fighting an enemy that it had fought with during the Second World War, so the tactics should not have been a surprise.  The PLA had a strong march discipline, able to move quickly and below the detection threshold.

When MacArthur finally understood that there were PLA troops in North Korea he thought there was just 50,000 troops, when in fact there were 300,000 troops.

The Chinese had made explicit warnings that they would take actions as the UN came closer to the border between North Korea and China.  These warnings came from multiple sources and yet they were not believed by the UN Command.  The CCP was actively seeking to avoid combat, so moving troops openly was a part of the strategic messaging, but it was missed or discounted by MacArthur.  

Once the PLA committed to intervention, it transitioned from strategic messaging to operational security, protecting the PLA EEFIs (essential elements of friendly information).  

MacArthur’s HQs intelligence failings were generated by a combination of hubris and willful self deception.  MacArthur wrote that if you ‘control intelligence, you control decision making’.  A large PLA force would have limited his freedom of action based on his orders from Truman.

MacArthur did not spend one night in Korea during the whole war!

MAJ GEN Willoughby’s 8th Army Intelligence Officer

It was MacArthur’s job to build a strong G-2 capability, the intelligence function, and MAJ GEN Charles Willoughby had worked for MacArthur in WW2 and many of his prognostications had been found wanting.  MacArthur should not have utilized him in the Korean War. 

There are a couple of quotes written by MacArthur about intelligence.

  • Expect only 5% of an intelligence report to be accurate. The trick of a good commander is to isolate the 5%.
  • There have been three great intelligence officers in history. Mine is not one of them.

LT COL John Chiles, the Chief of Operations for the 10th Corps of the 8th Army, wrote “Anything MacArthur wanted, Willoughby produced intelligence for… In this case Willoughby falsified the intelligence reports… He should have gone to jail.” These harsh words are amplified by LT GEN Wiliam McCaffrey, who wrote, “I was always afraid he would be found murdered one day, because if he was, I was sure that they would come and arrest me, because I hated him so much…”

A CIA officer in the US Embassy in Seoul, Carlton Swift, wrote – 

‘It as if he was always right, had always been right. Certitude after certitude poured out of him. It was as if there was an exclamation point after all of his sentences… Worse, you couldn’t challenge him. Because he always made it clear that he spoke for MacArthur and if you challenged him you were challenging MacArthur… So that made it very hard for intelligence in the field to filter up to higher headquarters on something that he has made up his mind on.’

David Halberstam wrote of Willoughby,

“The key to the importance of Willoughby was not his own self-evident inadequacies; it was that he represented the deepest kind of psychological weakness in the talented, flawed man he served, the need to have someone who agreed with him at all times and flattered him constantly.” 

For more information on the colourful career of Willoughby – Is this the worst intelligence chief in the US Army’s History? at The Diplomat.

Strategic Warning Time

What role did Strategic Warning Time play in planning for a war in Korea?  In Korea we see a US military that has shrunk dramatically from the war winning Army from 1945.  Budget cuts and lack of interest saw equipment and training fall away from what was required.

Who was John Bankhead Magruder and what is his contribution to Deception Planning?

Finally, we review US Army publication ATP 7-100.3 CHINESE TACTICS .  This discusses the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army Principles of War and contains details on deception operations.  The following extracts are from that publication.


PLA principles were originally written by Mao Zedong during the Long March of 1934—35 and revised during the Japanese occupation of China, beginning in 1937. These principles still serve as the basis for People’s War theories, though they have been modernized periodically along with the rest of Chinese military thought. There are numerous different interpretations and translations of these principles, varying widely based on when and where they were written and translated. However, the versions are all similar, generally reflecting Communist political sensibilities, a focus on mobility and deception, and a strong understanding of basic military theory. The key themes of People’s War are—

  • Eliminate isolated pockets of the enemy before concentrating to fight larger forces.
  • Capture small villages and towns before capturing large urban areas.
  • Eliminate the enemy’s fighting capacity; do not focus on territory.
  • Fight no battle unprepared; develop strategy based on the worst conditions.
  • Concentrate forces to achieve an overwhelming advantage in numbers, then defeat the enemy in detail.
  • Choose the first battle carefully.
  • Unify the command and coordinate.
  • Combine mobile war, positional war, and guerrilla war.
  • Employ forces and tactics flexibly.
  • Fight in one’s own way, and let the enemy fight in its.


1-56.  Deception plays a critical role in every part of the Chinese approach to conflict. The Chinese emphasis on deception can be traced to Sun Tzu, who believed that it was the basis for all warfare. PLA views on this topic differ considerably from those of most Western militaries. Instead of being a peripheral enabler, deception operations are seen as integral to every operation at all levels of war. Where U.S. Army operational planning uses the concept of a course of action— a scheme developed to accomplish a mission (JP 5-0)—PLA planners use stratagems. Rather than describing friendly operations, stratagems describe the enemy’s mindset, focusing on how to achieve the desired perceptions by the opponent, and then prescribing ways to exploit this perception. Rather than focusing on defeating the opponent in direct conflict—as most Western militaries do—stratagems consider deception, trickery, and other indirect, perception-based efforts to be the most important elements of an operation. Deception is a fundamental aspect of the Chinese way of war, and applications of deception are considered a high priority.


1-57. China’s strategic approach to conflict employs Three Warfares designed to support and reinforce the
PLA’s traditional military operations. These Three Warfares are—

  • Public Opinion Warfare.
  • Psychological Warfare.
  • Legal Warfare.

Though these approaches are called warfares, these strategies—in Western thinking—fall somewhere between modern concepts such as information operations and historical concepts such as military operations other than war or effects-based operations. Despite the names, they are universally nonlethal: they do not involve direct combat operations. Instead, they are designed to pursue what Sun Tzu considered generalship in its highest form—victory without battle. If a battle must be fought, the Three Warfares are designed to unbalance, deceive, and coerce opponents in order to influence their perceptions. In a major change from the past, when political officers were mainly involved in rear area personnel functions, the Three Warfares make political officers and soldiers into nonlethal warfighters who provide essential support to combat units.

1-58. Public Opinion Warfare is referred to as huayuquan, which translates roughly as “the right to speak and be heard.” To the Western mind this implies something along the lines of freedom of speech. Its meaning to the Chinese, however, is substantially different: it refers to the power to set the terms of a debate, discussion, or negotiation. In other words, it is China’s high-level information campaign designed to set the terms of political discussion. China views this effort as influential not only on PLA operations, but also in support of Chinese economic interests worldwide. China views Public Opinion Warfare as capable of seizing the initiative in a conflict before any shots are fired by shaping public discourse, influencing political positions, and building international sympathy. Public Opinion Warfare operations are seen every day in the PLA’s vast media system of newspapers, magazines, television, and internet sources that target both domestic and foreign audiences. Public Opinion Warfare supports the PLA’s Psychological Warfare and Legal Warfare activities in peacetime and war.

1-59. Psychological Warfare is broadly similar to U.S. military information support operations in that it is intended to influence the behavior of a given audience. PLA Psychological Warfare seeks to integrate with conventional warfare and includes both offensive and defensive measures. The PLA views Psychological Warfare through the lens of Sun Tzu, emphasizing its multiplicative effect when coupled with comprehensive deception operations. Deception operations are critical to the PLA’s entire warfighting approach, and Psychological Warfare represents the major information operations element of deception operations.

1-60. Legal Warfare refers to setting the legal conditions for victory—both domestically and internationally. The U.S. does not have an equivalent concept, although State Department diplomatic and legal operations have roughly equivalent objectives. Legal Warfare seeks to unbalance potential opponents by using international or domestic laws to undermine their military operations, to seek legal validity for PLA operations worldwide, and to support Chinese interests through a valid legal framework. Legal Warfare has emerged with a particularly prominent role via the various Chinese political maneuverings in the Western Pacific, particularly those areas surrounding international waterways, disputed land masses, and economic rights of way. Legal Warfare is present at the tactical and operational levels of war. It guides how the PLA trains to treat prisoners of war, detainees, and civilians, and how it abides by international legal conventions, codes, and laws.

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