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Truman vs. Macarthur brought the world to the brink as war raged over Korea

President Truman and General MacArthur - Credit: Bettmann Archive

The dispute was an ominous warning of problems for our time over where ultimate power lies in the US

The US Marine transport helicopter is bringing a load of battle-weary U.S. Marines into a rear area in Korea while on the ground relief troops await the signal to take off to replace the men in the front line. – Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

H.W. Brands is a well-known and prolific historian of an old-fashioned sort. With no axe to grind and no agenda to advance, he is all about telling stories, which he does exceedingly well. In The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War he recounts a remarkable episode in American history: the clash between President Harry S. Truman and General of the Army Douglas MacArthur that culminated with MacArthur being sacked in April 1951.

US history is replete with examples of military officers losing their jobs, usually for incompetence, sometimes for dishonesty or moral turpitude. Only once, however, has a president fired his senior field commander during wartime for blatant insubordination. As a chapter in the history of US civil-military relations, the Truman-MacArthur controversy is seemingly sui generis, but to treat it as such, as Brands does, is to miss its larger significance. Ending in what appeared to be a decisive affirmation of civilian control, it revealed the challenges inherent in reconciling democratic practice with the exercise of militarised global leadership: challenges that persist – in different form – in the presidency of Donald Trump.

War on the Korean peninsula, formally divided by the Allies into two states in 1945, erupted unexpectedly in June 1950 when North Korean forces attacked across the 38th Parallel, providing the setting for the confrontation between Truman and MacArthur. Brands focuses on their personalities, but the larger context complicated matters and ratcheted up the stakes.

For Americans these were unsettled and unsettling times. Victory in the Second World War had almost immediately given way to an ominous Cold War, with freedom itself seemingly beset by an insidious form of totalitarianism. Expectations that the UN, created with great fanfare in 1945, would pave the way for world peace were already falling victim to East-West divisions. The US monopoly in nuclear weapons, the ultimate guarantor of American security, had ended after just four years, when the Soviet Union successfully tested a weapon in August 1949. A month or so later China ‘fell’ to communism. At home, the Second Red Scare, commonly known as McCarthyism, fuelled partisanship and sowed paranoia, especially among left liberals or progressives who were vulnerable to the charge of fellow-travelling. The Korean War compounded these issues.

General Douglas MacArthur is seen here in Manilla. – Credit: Bettmann Archive

Truman responded to North Korean aggression with alacrity. Promising to assist South Korea’s overmatched army, he secured authorisation from the UN Security Council to ‘repel the armed attack’ and designated MacArthur, a hero of both world wars, to command the coalition assembled to do so.

The appointment met with widespread approval. In a Gallup poll, Americans had dubbed MacArthur the ‘greatest person then living’. Asked ‘to name the greatest figure in world history’, they had ranked him fifth, after Roosevelt, Lincoln, Jesus Christ and Washington. Endorsing his appointment, the New York Times described MacArthur as ‘a superb strategist and an inspired leader; a man of infinite patience and quiet stability under adverse pressure; a man equally capable of bold and decisive action’. All in all, ‘fate could not have chosen a man better qualified’.

By this time, though nominally subordinate, MacArthur had become Truman’s near equal and aspired to succeed him. The two had never met. Having spent the previous several years presiding over the rehabilitation of occupied Japan, the five-star general was accustomed to exercising quasi-sovereign authority. ‘In moments of reflection,’ Brands writes, ‘he asked himself if any other great country had ever owed more to one man. He could not think of an instance.’ He conducted himself accordingly. High-ranking US civilian and military officials wishing to converse with MacArthur went to Tokyo: he didn’t deign to travel to Washington. Indeed, he hadn’t set foot in the US since 1937.

The 70-year-old general willingly added a war on the Korean peninsula to his portfolio of responsibilities. That he intended to exercise considerable latitude in its conduct was evident from the outset. Sitting in Tokyo, he made decisions – to bomb the north and send US troops to the south – which he expected the authorities in Washington to ratify. With enemy forces occupying Seoul, South Korea’s government in flight, and its army crumbling, they had little choice but to comply. In a matter of days, MacArthur had put himself in the driver’s seat.

President Truman aboard U.S.S. Missouri en route to U.S. from Brazil. – Credit: Bettmann Archive

The Battle of Inchon cemented his authority. To turn the tide, MacArthur proposed a daring amphibious assault on the port of Inchon far behind North Korean lines. Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Truman’s principal military advisers, had their doubts. With characteristic bombast, MacArthur pressed his case. ‘The prestige of the Western world hangs in the balance,’ he insisted: ‘Oriental millions are watching the outcome … here in Asia is where the communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest. The test is not in Berlin or Vienna, in London, Paris or Washington. It is here and now [in Korea] … I can almost hear the ticking of the second hand of destiny. We must act now or we will die.’

MacArthur got his way. Launched on September 15, 1950, the Inchon operation succeeded brilliantly. Within days, the North Korean forces were falling back in disarray. On September 29, under MacArthur’s approving eye, the government was reinstated in Seoul. Had MacArthur chosen this ‘mission accomplished’ moment to retire, he might still enjoy his standing among history’s greats.

Instead, with MacArthur’s agreement, Truman revised the plan. Rather than restoring South Korean territorial integrity, the aim now was to unite the peninsula under a single anti-communist regime. So troops under MacArthur’s command (now including British and Commonwealth contingents) crossed the 38th Parallel and advanced northward. Facing only token resistance, they pressed on towards Pyongyang and the Yalu River bordering China. At this hopeful juncture, Truman decided that a tête-à-tête with his field commander might be in order. Suspecting that the president merely wanted a share in the glory, MacArthur agreed, but only on condition that they met on Wake Island, 2,000 miles from Tokyo and nearly 7,000 miles from Washington.

During his brief encounter with the president, which took place on the morning of October 15, MacArthur committed two errors for which he would pay dearly. First, he affirmed Truman’s existing view of him as an arrogant prick. Adding to a previous record of slights and insults, MacArthur abruptly announced that he would not be staying for lunch after the official proceedings; Truman could hang around on Wake, but he was needed back in Tokyo. Second, in response to a question about the likelihood of Chinese intervention as UN forces approached the Yalu, he told Truman that it just wasn’t going to happen. The war was as good as won: ‘formal resistance will end throughout North and South Korea by Thanksgiving.’ US troops would be home (or back to Japan), he claimed, in time for Christmas, and if China foolishly did enter the war, ‘there would be the greatest slaughter’.

(Photo: Bettmann Archive) – Credit: Bettmann Archive

This proved to be a monumental misjudgment. In fact, Chinese ‘volunteers’ had already begun to cross the Yalu. By late October, US troops were taking Chinese prisoners. Intent on conducting one final offensive that would, in his words, ‘destroy all resisting armed forces in Korea and bring that country into a united and free nation’, MacArthur ignored the likely implications. Events made a mockery of his pretensions. A massive Chinese counter-offensive, launched on November 25, sent UN forces streaming back across the 38th Parallel. With Seoul once more in enemy hands and the Chinese showing no signs of stopping, the Joint Chiefs of Staff contemplated evacuating the peninsula altogether. Preventing Korea from triggering a global cataclysm became the overriding US policy objective.

As this point, MacArthur came unglued. Chinese intervention required direct retaliation, he insisted. The adverse turn of events on the battlefield, he told journalists, stemmed directly from the fact that he had laboured under constraints ‘without precedent in military history’. Unless he was provided with reinforcements and given a free hand to wage war as he saw fit, defeat was all but inevitable. (At Wake Island, MacArthur had remarked that ‘no commander in the history of war ever had more complete and adequate support from all agencies in Washington than I have’.) At more or less the same time, a clumsy remark Truman made at a press conference which seemed to suggest that the use of nuclear weapons was a matter for field commanders to determine, triggered a brief panic. Attlee rushed across the Atlantic to find out if the president had taken leave of his senses. He had not; he had merely misspoken.

His book’s hyperbolic subtitle notwithstanding, Brands offers no evidence to suggest that events in Korea in late 1950 brought the US to the brink of nuclear war. Whatever he means when he writes that ‘the knife-edge that Truman had been walking suddenly terminated above an abyss’, the fact is that the American nuclear arsenal remained in the US under lock and key. Still, Truman was in a fix. He had initially characterised Korea as a mere ‘police action’. Now things had got dangerously out of hand. His misjudgments and MacArthur’s recklessness had led to a longer and more costly war than he (or the American people) had bargained for. The geopolitical imperative was to prevent further escalation as a first step towards terminating hostilities. But Truman’s field commander, absolving himself of responsibility for the downward spiral of events, was publicly insisting on the need to go all out to win, regardless of the cost.

By January 1951, MacArthur’s days in command were numbered. Even members of the Joint Chiefs, whose habitual attitude to MacArthur was deferential to the point of being supine, realised he had to go. For them, the core issue was not civilian control in itself. After all, they had bitterly opposed Truman on a host of issues from military budgets and defence reorganisation to the control of nuclear weapons and racial desegregation. What the chiefs cared about was their status and prerogatives. A field commander challenging Washington’s primacy in the conduct of war threatened their own standing at the top of the military hierarchy.

Further provocations from MacArthur brought things to a head. In a letter to the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, dated March 20, 1951, and immediately made public, he reiterated the case for escalation – ‘meeting force with maximum counter-force as we have never failed to do in the past’. In Korea, the fate of the planet was being decided: Asia, after all, was where the ‘communist conspirators’ had chosen to make their bid ‘for global conquest’. To see Europe as the decisive theatre of the Cold War was to get things backwards: ‘lose the war to communism in Asia and the fall of Europe is inevitable,’ MacArthur wrote. Nothing should take precedence over winning the fight now under way. ‘There is no substitute for victory.’ The general was implicitly arrogating to himself the functions of commander-in-chief. This was the final straw. On April 11, MacArthur learned via a radio broadcast that he had been fired.

The public’s response to Truman’s decision was largely negative and pretty much doomed his chances of winning another term as president. As for MacArthur, he flew home to a hero’s welcome bordering on the hysterical. ‘The millions of Americans cheering and shouting for MacArthur,’ Brands writes, ‘wanted the general to lead them, like a modern Moses, out of the wilderness of uncertainty’ that was the Cold War. For the moment, MacArthur’s prospects for succeeding the man who had fired him looked very bright indeed. But as Moses found when he led the Israelites towards the Promised Land, MacArthur discovered that gratitude could be ephemeral. The cheering that greeted his return proved short-lived.

Invited to speak before Congress, he turned in a bravura performance. But during subsequent hearings convened to inquire into the conduct of the Korean War, he fared less well. Testimony by other respected senior officers undercut his own. The JCS chairman Omar Bradley delivered the decisive blow. A five-star general himself, Bradley warned directly attacking China, as MacArthur had proposed, would land the US in ‘the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy’.

When he had finished in Washington, MacArthur set out on a cross-country tour to test the waters for a presidential run. By the time his tour ended, however, enthusiasm for elevating him to the White House had run its course. Distance – MacArthur as warlord and master of the Orient – had contributed to his mystique. When Americans got a closer look, many disliked what they saw, especially as MacArthur’s speeches took on an overtly partisan tone. ‘The shriller the general’s message grew,’ Brands writes, ‘the less attractive he seemed.’ He lacked a common touch and appeared to have little feeling for the bread-and-butter issues that most Americans cared about. In his farewell speech to Congress, MacArthur struck the pose of an ‘old soldier’ wanting nothing more than to ‘fade away’ after a life of service to his country. Within a year of his return from Tokyo, he had pretty much got his wish.

Truman had won out. In his conclusion, Brands pays brief tribute to the president. ‘Castigated as an appeaser and howled into retirement,’ he paid a heavy political price for firing MacArthur. On the other hand, by reining in the runaway general, he ‘had sustained the hope that humanity might survive the nuclear age’. End of story. The judgment strikes me as way too comforting. The sacking of MacArthur – if anything, overdue – deflected a direct assault on the principle of civilian control. But rather than establishing norms to which civilian and military leaders would subsequently adhere, it encouraged unprincipled behaviour on all sides, as subsequent events soon demonstrated.

In 1953, Americans did install a general in the White House: Eisenhower. Ike succeeded in ending the Korean War, but he struggled throughout his two terms to impose his will on the armed services. His famous warning about the menace posed by the military-industrial complex was tantamount to an admission of failure. Things did not improve under his successors. The Vietnam War was a study in civil-military dysfunction, chronicled in an important book called Dereliction of Duty (1997) by a young army officer named H.R. McMaster.

The story McMaster tells is one of mistrust, calculated dishonesty and mutual manipulation ending in a mindless debacle. Since then the civil-military balance in Washington has shifted according to which party is in power and the political savvy or lack thereof displayed by senior officers. Given the right circumstances, a particular general may wield clout approaching MacArthur’s before he self-destructed. This was the case with Colin Powell in the wake of Operation Desert Storm, and with David Petraeus when the Iraq Surge of 2007-08 seemed, briefly, to represent a historic triumph. At other times, imperious civilians keep generals on a short leash, preferring compliance to professional advice. This was the case on both occasions when Donald Rumsfeld ruled the Pentagon.

Ever since the Truman-MacArthur controversy of 1950-51, Americans have clung to the belief that safety and security require the US to maintain a position of global military pre-eminence. While the Cold War lasted, US policymakers preferred to hold American military power in abeyance. Since the end of the Cold War, and especially since 9/11, they have put America’s armed might to work. The result is a nation that today finds itself more or less permanently at war. At no time during the 60-plus years since MacArthur’s downfall have existing civil-military arrangements worked as advertised. That is to say, never has the interaction of military and civilian leaders, conducted in an atmosphere of honesty and mutual respect, privileging the national interest rather than personal ambition and institutional agendas, yielded consistently enlightened policies. This remains one of the dirty little secrets the American elite is reluctant to own up to. In that respect, the clash between Truman and MacArthur represents not the resolution of a problem but a harbinger of problems to come.

Today that problem has undergone a new twist. Trump has by and large handed the national security apparatus over to the generals. Now wearing three stars but still an active-duty army officer, McMaster occupies the post of national security adviser. Career military officers, active and retired, fill numerous positions on the National Security Council staff. The defence secretary is a former four-star general. So, too, is the secretary of homeland security. Truman, I imagine, wouldn’t have approved; it’s possible MacArthur would feel vindicated. The rest of us watch with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation.

This article also appears in the London Review of Books

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