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Truman Vs. MacArthur
When the President fired the general, civilian control of the military faced its severest test in our history
April/May 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 3
President Truman did not appear in the newsroom. His press secretary merely handed out copies of three terse presidential statements. At 1:03 A.M. the great wire-service networks were carrying the news to the ends of the earth. The President had not adopted the victory plans of America’s greatest living general. Instead he had relieved him of all his commands, “effective at once. ” The President had acted because “General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is unable to give his wholehearted support to the policies of the United States and the United Nations.”
With that announcement President Truman precipitated perhaps the most convulsive popular outburst in American history and the severest test which civilian control of the military has ever had to face in this republic. On April 11 there was little reason to believe that the faltering President would triumph over his vaunting general in the clash that must ensue.
Even before the news broke, the American people were upset. “A vast impatience, a turbulent bitterness, a rancor akin to revolt” coursed through the body politic, a contemporary historian observed. Dislike of communism, once a matter of course in America, had boiled into a national frenzy, devouring common prudence, common sense, and common decency. It was a time when school textbooks urged children to report suspicious neighbors to the FBI “in line with American tradition,” a time when an entire city flew into a rage on learning that the geography lesson printed on children’s candy wrappers dared to describe Russia as the “largest country in the world. ” Americans saw conpiracy in every untoward event: abroad, “Kremlin plots to conquer the world”; at home, communist plots to “take over the government. ” In April 1951 a substantial part of the citizenry believed that the secretary of state, Dean Acheson, was a “dupe” of the Kremlin, that the secretary of defense, George C. Marshall, a five-star general, was a “front man” for traitors in government. And now it seemed that a great general, World War II’s most glamorous hero, had been mercilessly broken for daring to call for victory in Korea.
On the morning of April 11 only Western Union’s rules of propriety kept Congress from being deluged with furious obscenity. “Impeach the B who calls himself President,” read one telegram typical of those pouring into Washington at an unprecedented rate—125,000 within fortyeight hours. “Impeach the little ward politician stupidity from Kansas City,” read another, voicing the contempt millions now felt for the “plucky Harry” of just a few years before. The letters and telegrams, the White House admitted, were running 20 to 1 against the President. So were the telephone calls that jangled in every newsroom and radio studio. In countless towns the President was hanged in effigy. Across the country flags flew at half-mast or upside down. Angry signs blossomed on houses: “To hell with the Reds and Harry Truman.”
Wherever politicians met that day, the anger in the streets was echoed and amplified. In Los Angeles the city council adjourned for the day “in sorrowful contemplation of the political assassination of General MacArthur.” In Michigan the state legislature solemnly noted that “at 1:00 A.M. of this day, World Communism achieved its greatest victory of a decade in the dismissal of General MacArthur.” On the Senate floor in Washington, Republicans took turns denouncing the President: “I charge that this country today is in the hands of a secret inner coterie which is directed by agents of the Soviet Union. We must cut this whole cancerous conspiracy out of our Government at once,” said William Jenner of Indiana. Truman had given “the Communists and their stooges … what they always wanted—MacArthur’s scalp.” So spoke the country’s fastest-rising politician, Richard Nixon. Only four senators—two Democrats and two Republicans—dared defend the President.