- Historic Sites
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
MacArthur toured the country insisting that he had no presidential ambitions. Nobody believed him.
It began on June 13 with a five-city tour of Texas. The tour, like the larger crusade, revealed few of the general’s virtues and all his flaws: his vanity, his vindictiveness, his utter want of humility. He lashed out savagely against the Truman administration, condemning its “moral weakness,” its disgraceful willingness to “cower before the Kremlin,” its betrayal of the “Alamo spirit.” He spoke darkly of the efforts being made through “propaganda to sow the seeds of fear and timidity” in America. He could be referring to nothing else but the testimony of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He warned of “insidious forces working from within” to destroy traditional “moral precepts” and to turn the government itself into “an instrument of despotism. ” These same sinister forces, he hinted, had engineered his dismissal and were even using the taxing power to destroy the American soul. They “seek to make the burden of taxation so great and its progressive increases so alarming that the spirit of adventure, tireless energy and masterful initiative… shall become stultified and inert.”
The general insisted that he harbored no presidential ambitions. Nobody believed him. He had harbored such ambitions in 1948 and he sounded like a presidential aspirant now. The electorate judged him accordingly, which is to say, with the skepticism they habitually reserve for office seekers. By wearing his uniform on the tour, MacArthur hoped to remain what he had always seemed to his countrymen—a soldier devoted to duty and country. The bemedaled uniform merely made his political ambition seem vaguely improper. By linking “victory” in Korea to the “spiritual recrudescence” of the American republic, he hoped to strengthen his cause. It merely made the electorate that much more skeptical of “victory.” Overseas wars had never seemed to most Americans the true glory of their republic. Between the general and the American people lay a political chasm, and it was MacArthur’s crusade, more than anything else, that revealed it to the people.
The defeat took its toll on the general. In public his superb self-possession slowly began draining away. In speeches his beautifully modulated voice often became strident and squeaky. The polished performer developed odd mannerisms, such as jumping up and down as he spoke. His keynote address to the 1952 Republican Convention was so dull and ill-delivered that halfway through it the delegates’ private chatter virtually drowned him out. Fourteen months after holding the entire nation in his thrall, General MacArthur could not even hold the attention of a Republican audience. In a mood of deep selfdisgust MacArthur flew home that day to the Waldorf and out of the public life of the country.
It was the general, nonetheless, who supplied the final grace note to the great crisis of 1951. It was to come eleven years later before the corps of cadets at West Point. The general was eighty-two years old by then and he had come to his beloved military academy to deliver a last farewell. In the course of an eloquent and emotional speech, he had a word of stern advice for the future officers arrayed before him. In the high political affairs of the country, they were duty-bound not to meddle. “These great national problems,” said the frail old man, “are not for your professional or military solution.” An errant son of the republic had at last returned to the fold.