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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
For most Republican leaders in Congress the popular hysteria was manna in the political desert. Their best men—Ohio’s Robert Taft most conspicuously—had felt doomed to perpetual impotence, spurned by an electorate that still revered the memory, and supported the policies, of the late Franklin Roosevelt. Now they saw their chance. They were determined to discredit the Democratic party and its stumbling President. At a hasty meeting on the morning of MacArthur’s dismissal, Republican congressional leaders came to a decision. They intended to use every political resource at their disposal to channel popular anger over MacArthur’s recall into a mass revolt against “limited war,” against President Truman and the ghost of the Roosevelt New Deal.
The Republicans seized their chance to strike against President Truman and the ghost of the New Deal.
It was a reckless decision: exalting MacArthur over the President, as Harold Ickes, the old Bull Moose Republican, was to warn a few days later, would set a “precedent” that would “develop into a monstrosity” —an uncontrollable military.
Such, in truth, were the stakes now at hazard. In the four months preceding his dismissal, General MacArthur had transgressed the fundamental rule of civilian supremacy, a rule given its classic formulation in Lincoln’s stern instructions to Grant: “You are not to decide, discuss or confer with anyone or ask political questions; such questions the President holds in his own hands, and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. ” What MacArthur had done was to carry out a public political campaign designed to discredit the President’s policies and compel the White House to follow his own. For that the President had ordered his recall. If that recall were to end by destroying the President, if MacArthur, backed by a wave of popular support, were to force his policies on the civil authority, then for all practical purposes civilian supremacy over the military would become a dead letter. Given such a precedent, what future President would dare dismiss a popular general in wartime for publicly challenging his authority?
When the Republican meeting broke up at 10:00 A.M. , the press was informed of the plan to exalt the general over the President. Republicans intended to demand a full-dress investigation of the President’s war policies. That was remarkable enough considering that it was wartime. The second element in their plan, however, was more than remarkable. It had no precedent in our history. Republicans intended (if Democratic votes were forthcoming) to invite General MacArthur to address a joint session of Congress, the most august assembly the United States can provide. In the well of the House of Representatives, where only a handful of foreign statesmen and homecoming heroes had ever been allowed to speak, a rebellious, contumacious general was to be given his chance to defend his cause against the President of the United States.
What would MacArthur do? In Germany, General Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, expressed the sentiments of a good many Americans. He hoped the seventy-one-year-old general, his onetime superior, would drift quietly into retirement. “I would not like to see acrimony,” Eisenhower remarked somewhat wistfully to a reporter. In fact, there was no chance that MacArthur would not carry his fight to the country.
By any standard General MacArthur was an awesome and prodigious figure. He possessed an uncommonly powerful intellect, one sharpened by vast erudition, intense meditation, and an extraordinary facility with words. He was utterly fearless, unshakably self-possessed, and relentlessly willful. At the White House the President had shrunk from confronting him for months. Moreover, MacArthur’s strengths were magnified by the aura surrounding him. He was dramatic, compelling, aloof, and imperious, qualities he himself had cultivated with all the theatrical arts at his command. What was to govern his conduct in the ensuing months, however, were not his great gifts but a bitter flaw in his character—a blind, all-consuming vanity.