- 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
The general was vain in small ways; the famous MacArthur sunglasses, for example, disguised the prosaic fact of myopia. He was vain in his choice of associates; his entourage consisted of toadies and idolators. Vanity even colored his conceptions of grand strategy; the center of the world for MacArthur was always the military theater under his command. During World War II his military colleagues used to say the general had a bad case of “localitis.” Vanity sometimes drove him to the borders of paranoia: a lifetime of triumphs could not efface his belief that homefront “cabals” were plotting his ruin, that “insidious forces” were stabbing him in the back. His worst enemies, MacArthur often said, had “always been behind me.” Vanity led him, too, to that most perilous of convictions—an absolute faith in his own infallibility. Therein lay the crux of the matter, for that faith had been brutally assaulted five months earlier when MacArthur’s armies, poised for victory near the YaIu River, had fallen into a colossal Chinese trap. On November 24,1950, America’s greatest military strategist had presided over one of the worst defeats in the history of American arms. From that day forward General MacArthur was a man thirsting for vindication and vengeance. To drive the Chinese out of North Korea had become a fixed and obsessive goal. To break the administration that stood in his way had now become, of necessity, his political object. “He did not want facts or logic,” as a longtime admirer, Carlos Romulo of the Philippines, was to put it after an interview with the general. “He wanted salve for his wounded pride.” That was a dangerous motive, indeed, for a general who had become, overnight, the second most powerful man in America.
In the last years of the Roman Republic, people had watched with mounting tension as Pompey the Great made his triumphal return home from the East. So it was in America in mid-April of 1951 as MacArthur prepared to depart from Tokyo on his personal plane, the Bataan .
On April 13 Americans learned that the general, hastening his return, intended to reach America within a few days, destroying the hopes of the President’s supporters that the popular fury would abate before MacArthur set foot on native soil. That day, too, Democratic leaders, under popular pressure, gave up their struggle to prevent Congress from inviting MacArthur to address a joint session. One slightly comical concession was all they would wrest from the onrushing Republican minority: officially the general would be addressing not a “joint session” but a “joint meeting.”
On the evening of April 17 General MacArthur’s plane touched down at San Francisco’s airport, ending the general’s fourteen-year absence from his country. At the airport ten thousand people, desperate for a glimpse of their hero, surged past police barricades, mobbing the general and his entourage. It was “an indescribable scene of pandemonium,” one of MacArthur’s aides recalled. Tens of thousands of automobiles jammed the roads for miles around, creating the worst traffic snarl in San Francisco’s history. A half-million people lined the route from the airport to MacArthur’s hotel, where a powerful police cordon alone kept the general from being trampled by his admirers. Twenty-eight hours later, at Washington’s National Airport, pandemonium broke loose again with surging mobs, tumultuous cheers, and a battered police cordon trying to clear a space around the general, who remained, as always, calm and unruffled, the eye of the hurricane he had created.