- 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
At the White House the President took cold comfort from his professed belief that Americans were not hailing an insubordinate general nor embracing his “victory” policy but merely giving a belated welcome to the last World War II hero to return to America. Like the “joint meeting” of Congress, now just hours away, it was a distinction aooarent to few.
After MacArthur finished talking, Rep. Dewey Short of Missouri cried, “We have heard God speak today.”
At 12:31 P.M. on April 19 a record thirty million people tuned in their radios to hear General MacArthur address Congress, his countrymen, and the world. This was the moment every supporter of the President had dreaded. Truman’s case for a limited war of attrition had not yet been effectively made. Half the country was not even aware that attrition was the chosen policy of the government. Even well-informed supporters of the President were not sure what the policy meant or why it was necessary. Now General MacArthur, backed by an adoring nation and armed with high gifts of intellect and eloquence, was about to speak against it.
“I address you with neither rancor nor bitterness in the fading twilight of life,” the general began in his vibrant, well-modulated voice after the wild initial ovation had subsided. MacArthur devoted the first half of his speech to a lofty and lucid disquisition on the politics and destiny of the Orient. His object, he said, was to dispel the prevailing “unreality” of American thinking on the subject. His authority established, MacArthur proceeded to praise the administration for intervening in Korea—the only time that Democrats in the audience had a chance to applaud—and for attempting to drive the communists out of North Korea. That objective had lain in his grasp when the Chinese communists intervened in the struggle. “This created a new war and an entirely new situation.” Yet the administration was not fighting that new war to win. It was not attempting to “defeat this new enemy as we had defeated the old. ” By confining the war against Chinese aggression to Korea, it was condemning the country to “prolonged indecision.”
Yet the means to achieve victory were swift and sure. Three quite moderate military measures would drive the Chinese from the Korean peninsula: bombing China’s “sanctuaries” in Manchuria; blockading the Chinese coast; unleashing Chiang Kai-shek’s army, holed up in Formosa, for diversionary raids on the Chinese mainland. Such was MacArthur’s plan “to bring hostilities to a close with the least possible delay.” What was there to be said against it? “In war, indeed, there is no substitute for victory,” said MacArthur, providing his supporters with their most potent slogan. “‘Why,’ my soldiers asked of me, ‘surrender military advantages to an enemy in the field?'” MacArthur’s voice fell to a whisper: “I could not answer.” Why fight Red China without attempting to drive her from Korea? This was a policy of “appeasement,” said the general, hurling the deadliest epithet of the day at the Truman administration. Moreover, said MacArthur, his plan to carry the war to the Chinese mainland had been supported by “our own Joint Chiefs of Staff.” With that assertion Republicans in the House gave the speaker a thunderous standing ovation, for, in fact, it was the most devastating remark in MacArthur’s entire speech. In the prevailing atmosphere of derangement and conspiracy it implied that victory in Korea had been snatched from America’s grasp not by the military judgment of the Pentagon but by a mere, meddlesome civilian, the President of the United States. MacArthur’s assertion also posed a challenge to the Joint Chiefs themselves: he was daring them to side with the President when, as he fully believed, their purely military judgment agreed with his own.
For close observers that was the real news of the hour, the story that made the headlines. What stirred the rest of the country, however, was MacArthur’s lush, emotional peroration. He recalled the old barracks ballad that “proclaimed, most proudly, that ‘Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.’ And like the soldier of the ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away—an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.” And then in a hushed voice: “Good-bye.”