- 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
Generals in the audience openly wept. Legislators hurled themselves at the departing general, virtually prostrating themselves at his feet. “It’s disloyal not to agree with General MacArthur!” one senator shouted from the floor. “We have heard God speak today. God in the flesh, the voice of God,” shouted Rep. Dewey Short of Missouri, who had been educated at Harvard, Oxford, and Heidelberg. The normally levelheaded former President Herbert Hoover hailed MacArthur as the “reincarnation of St. Paul.” Fury over his dismissal boiled up anew and newspaper offices again were besieged with vehement calls condemning the “traitorous” State Department and the “bankrupt haberdasher” who was “appeasing Red China. ” It boiled up, too, on the floor of the House. As one senator confided to a reporter later that day: “I have never feared more for the institutions of the country. I honestly felt that if the speech had gone on much longer there might have been a march on the White House.”
MacArthur’s powerful speech, a magniloquent contrast to the President’s pawky little lectures, “visibly and profoundly shook” the President’s supporters in Congress, as The New fork Times reported. The President’s cabinet, after watching MacArthur on a White House television set, sank into gloom, convinced that the general, in a single blow, had put a finish to the Truman administration. The welcoming parade for the general in New York City confirmed their worst fears.
Late that afternoon, while the general was passing up howling Fifth Avenue, a popular demonstration of a different sort took place at a baseball park in the nation’s capital. As the President and his entourage were about to leave Griffith Stadium—Truman had thrown out the traditional first ball of the year—he was met with a storm of boos. Republicans were now saying the choice before the country was “Truman or MacArthur”; on April 20, Americans seemed already to have made it.
In his struggle with MacArthur, the President faced severe handicaps, most of them self-inflicted. The political derangement of the country was to a large extent his own doing. Determined to arouse the nation to the menace of Soviet expansion, yet convinced that he governed an obstinately “isolationist” people, Truman had never scrupled to exaggerate every danger, to sound alarms, to decry in any communist move he opposed another step in the “Kremlin plot for world conquest.” Moreover, he had constantly used the great World War II generals—MacArthur included—to defend his policies and shield him from criticism. The results were inevitable. Because Truman had glorified the wisdom of the generals, he had weakened the civilian authority he was now forced to defend. Because he justified even prudent deeds with inflammatory words, it had become difficult to justify prudent deeds with prudent arguments—the sort of argument he was now forced to make.