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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
The President’s inept handling of the Korean War was the severest handicap of all. In June 1950 Truman had intervened to repel the North Korean invasion of South Korea, an essentially defensive objective. When North Korean armies began fleeing back beyond the thirty-eighth parallel, however, Truman made a momentous and disastrous decision. He directed General MacArthur to cross the parallel and liberate North Korea from communist control too. Thus it was Truman, not MacArthur, who had first defined victory in Korea as the extirpation of communism from the entire Korean peninsula. When four hundred thousand Chinese entered the fray, however, the administration changed its mind again. Without informing the electorate, Truman decided that liberating North Korea —victory—was a prize not worth the terrible risks involved. He was now content to confine the fighting to Korea until exhausted Chinese armies eventually decided to call it a day at the thirty-eighth parallel. The administration, in short, was fighting to restore Korea to the situation it had been in on the eve of the North Korean invasion—at the cost of sixty thousand American casualties by mid-April and with no truce in sight.
President Truman’s war plan, said Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, “shocks our national sense of decency.”
Such was the policy the administration now had to defend in the court of inflamed public opinion against the clarity and emotional force of MacArthur’s crisp plan for “victory. ” In two major radio addresses, the President’s first attempts to make a case for his policy proved ineffective. His two chief arguments simply lacked conviction. First, the bombing of Chinese supply lines would, he said, lead to a general war in Asia and possibly to World War III. Here a large majority of Americans simply preferred MacArthur’s military judgment to the President’s. Moreover, in citing the risks involved, Truman was compelled to argue that Korea was not all that important compared with the defense of Europe. The President, in effect, was belittling his own war, which did nothing to strengthen popular confidence in his judgment.
Truman’s second argument was even less convincing. The stalemated war, he insisted, was already a resounding success. It had stopped in its tracks, said the President, the Kremlin’s “carefully prepared plot for conquering all of Asia.” It had “slowed down the timetable of conquest, ” he assured the country, invoking memories of Hitler’s step-by-step conquest of Europe. Since the Kremlin “timetable” was entirely suppositious, the President could offer no evidence whatever of its alleged slowdown.
Republicans had no trouble tearing the President’s speeches to shreds. They simply turned Truman’s own Cold War propaganda against him. Time and again the administration had argued that “punishing aggression” in Korea was preventing World War III —more echoes of the Hitler years. If so, Republicans now argued, then why was the President unwilling to punish the Chinese aggressors. It was the President’s “half-war” against Red China, not MacArthur’s plan for victory, that was inviting World War IH. As for the President’s apparent willingness to settle for a truce at the thirty-eighth parallel, it would be a “sellout,” a “super-Munich.”
Most of all, Republicans struck at the very notion of fighting a “limited war.” It was, wrote Time , “an idea unique in world history, that it is wrong and dangerous to fight the enemy in any place not of the enemy’s choosing.” It meant sacrificing American lives on “an altar of futility.” It meant giving the enemy “privileged sanctuaries” outside Korea from which to kill American boys more effectively. It “shocks our national sense of decency,” said Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, himself no friend of MacArthur’s. “Psychologically, no one will stand for it,” said Senator Taft, sadly abandoning his lifelong opposition to excessive overseas commitments.
Keenly aware of his fading powers of persuasion, Truman countered with dubious blows of his own. He “leaked” to The New York Times the secret White House notes of his October 15, 1950, meeting with MacArthur at Wake Island, a meeting in which, said the notes, MacArthur had confidently assured the President that there was “very little” chance of Chinese intervention in Korea. Stung for the first time, MacArthur retorted from the Waldorf that the administration, too, had misread Chinese intentions, although it had far greater intelligence resources than a mere theater commander possessed. This was quite true. Blaming MacArthur for disastrously misleading the President was grossly unfair, but “politics isn’t beanbag,” as Mr. Dooley had long before observed. A few days after the “leak,” MacArthur once again demonstrated his extraordinary hold on his countrymen. A flying trip to the Midwest on April 26 brought in the latest returns from the grass roots: three million acclaimed him in Chicago, one million in Milwaukee. The general had not “faded away,” but five different versions of “Old Soldiers Never Die” were now blaring from America’s jukeboxes.