- 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 stage was now set for the second half of the Republican campaign to exalt the general over the President. This was the forthcoming congressional investigation of the administration’s Far Eastern policies, with the general as star witness for the Republican prosecution. Nobody knew at the time that the hearings would mark the beginning of the end for MacArthur. The confident Republicans demanded public, televised hearings, the largest possible audience for their hero and their weapon. Equally convinced of the President’s weakness and none too sure of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Democrats fought desperately to keep the hearings secret, piously citing the need to prevent high matters of state from reaching enemy ears. It took several days of bitter parliamentary strife before the ground rules of the hearings were finally laid down. They were to be conducted jointly by the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees —fourteen Democrats and twelve Republicans in all. Press, public, and even the House of Representatives were to be strictly excluded, but censored transcripts of the testimony would be released every hour to an avid public. In the very midst of war the military policies of the United States were to be subjected to intense and critical scrutiny as the struggle between President and general moved into the arena of a Senate caucus room. It was, as The New York Times put it, a “debate unprecedented in American and probably world history.”
On the morning of May 3 the huge wooden doors of the caucus room banged shut on a horde of newsmen as General of the Army Douglas MacArthur took his seat as the hearing’s first witness. Every major newspaper in the country planned to print his entire testimony. In the witness chair, Time noted, the general’s “self-confidence was monumental.” He carried no notes, consulted no aides, and answered every question without the slightest hesitation. While Democratic senators fumbled with their queries, he calmly puffed on a briar pipe.
Once again MacArthur insisted that the Joint Chiefs had agreed with his plan. Their views and his were “practically identical.” He even cited an official document that seemed to prove it: a January 12 memorandum from the Chiefs “tentatively” agreeing to some of the measures against China that the general was advocating. To MacArthur the document was conclusive. On January 12, 1951, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had not been persuaded by the “sophistry of reasoning” now being woven by the “politicians,” MacArthur’s contemptuous—and revealing—term for the civil government of the United States.
As propaganda in a war of headlines, MacArthur’s three days of testimony proved powerful indeed. Nonetheless it revealed much that would soon prove detrimental to the general and his cause. Americans acclaimed him as a great military strategist, yet as a witness he sounded like a man so obsessed with striking back at China that he seemed deliberately blind to the risks. Americans saw him as an honest soldier, yet he often sounded like a demagogue. In the Senate caucus room it was already becoming clear, like a photograph slowly developing, that MacArthur was no martyred hero but an extraordinarily ambitious and self-willed general. Whether the bulk of the electorate would come to see this was anybody’s guess.