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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
Truman’s only hope now lay in the Joint Chiefs of Staff doing what MacArthur was sure they never would.
Everything depended on the next series of Senate witnesses, namely the President’s principal military advisers: Gen. George C. Marshall, secretary of defense; Gen. Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and the three service chiefs composing that body. This was the supreme irony of the political crisis. In the spring of 1951 the fate of civilian control of the military was absolutely dependent on the military’s unswerving fidelity to that principle. It was not merely a matter of swearing fealty to the rule at the hearings. It was not even enough to endorse in a general way the President’s policy of limited war. MacArthur’s challenge to the President was too powerful for half-measures. The military chiefs would have to do what MacArthur was certain they would never do, what he believed them too “professional” to do. They would have to appear in the caucus room, before hostile senators, and concede absolutely nothing to General MacArthur. If they harbored doubts about limited war, they would have to keep such sentiments to themselves. If they saw merit in any of MacArthur’s arguments, they would have to refuse, nonetheless, to acknowledge it. To the intense relief of the President’s supporters, that is exactly what they proceeded to do.
Truman’s five military spokesmen spent nineteen days in the witness chair, nineteen days in which MacArthur’s conduct, MacArthur’s victory plan, and even MacArthur’s military reputation were ceaselessly battered. Was MacArthur’s dismissal warranted? It was more than warranted; it was absolutely necessary. “General MacArthur’s actions were continuing to jeopardize civilian control over military affairs.” His public campaign to discredit the President’s policies “was against all custom and tradition for a military man. ” What was wrong with MacArthur’s victory plan? It would not bring victory “but a larger deadlock at greater expense.” Would bombing Chinese “sanctuaries” help decisively in Korea? No, but it would leave America’s home air defenses “naked.” What of the Joint Chiefs’ now-celebrated January 12 memorandum? The military chiefs brushed it aside. It was contingent on imminent defeat in Korea, and that contingency had long since passed. Never for a single moment had the Joint Chiefs of Staff subscribed to MacArthur’s plan for victory. What about “the deification of this infallible leader,” asked Sen. William Fulbright. Had he not blundered at the YaIu when he walked into a Chinese trap? Apparently he had— a stunning accusation. As James Reston of The New York Times observed: “MacArthur started as the prosecutor and is now the defendant.”
It was General Bradley, a genuine World War II hero and a man untainted by political controversy, who delivered the heaviest blows and the only quotable remark the administration managed to coin. MacArthur’s plan, said Bradley, would involve the United States in “the wrong war at the wrong time with the wrong enemy.” That was on May 15, Bradley’s first day of testimony, with more of the same to come. Republican senators were stunned. Blindly trusting MacArthur, they simply had not expected the Pentagon to line up behind Truman’s policies with such uncompromising zeal. Still less had they expected the Joint Chiefs to belittle their great colleague’s military reputation or to accuse him, as General Marshall did, of undermining the morale of American combat troops by his condemnation of the war they were fighting. Republican leaders had underestimated not only the military’s fidelity to “custom and tradition” but also the intense personal dislike that the imperious MacArthur had inspired in his World War II colleagues.
The testimony of the military chiefs was by no means unimpeachable. It was often glib and evasive. It was certainly no model of candor. Yet it was quite obvious to contemporaries that Republican committee members did little to discredit their testimony. Exalting MacArthur had been reckless enough. Blackening the Joint Chiefs of Staff in wartime was more than most Republicans had the heart to attempt. Already there were mutterings from the party professionals —national committeemen meeting in Tulsa—that the MacArthur affair might “boomerang” and leave Republicans looking like the “war party” for the 1952 elections. When General Bradley completed his testimony, Republicans lamely proposed that no more generals be called. The Democratic majority was not about to oblige them. Following Bradley the three service chiefs—Army, Navy, and Air Force—duly took the witness chair to hammer away in turn at MacArthur and his plan.