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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
While Bradley was still offering his testimony, the Times canvassed newspapers around the country to determine the hearings’ effect on popular opinion. Virtually every newspaper reported the same general result. Their readers were “baffled.” With some consternation the Times reported on May 20 that “the powerful argumentation by the two sides in the dispute appears to have confused the issues instead of clarifying them.” A Gallup poll taken a few days later confirmed the Times ’s informal soundings. A mere 19 percent of the electorate explicitly supported the President’s position. Thirty percent still supported the general’s. Half the people polled professed themselves utterly undecided. That indecision was entirely reasonable. The President called for a war of attrition leading merely to the status quo ante . MacArthur called for a victory that could conceivably embroil the world. There was precious little to choose between the two. The two sets of arguments canceled each other out.
What the “powerful argumentation by the two sides” had really proved was that Korea was an even worse situation than most Americans had hitherto suspected. Both sides, in effect, had belittled the war. MacArthur insisted that it was “slaughter” unless crowned with “victory. ” The administration insisted it was too unimportant to risk a try for victory. Then why on earth were we in Korea at all? Beneath the indecision and bafflement, the great majority of Americans were coming to a conclusion more prudent than MacArthur’s and more honest than the administration’s. There simply was not enough merit in the Korean War to justify anything but an end to hostilities. For bringing America into the fighting, Americans were not about to forgive President Truman. The tide was turning, nonetheless, against “victory,” against “liberation,” against any concern whatever for the future form of government in communist North Korea— in a word, against MacArthur. Republicans began calling the hearings an administration “filibuster.” On Memorial Day, Truman took his first holiday in months. Yet, despite the signs of returning reason, the President seemed hesitant and timid. As James Reston of the Times observed on June 3, limited war meant a negotiated settlement, but the administration was doing nothing to encourage negotiations. It continued to denounce Red China. It continued to speak vaguely about the ultimate “unification” of Korea. Despite the millions of words expended in defense of its limited war, the President still seemed to fear the general.
It was left to MacArthur himself to deliver the final blow to his cause. Never far from egomania, the general had by now convinced himself that opposition to his “victory” plan could not possibly be due to an honest difference of opinion. It was due, he believed, to corruption so deep and so sinister it was imperiling the nation itself. There is a hint of madness in such a conclusion, but MacArthur had nobody to gainsay him. The flunkies surrounding the general believed whatever he said. “He realized,” explained Gen. Courtney Whitney, MacArthur’s factotum and spokesman, “that the dry rot that infected U.S.-Korea policy was eating away at our conduct of affairs at home. … He felt the compelling need to warn of the dangers he saw menacing the land and the people he loves. ” He would not let his countrymen down—"not to warn them was to betray them.” In this dark, messianic mood MacArthur decided to launch himself on a nationwide speaking tour. He called it his “crusade” for “the spiritual recrudescence” of America.