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Truman Vs. MacArthur

July 2024
27min read

When the President fired the general, civilian control of the military faced its severest test in our history

AT 1:00 A.M. ON THE morning of April 11, 1951, a tense band of Washington reporters filed into the White House newsroom for an emergency press conference. Hastily summoned by the White House switchboard, they had no idea of what was to come. The Truman administration, detested by millions, had grown hesitant, timid, and unpredictable. The Korean War, so boldly begun ten months before, had degenerated into a “limited war” with no discernible limit, a bloody stalemate. Some reporters, guessing, thought they were going to hear about a declaration of war, that the administration was ready to carry the fighting into China and bring it to a swift and victorious end. That was what Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of U.S. and United Nations forces in the Far East, had passionately been urging for months, ever since Chinese communist troops had sent his armies reeling in retreat from the YaIu River.

President Truman did not appear in the newsroom. His press secretary merely handed out copies of three terse presidential statements. At 1:03 A.M. the great wire-service networks were carrying the news to the ends of the earth. The President had not adopted the victory plans of America’s greatest living general. Instead he had relieved him of all his commands, “effective at once. ” The President had acted because “General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is unable to give his wholehearted support to the policies of the United States and the United Nations.”

With that announcement President Truman precipitated perhaps the most convulsive popular outburst in American history and the severest test which civilian control of the military has ever had to face in this republic. On April 11 there was little reason to believe that the faltering President would triumph over his vaunting general in the clash that must ensue.

Even before the news broke, the American people were upset. “A vast impatience, a turbulent bitterness, a rancor akin to revolt” coursed through the body politic, a contemporary historian observed. Dislike of communism, once a matter of course in America, had boiled into a national frenzy, devouring common prudence, common sense, and common decency. It was a time when school textbooks urged children to report suspicious neighbors to the FBI “in line with American tradition,” a time when an entire city flew into a rage on learning that the geography lesson printed on children’s candy wrappers dared to describe Russia as the “largest country in the world. ” Americans saw conpiracy in every untoward event: abroad, “Kremlin plots to conquer the world”; at home, communist plots to “take over the government. ” In April 1951 a substantial part of the citizenry believed that the secretary of state, Dean Acheson, was a “dupe” of the Kremlin, that the secretary of defense, George C. Marshall, a five-star general, was a “front man” for traitors in government. And now it seemed that a great general, World War II’s most glamorous hero, had been mercilessly broken for daring to call for victory in Korea.


On the morning of April 11 only Western Union’s rules of propriety kept Congress from being deluged with furious obscenity. “Impeach the B who calls himself President,” read one telegram typical of those pouring into Washington at an unprecedented rate—125,000 within fortyeight hours. “Impeach the little ward politician stupidity from Kansas City,” read another, voicing the contempt millions now felt for the “plucky Harry” of just a few years before. The letters and telegrams, the White House admitted, were running 20 to 1 against the President. So were the telephone calls that jangled in every newsroom and radio studio. In countless towns the President was hanged in effigy. Across the country flags flew at half-mast or upside down. Angry signs blossomed on houses: “To hell with the Reds and Harry Truman.”

Wherever politicians met that day, the anger in the streets was echoed and amplified. In Los Angeles the city council adjourned for the day “in sorrowful contemplation of the political assassination of General MacArthur.” In Michigan the state legislature solemnly noted that “at 1:00 A.M. of this day, World Communism achieved its greatest victory of a decade in the dismissal of General MacArthur.” On the Senate floor in Washington, Republicans took turns denouncing the President: “I charge that this country today is in the hands of a secret inner coterie which is directed by agents of the Soviet Union. We must cut this whole cancerous conspiracy out of our Government at once,” said William Jenner of Indiana. Truman had given “the Communists and their stooges … what they always wanted—MacArthur’s scalp.” So spoke the country’s fastest-rising politician, Richard Nixon. Only four senators—two Democrats and two Republicans—dared defend the President.

For most Republican leaders in Congress the popular hysteria was manna in the political desert. Their best men—Ohio’s Robert Taft most conspicuously—had felt doomed to perpetual impotence, spurned by an electorate that still revered the memory, and supported the policies, of the late Franklin Roosevelt. Now they saw their chance. They were determined to discredit the Democratic party and its stumbling President. At a hasty meeting on the morning of MacArthur’s dismissal, Republican congressional leaders came to a decision. They intended to use every political resource at their disposal to channel popular anger over MacArthur’s recall into a mass revolt against “limited war,” against President Truman and the ghost of the Roosevelt New Deal.

The Republicans seized their chance to strike against President Truman and the ghost of the New Deal.

It was a reckless decision: exalting MacArthur over the President, as Harold Ickes, the old Bull Moose Republican, was to warn a few days later, would set a “precedent” that would “develop into a monstrosity” —an uncontrollable military.

Such, in truth, were the stakes now at hazard. In the four months preceding his dismissal, General MacArthur had transgressed the fundamental rule of civilian supremacy, a rule given its classic formulation in Lincoln’s stern instructions to Grant: “You are not to decide, discuss or confer with anyone or ask political questions; such questions the President holds in his own hands, and will submit them to no military conferences or conventions. ” What MacArthur had done was to carry out a public political campaign designed to discredit the President’s policies and compel the White House to follow his own. For that the President had ordered his recall. If that recall were to end by destroying the President, if MacArthur, backed by a wave of popular support, were to force his policies on the civil authority, then for all practical purposes civilian supremacy over the military would become a dead letter. Given such a precedent, what future President would dare dismiss a popular general in wartime for publicly challenging his authority?


When the Republican meeting broke up at 10:00 A.M. , the press was informed of the plan to exalt the general over the President. Republicans intended to demand a full-dress investigation of the President’s war policies. That was remarkable enough considering that it was wartime. The second element in their plan, however, was more than remarkable. It had no precedent in our history. Republicans intended (if Democratic votes were forthcoming) to invite General MacArthur to address a joint session of Congress, the most august assembly the United States can provide. In the well of the House of Representatives, where only a handful of foreign statesmen and homecoming heroes had ever been allowed to speak, a rebellious, contumacious general was to be given his chance to defend his cause against the President of the United States.

What would MacArthur do? In Germany, General Eisenhower, supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, expressed the sentiments of a good many Americans. He hoped the seventy-one-year-old general, his onetime superior, would drift quietly into retirement. “I would not like to see acrimony,” Eisenhower remarked somewhat wistfully to a reporter. In fact, there was no chance that MacArthur would not carry his fight to the country.


By any standard General MacArthur was an awesome and prodigious figure. He possessed an uncommonly powerful intellect, one sharpened by vast erudition, intense meditation, and an extraordinary facility with words. He was utterly fearless, unshakably self-possessed, and relentlessly willful. At the White House the President had shrunk from confronting him for months. Moreover, MacArthur’s strengths were magnified by the aura surrounding him. He was dramatic, compelling, aloof, and imperious, qualities he himself had cultivated with all the theatrical arts at his command. What was to govern his conduct in the ensuing months, however, were not his great gifts but a bitter flaw in his character—a blind, all-consuming vanity.

The general was vain in small ways; the famous MacArthur sunglasses, for example, disguised the prosaic fact of myopia. He was vain in his choice of associates; his entourage consisted of toadies and idolators. Vanity even colored his conceptions of grand strategy; the center of the world for MacArthur was always the military theater under his command. During World War II his military colleagues used to say the general had a bad case of “localitis.” Vanity sometimes drove him to the borders of paranoia: a lifetime of triumphs could not efface his belief that homefront “cabals” were plotting his ruin, that “insidious forces” were stabbing him in the back. His worst enemies, MacArthur often said, had “always been behind me.” Vanity led him, too, to that most perilous of convictions—an absolute faith in his own infallibility. Therein lay the crux of the matter, for that faith had been brutally assaulted five months earlier when MacArthur’s armies, poised for victory near the YaIu River, had fallen into a colossal Chinese trap. On November 24,1950, America’s greatest military strategist had presided over one of the worst defeats in the history of American arms. From that day forward General MacArthur was a man thirsting for vindication and vengeance. To drive the Chinese out of North Korea had become a fixed and obsessive goal. To break the administration that stood in his way had now become, of necessity, his political object. “He did not want facts or logic,” as a longtime admirer, Carlos Romulo of the Philippines, was to put it after an interview with the general. “He wanted salve for his wounded pride.” That was a dangerous motive, indeed, for a general who had become, overnight, the second most powerful man in America.


In the last years of the Roman Republic, people had watched with mounting tension as Pompey the Great made his triumphal return home from the East. So it was in America in mid-April of 1951 as MacArthur prepared to depart from Tokyo on his personal plane, the Bataan .


On April 13 Americans learned that the general, hastening his return, intended to reach America within a few days, destroying the hopes of the President’s supporters that the popular fury would abate before MacArthur set foot on native soil. That day, too, Democratic leaders, under popular pressure, gave up their struggle to prevent Congress from inviting MacArthur to address a joint session. One slightly comical concession was all they would wrest from the onrushing Republican minority: officially the general would be addressing not a “joint session” but a “joint meeting.”

ON SUNDAY, April 15, newspaper headlines told of MacArthur’s “triumphant goodby” from Japan, of the crowds lining the streets, of the Japanese dignitaries on hand for the departure. The triumphal progress had now begun, its ultimate destination the nation’s capital, where, at exactly 12:30 P.M. on the nineteenth, it was now announced, the general would enter the House of Representatives and throw down his gauntlet to the President. Bulletins flashing over the nation’s radios marked the progress of the general’s plane. At 1:00 A.M. Eastern time on Monday, the Bataan passed over Wake Island; first stop, Honolulu. If the general was in official disgrace, there was no sign of it: at the Hawaiian capital MacArthur and his wife and thirteen-year-old son stopped over for twenty-four hours as the guest of Adm. Arthur W. Radford, commander in chief of America’s naval forces in the Pacific. At Honolulu University the general received an honorary degree in civil law, an ironic honor considering that its recipient had by now convinced himself—as he was soon to say—that American generals had the constitutional right to say whatever they pleased in public regardless of the orders of their commander in chief. Far away in New York, the city fathers announced plans to greet the general with the biggest parade in the history of that city of ticker-tape acclamations.


On the evening of April 17 General MacArthur’s plane touched down at San Francisco’s airport, ending the general’s fourteen-year absence from his country. At the airport ten thousand people, desperate for a glimpse of their hero, surged past police barricades, mobbing the general and his entourage. It was “an indescribable scene of pandemonium,” one of MacArthur’s aides recalled. Tens of thousands of automobiles jammed the roads for miles around, creating the worst traffic snarl in San Francisco’s history. A half-million people lined the route from the airport to MacArthur’s hotel, where a powerful police cordon alone kept the general from being trampled by his admirers. Twenty-eight hours later, at Washington’s National Airport, pandemonium broke loose again with surging mobs, tumultuous cheers, and a battered police cordon trying to clear a space around the general, who remained, as always, calm and unruffled, the eye of the hurricane he had created.

At the White House the President took cold comfort from his professed belief that Americans were not hailing an insubordinate general nor embracing his “victory” policy but merely giving a belated welcome to the last World War II hero to return to America. Like the “joint meeting” of Congress, now just hours away, it was a distinction aooarent to few.

After MacArthur finished talking, Rep. Dewey Short of Missouri cried, “We have heard God speak today.”

At 12:31 P.M. on April 19 a record thirty million people tuned in their radios to hear General MacArthur address Congress, his countrymen, and the world. This was the moment every supporter of the President had dreaded. Truman’s case for a limited war of attrition had not yet been effectively made. Half the country was not even aware that attrition was the chosen policy of the government. Even well-informed supporters of the President were not sure what the policy meant or why it was necessary. Now General MacArthur, backed by an adoring nation and armed with high gifts of intellect and eloquence, was about to speak against it.

“I address you with neither rancor nor bitterness in the fading twilight of life,” the general began in his vibrant, well-modulated voice after the wild initial ovation had subsided. MacArthur devoted the first half of his speech to a lofty and lucid disquisition on the politics and destiny of the Orient. His object, he said, was to dispel the prevailing “unreality” of American thinking on the subject. His authority established, MacArthur proceeded to praise the administration for intervening in Korea—the only time that Democrats in the audience had a chance to applaud—and for attempting to drive the communists out of North Korea. That objective had lain in his grasp when the Chinese communists intervened in the struggle. “This created a new war and an entirely new situation.” Yet the administration was not fighting that new war to win. It was not attempting to “defeat this new enemy as we had defeated the old. ” By confining the war against Chinese aggression to Korea, it was condemning the country to “prolonged indecision.”


Yet the means to achieve victory were swift and sure. Three quite moderate military measures would drive the Chinese from the Korean peninsula: bombing China’s “sanctuaries” in Manchuria; blockading the Chinese coast; unleashing Chiang Kai-shek’s army, holed up in Formosa, for diversionary raids on the Chinese mainland. Such was MacArthur’s plan “to bring hostilities to a close with the least possible delay.” What was there to be said against it? “In war, indeed, there is no substitute for victory,” said MacArthur, providing his supporters with their most potent slogan. “‘Why,’ my soldiers asked of me, ‘surrender military advantages to an enemy in the field?'” MacArthur’s voice fell to a whisper: “I could not answer.” Why fight Red China without attempting to drive her from Korea? This was a policy of “appeasement,” said the general, hurling the deadliest epithet of the day at the Truman administration. Moreover, said MacArthur, his plan to carry the war to the Chinese mainland had been supported by “our own Joint Chiefs of Staff.” With that assertion Republicans in the House gave the speaker a thunderous standing ovation, for, in fact, it was the most devastating remark in MacArthur’s entire speech. In the prevailing atmosphere of derangement and conspiracy it implied that victory in Korea had been snatched from America’s grasp not by the military judgment of the Pentagon but by a mere, meddlesome civilian, the President of the United States. MacArthur’s assertion also posed a challenge to the Joint Chiefs themselves: he was daring them to side with the President when, as he fully believed, their purely military judgment agreed with his own.

For close observers that was the real news of the hour, the story that made the headlines. What stirred the rest of the country, however, was MacArthur’s lush, emotional peroration. He recalled the old barracks ballad that “proclaimed, most proudly, that ‘Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.’ And like the soldier of the ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away—an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.” And then in a hushed voice: “Good-bye.”

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.

MACARTHUR FLEW to the city on the evening of the nineteenth, settling into what was to be his home for the remaining thirteen years of his life: a palatial tenroom suite on the thirty-seventh floor of the Waldorf-Astoria. The hotel was to be the parade’s point of departure. The general would be driven in an open car—the same that had carried General Eisenhower six years before —through Central Park, down to the Battery, up through the canyons of Wall Street, and homeward along Fifth Avenue—over nineteen miles in all. The triumphal progress was to begin at 11:00 A.M. , but by dawn hundreds of thousands of people had already begun pouring into the city. By the time the general’s motorcade had reached the financial district, some six million flag-waving enthusiasts were jamming the sidewalks, dwarfing Eisenhower’s postwar parade and Lindbergh’s almost legendary reception. Overhead in the bright, cloudless sky, airplanes spelled out “Welcome Home” in mile-long streamers. Shreds of paper fell in dense blizzards, covering people’s feet to the ankles and darkening television screens for minutes at a time. As the general’s car approached, the crowds craned hungrily forward, then burst into cheers, deafening in their volume, startling in their intensity. Not everyone shouted his acclaim. There were people who watched the general pass by in silence, faces rapt and grim, marking a cross on their breasts. New York, as MacArthur’s bodyguard was to put it, had been turned into “a band of hysterical sheep”—hard-bitten, cynical New York, stronghold of the Democratic party.


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.

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.


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.

AS EXPECTED, he hit the administration hard. What was unexpected were his passionate outbursts. In a voice charged with emotion he accused the government again and again of wantonly squandering American lives. “I shrink- shrink with a horror that I cannot express in words—at this continuous slaughter of men. … Are you going to let that go by any sophistry of reasoning?” Administration arguments he dealt with skillfully. Its contention that a win-the-war policy would cost us our European allies he termed a mere pretext; the United States was already doing most of the fighting in Korea. Its contention that Russia, not China, was America’s main enemy he adroitly denied by using the Truman Doctrine against Truman: the enemy was not Russia but “communism all over the world. ” He belittled the danger of Soviet intervention on Red China’s behalf. It was the administration’s policy of “appeasement” that invited aggression.


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.

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.


THE TESTIMONY of the President’s generals had a curious effect on public opinion. It brought no rush of support for the President—far from it. It did not personally discredit the general. It accomplished something far more significant than either: it put an end to hysteria. It compelled an inflamed citizenry to stop and think for themselves. It is to the credit of the American people that they did so and still more to their credit that they proved so openminded, too much so for some of the President’s warmer partisans— The New York Times , for example.

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.

MacArthur toured the country insisting that he had no presidential ambitions. Nobody believed him.

It began on June 13 with a five-city tour of Texas. The tour, like the larger crusade, revealed few of the general’s virtues and all his flaws: his vanity, his vindictiveness, his utter want of humility. He lashed out savagely against the Truman administration, condemning its “moral weakness,” its disgraceful willingness to “cower before the Kremlin,” its betrayal of the “Alamo spirit.” He spoke darkly of the efforts being made through “propaganda to sow the seeds of fear and timidity” in America. He could be referring to nothing else but the testimony of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He warned of “insidious forces working from within” to destroy traditional “moral precepts” and to turn the government itself into “an instrument of despotism. ” These same sinister forces, he hinted, had engineered his dismissal and were even using the taxing power to destroy the American soul. They “seek to make the burden of taxation so great and its progressive increases so alarming that the spirit of adventure, tireless energy and masterful initiative… shall become stultified and inert.”

The general insisted that he harbored no presidential ambitions. Nobody believed him. He had harbored such ambitions in 1948 and he sounded like a presidential aspirant now. The electorate judged him accordingly, which is to say, with the skepticism they habitually reserve for office seekers. By wearing his uniform on the tour, MacArthur hoped to remain what he had always seemed to his countrymen—a soldier devoted to duty and country. The bemedaled uniform merely made his political ambition seem vaguely improper. By linking “victory” in Korea to the “spiritual recrudescence” of the American republic, he hoped to strengthen his cause. It merely made the electorate that much more skeptical of “victory.” Overseas wars had never seemed to most Americans the true glory of their republic. Between the general and the American people lay a political chasm, and it was MacArthur’s crusade, more than anything else, that revealed it to the people.

THE TEXAS TOUR tour was only the crusade’s beginning but it marked the end of MacArthur’s influence over the country at large. That the general was cutting his own throat was by no means lost on the White House. On June 25, nine days after MacArthur returned from Texas to the Waldorf, President Truman finally announced his willingness to do what MacArthur and his supporters had done their utmost to prevent him from doing. He was ready, he said, to negotiate a settlement of the war at the thirty-eighth parallel. This was the “appeasement peace” against which MacArthur had hurled his thunderbolts, against which he had pitted his enormous prestige, his lofty reputation, and, so it had seemed back in April, the entire body of the American people. He had failed to block it, and because he did, the “precedent” that would “grow into a monstrosity” had been forestalled. Civilian supremacy had beaten back its severest challenge. On July 10 American and Chinese delegates met at a Korean town named Kaes’f6ng to discuss terms for a truce. The crisis was over. In the end the great majority of Americans had decided against MacArthur, and though the talks would grow bitter and frustrating, that decision, once made, was never revoked.

The defeat took its toll on the general. In public his superb self-possession slowly began draining away. In speeches his beautifully modulated voice often became strident and squeaky. The polished performer developed odd mannerisms, such as jumping up and down as he spoke. His keynote address to the 1952 Republican Convention was so dull and ill-delivered that halfway through it the delegates’ private chatter virtually drowned him out. Fourteen months after holding the entire nation in his thrall, General MacArthur could not even hold the attention of a Republican audience. In a mood of deep selfdisgust MacArthur flew home that day to the Waldorf and out of the public life of the country.

It was the general, nonetheless, who supplied the final grace note to the great crisis of 1951. It was to come eleven years later before the corps of cadets at West Point. The general was eighty-two years old by then and he had come to his beloved military academy to deliver a last farewell. In the course of an eloquent and emotional speech, he had a word of stern advice for the future officers arrayed before him. In the high political affairs of the country, they were duty-bound not to meddle. “These great national problems,” said the frail old man, “are not for your professional or military solution.” An errant son of the republic had at last returned to the fold.


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