Sunday, November 7, 2021

The General vs. The President


H.W. Brand's 2017 The General vs the President is a timely re-examination of the Truman / MacArthur confrontation that roiled the world at the outset of the Cold War (

MacArthur was no ordinary General.  He and his father were the only father / son team awarded a Medal of Honor in US history.  MacArthur was no intellectual lightweight -- he "ranked first in his class three out of his four years" at West Point.  He earned many medals for conspicuous bravery while fighting on the Western Front in World War I.  He accompanied French troops on trench raids to capture German troops behind enemy lines.  MacArthur was smart and he was brave.

That does not mean that he did no make his share of mistakes over a long and distinguished military career.  In the Philippines he allowed American planes to be destroyed on the ground immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  This inexcusably and unnecessarily crippled the Philippine air defense.   He miscalculated the determination of the Japanese to hold on to Manila (see my review of Rampage... Korean War MacArthur badly underestimated the will and strength of the Communist Chinese.

Douglas MacArthur
1880 - 1964

But these failings should not prevent us from appreciating MacArthur's unique place in the panoply of American military figures.  MacArthur vowed that, "I shall return" to the Philippines; and return he did.  Winston Churchill declared, "Of all the amazing deeds of bravery of the war, I regard MacArthur's personal landing at Atsugo as the greatest of the lot."  MacArthur found the perfect tone when, on the deck of the USS Missouri, accepting the Japanese surrender he said, "It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past -- a world founded upon faith and understanding, a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish; for freedom, tolerance and justice."  MacArthur proved to be a remarkably successful Pro-consul for occupied Japan -- where he introduced women to the ballot box.

Brand notes that "the North Korean attack on South Korea took Douglas MacArthur quite by surprise."  But MacArthur seemed quickly to rise to the Communist challenge.  When South Korean and American forces were surrounded inside a narrow perimeter near the port of Pusan MacArthur plotted the United Nations' daring counterstroke at Inchon.  The amphibious invasion at Inchon turned the Communist flank, quickly liberated Seoul and was, perhaps, the most brilliant American use of military power of the post war era.  By December 1951 the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, was in the hands of UN forces.  Bob Hope held a celebration for the US GI's there.

But it was MacArthur's success led to his fatal hubris.  He dismissed reports of Chinese Communist forces massing north of the Yalu River.  Human wave assaults and massive numbers hit UN forces and drove them backwards towards the 38th parallel.

Harry S Truman
1884 - 1972

Appearances to the contrary, Harry Truman was no ordinary president.  He had served with honor in the artillery during World War I.  Brand neglects to mention that MacArthur, as head of the Rainbow division was, in fact, Truman's immediate boss during World War I.  Truman was largely an autodidact.  He read widely and he developed a reputation for incorruptibly despite his association with the Pendergast machine of Kansas City.  An ailing FDR chose him to be his Vice President in 1944. 

Though Vice President Truman had been told nothing about the atomic bomb prior to the death of FDR in 1945, he made the difficult but correct decision to use this tool to end Japanese resistance at the close of World War II.  He dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that killed over a hundred thousand people including most of whom were civilians.  Truman boasted that he "never lost any sleep" over these decisions. (I would submit that had Truman not unleashed the horror of atomic warfare in 1945, there is a high degree of probability that the US or SOME OTHER NATION would have utilized a future iteration of atomic power causing far more more deaths including perhaps the start of World War III.)

Rainbow Division WW1
MacArthur was Truman's boss first!

Truman and MacArthur collided when MacArthur veered out of his lane on account of his soaring political ambitions.  MacArthur saw himself, not merely as a hugely successful American field commander but also as a near Messianic savior against godless Communism.  MacArthur was very good in his perceptions of the working of the Oriental mind.  But he was very weak in his appreciation for the dynamics of domestic American politics.  Fatally, MacArthur disregarded the chain of command.  He made obtuse comments to the press and sympathetic veterans' groups.  At the end of the day, Truman was Commander in chief.  He had a constitutional duty to be the final arbiter of American foreign and military policy.

The Korean War degenerated into a brutal grinding stalemate along the 38th parallel.  Neither side could win.  America lost over 36,000 killed and far more wounded over the course of about three years.  The Republic of Korea and many other UN nations suffered as well.

Truman, like MacArthur, made a number of grave miscalculations in Cold War strategy.   Brand fails to point out several of Truman's blunders...1) that Truman abolished the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) mainly on account of his distaste for "Wild Bill" Donovan.  The CIA would have to be rebuilt from scratch starting in 1947.  2) Truman, bowing to domestic pressure, proceeded with a rapid and steep demobilization of US military forces following the conclusion of WW2.  American military power was not just trimmed but cut to the bone.  This gravely weakened US military capabilities prior to the outbreak of the Korean War.  These vulnerabilities would be exploited by the Communist forces.

Truman's firing of MacArthur is widely approved of by Brand and many other commentators.  But Truman COULD have run for re-election in 1952.  His treatment of MacArthur made him hugely unpopular at the time and led to his decision to not seek a second elected term.  As Brand accurately notes, "Truman's bold stroke in firing MacArthur ended his own career as surely as it terminated MacArthur's."

Dwight Eisenhower
1890 - 1969

In the end the American electorate got it right.  1952 and the crisis of the Korean War called for an experienced military leader at the helm.  But that leader was Eisenhower and not MacArthur or Truman.   Ike, the architect of D-Day, had a broader global perspective and greater diplomatic skills than either MacArthur or Truman.

Truman and his minions painted MacArthur's stated threat to use atomic weapons against the Chinese as sheer lunacy.  Yet it was precisely this same veiled threat, delivered by Ike through Indian intermediaries, that ultimately led to the fragile peace in Korea that endures to this day.

Finally, Brand's flawed but worthwhile book has a curious relevance to our 21st century.  In 2021 we seem to have experienced a "MacArthur moment" when General Mark Milley defied the orders of a duly elected president by undermining his policy in regard to China. 

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