The Magazine

Irresistible Force

Meets immovable object.

Feb 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 22 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
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Truman & MacArthur

Policy, Politics, and the Hunger
for Honor and Renown

by Michael D. Pearlman

Indiana, 352 pp., $29.95

On April 11, 1951, in the midst of the stalemated Korean war, Captain Harry S. Truman, 129th Field Artillery, 1917-19, aka, president of the United States, summarily fired General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, commander in chief, Far East (CINCFE). The widespread public reaction was shock and outrage. Few Americans thought that Truman, whose fragile popularity was already in decline, had the credentials to sack a five-star general widely believed to have been the greatest military leader of World War II.

MacArthur, who had not set foot in the United States since 1935 when he left to develop and command the Philippine army, returned in a way that Julius Caesar would have envied. Making his way from San Francisco to Washington to the cheers of millions of Americans, he arrived in the nation's capital on April 19 to deliver a nationally broadcast speech to Congress. His gifts for oratory and self-dramatization undiminished by his 71 years, he charged the administration with denying him the opportunity for victory in the Korean War and concluded by telling his listeners, "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away."

Missouri Republican congressman Dewey Short voiced a widespread sentiment when he declared, "We heard God speak here today."

A Caesar, brought to the seat of power on such a tide, would have dispatched his enemies, assumed power, and waged war as he wished. If in a generous mood, he might have assigned Captain Harry to a tiny Pacific atoll. As it was, MacArthur simply faded away, remaining an icon to a cadre of hard-core supporters, but soon forgotten by a larger public drawn to the more enduring appeal of another five-star general, MacArthur's onetime aide Dwight D. Eisenhower.

The Truman-MacArthur controversy is most often remembered as a real-life morality tale that vindicates the vital importance of civilian control of the military. President Truman, so the narrative goes, was a doughty small-d
democrat who brought to heel a vainglorious warrior bent on starting a nuclear war and trashing the Constitution. Michael Pearlman, a recently retired professor of military history at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, gives us a considerably more nuanced story. Depicting a MacArthur who was feckless and at times detached from reality, he also lays bare the stumbling hesitancy of both civilian and military leadership in Truman's Washington and leaves us wondering how this badly managed little war ever happened.

The Korean peninsula, divided between Soviet and American occupiers in 1945 at the 38th parallel, existed on the fringes of the Cold War in June 1950. China had, by then, fallen to Mao Zedong's Communist insurgency with little regret from the Truman administration. American civilian and military officials were contemptuous of Chiang Kai-shek's ineffective Kuomintang regime, convinced in any case that the United States could not defend every anti-Communist government, and hopeful that Mao would be an independent Communist in the mode of Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito. (American statesmen perennially assume their adversaries are rational actors: "Fifty years later," Pearlman comments, "Washington was still searching for reasonable leaders in Serbia, Iraq, and Iran, as well as the Taliban government of Afghanistan.")

Impoverished and strife-ridden, the new nation of South Korea had staggered along on the brink of anarchy under its autocratic president Syngman Rhee. American military forces were withdrawn in 1949. In January 1950, Secretary of State Dean Acheson delivered a major address at the National Press Club, outlining a Pacific defense perimeter that pointedly excluded both South Korea and Chiang's last redoubt, Taiwan.

Acheson's pronouncement reflected an administration consensus that America could dominate the Pacific but not the Asian mainland. The major object of American foreign policy had to be the strategically and economically valuable regions of Western Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East. The task required aid to Greece and Turkey in 1947. The Marshall Plan, approved by Congress in 1948, provided Western Europe the means for economic recovery. The North Atlantic Treaty and the establishment of NATO followed in 1949.