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.

At the beginning of the effort, the president had proclaimed the Truman Doctrine: "It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." This bold statement resonated much more loudly than Truman's qualifier that such help would be mainly through economic aid. Having left the impression of a universal commitment to block Communist expansion, Truman made reliance on economic assistance all the more necessary by drastically cutting the defense budget.

By 1950, the European strategy was a manifest success, but a significant section of the Republican party--much of it isolationist before World War II--had emerged as "Asia Firsters," criticizing the administration for the loss of China and arguing for support to Chiang. On June 25, the North Korean invasion of the South brought Asia to the center of American attention.

Having written off South Korea and sharply reduced American military capabilities, why did the Truman administration decide to fight there? If South Korea had fallen to internal subversion, the United States would have done nothing. But could it ignore a cross-border invasion of a client state without undermining the credibility of a NATO structure that existed mainly on paper? Munich, less than a dozen years in the past, was a living memory. Truman's instincts, moreover, were for intervention, whatever the difficulties.

"Dean, we've got to stop the sons of bitches no matter what," he told Acheson. The Europeans, responding with fulsome praise, seemed to agree. A United Nations resolution legitimized the effort.

Driven into a perimeter around the southeastern port of Pusan, American troops and the remnants of the South Korean Army held the line. On September 15, 1950, a flawless amphibious landing at Inchon turned the tide. About two weeks later, with explicit permission from Washington,

MacArthur sent his troops across the 38th parallel in an ill-coordinated dash for the Yalu River. China, he assured Truman in a mid-October meeting at Wake Island, would not intervene.A month later, at least a quarter million Chinese troops moved into North Korea without detection, struck hard at American units, and sent them on a long retreat. European allies who had lauded the decision to intervene were soon obsessed with the fear that American power and attention would be sucked into the quicksand of Asia.

What the Europeans feared, MacArthur saw as an opportunity. Asia had been the focus of his career for a decade and a half. Convinced that Europe was the past and China the future, he saw the Korean conflict from the beginning as a vehicle for liberation of the mainland. Swallowing his own doubts about Chiang and not bothering to seek authorization from Washington, he had flown to Taiwan for talks with the Kuomintang leader. He thereby established the appearance of an alliance and fed Mao's paranoia.

MacArthur astoundingly would tell Washington in February 1951 that 100,000 Kuomintang troops, landed with American support, could achieve "the domination of South China behind the protective line along the Yangtze River." Neither the White House nor the Pentagon bought into this optimistic scenario, but the politics of the war compelled a commitment to the defense of Taiwan, previously written off as militarily insignificant.

In early 1951 Americans and South Koreans, under the command of General Matthew B. Ridgway, managed to stop the overextended Chinese offensive, then push the enemy back to the vicinity of the 38th parallel. Like most historians, Pearlman commends Ridgway's reinvigoration of a beaten army, and he especially lauds Marine General Oliver P. Smith, whose brilliantly executed retreat from the Chosin reservoir preserved his own force while doing great damage to the Chinese.

The Truman administration was ready for negotiations to end the war; it signaled MacArthur to establish a strong defense line and concentrate on inflicting maximum casualties. Eager to assuage European fears, it had already drafted General Eisenhower from retirement to command NATO. Now committed to a military buildup, it bolstered Ike's reassuring presence by sending fresh divisions to Europe rather than Korea.

MacArthur, contrary to a widely held belief, seems never to have requested authority to use atomic bombs against the Chinese. Nonetheless, his protests were loud and clearly intended to benefit Asia-First Republicans. Truman, drawing on his study of the Civil War, had been inclined to leave military matters to the generals and give them support. Superficially plausible, his approach in practice failed to make a distinction between battlefield tactics and grand strategy. The president tolerated MacArthur's misadventures and insubordination until the general more or less openly aligned himself with the Republicans.

By then, MacArthur's dismissal was possible only because Truman could count on the support of General George Marshall (now secretary of defense), General Omar Bradley (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), and General J. Lawton ("Lightning Joe") Collins (Army chief of staff). Eisenhower, who had no love for MacArthur, remained silent, but his presence at the head of NATO did much to convince the American public of Europe's importance. They and other military eminences had already played key roles in the Truman presidency. Just three days before MacArthur's recall, the New York Times columnist James Reston had written that "prominent soldiers are supplying much of the balance, statesmanship and confidence so sorely needed by the Administration."

Resolutely passing up every opportunity to dramatize a dramatic story, Pearlman eschews grand narrative. He uses military acronyms (especially the ghastly CCINFE) too freely, displays a sometimes confusing lack of respect for chronology, and seems to end every second sentence with a dangling clause. What distinguishes his work is its extensive research and an evenhanded skepticism that delineates the failures and weaknesses of both Truman and MacArthur.

He dissects Truman's temperament plausibly. It may be impossible to explain to a contemporary audience just how an elderly general who affected a corncob pipe and a ridiculous combover of a bald pate could overawe the American public, the Pentagon, and, for a time, the president. Still, the author has researched his subject extensively, frequently displays a fine sense of irony, and has produced probably the best study of this subject to date.

MacArthur, he reminds us, was only the most spectacular example of a series of military officers after World War II who too openly argued with civilian leadership and were shunted aside. Ridgway himself would be forced into retirement in 1955 for arguing with President Eisenhower's budget cuts. Wesley Clark's zeal for combat in Kosovo 40 years later ended similarly. Admiral William Fallon's open skepticism about the surge in Iraq terminated his career. In these and other cases, the cashiered officers went quietly and with little public notice. All, in one way or another, protested against a policy that did not appear to be backed by adequate resources. Expansive ends and limited means still constitute a central dilemma of American grand strategy.

Today, a prosperous South Korea seldom remembers the Korean war, pursues a romantic vision of reunification with the North, and as recent mass demonstrations show, seems gripped by the menace of U.S. beef. China has made a transition from Mao's primitive Communist socialism to a flourishing fascistic state capitalism. It has begun a long-term program of amassing naval power that could lead to the occupation of Taiwan in the not-so-distant future.

As in 1951, the United States remains the world's major defender of liberal values, possessing enormous firepower and technical capabilities. It also has an undersized military, allies even more reluctant to share in heavy lifting, and a far more uncertain sense of national purpose.

Alonzo L. Hamby, distinguished professor of history at Ohio University, is the author, most recently, of  For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s.