The Magazine

Irresistible Force

Meets immovable object.

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