The Blog

The Fall of Admiral
George B. McFallon

By contradicting the president in public, Admiral Fallon exceeded his authority--and was right to step down.

1:30 PM, Mar 12, 2008 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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McClellan openly expressed his disdain for the president and the secretary of War. Lincoln and his cabinet were aware of the rumors that McClellan intended to put "his sword across the government's policy." McClellan's quartermaster-general, Montgomery Meigs expressed concern about "officers of rank" in the Army of the Potomac who spoke openly of "a march on Washington to 'clear out those fellows.'"

That McClellan had his own idea for fighting the war, one that did not match that of his commander in chief, was revealed by one of his officers after the Maryland Campaign of September 1862. In response to a query from a colleague as to "why the rebel army [was not] bagged immediately after the battle near Sharpsburg [Antietam]," the officer replied "that is not the game. The object is that neither army shall get much advantage of the other; that both shall be kept in the field till they are exhausted, when we will make a compromise and save slavery."

Lincoln dismissed the officer in question, remarking to his secretary John Hay "that if there was a 'game' ever among Union men, to have our army not take an advantage of the enemy when it could, it was his object to break up that game." Shortly thereafter, Lincoln relieved McClellan himself after another long bout of inactivity following Antietam. Of course President Harry Truman took the same action against Gen. MacArthur, an officer who had taken his disagreements with the president public.

A public disagreement between a president and his military commanders is one thing. But even a private disagreement can cause a commander in
chief to lose confidence in his subordinates. For instance, when
President Franklin Roosevelt decided to attempt to deter Japanese
expansionism by moving the US Pacific Fleet from California to Pearl
Harbor during the summer of 1940, the fleet commander, Rear Admiral
James O. Richardson, objected, arguing that basing the Pacific Fleet in
Hawaii was provocative and could precipitate a war with Japan. The
president fired him and replaced him with Rear Admiral Husband E.
Kimmel. As Admiral Harold Stark, the Chief of Naval Operations, wrote to
Kimmel after the affair, "This, of course, is White House prerogative
and responsibility, and believe me, it is used these days." To his
credit Richardson kept his objections to FDR's decision private and went
quietly into retirement.

By contradicting the president in public, Fallon clearly exceeded his authority. Had he not chosen to step down, the president would have been obliged to fire him, not least because of the serious threat to balanced civil-military relations that his actions--like McClellan's before him--constituted.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and editor of Orbis, the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.