The General vs. the President; MacArthur and Truman

The General vs. the President; MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by H.W. Brands.  Doubleday, 2016.

In April 1951 Harry Truman, in his second term as President, fired General Douglas MacArthur, then commander of the United Nations forces in the Korean War. North Korean forces had crossed the 38th Parallel and invaded South Korea one year earlier in June 1950, with the intention of uniting the peninsula. At that time General MacArthur was the Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Occupied Japan, and he continued in this role until the peace treaty was signed in San Francisco in September 1951. He is considered to have been successful at guiding Japan toward a democracy and helping to restart its economy. He was also in charge of American forces in the Pacific and thus Korea fell under this command.

In 1948 MacArthur had indicated an interest in running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Presidency. He withdrew after the Wisconsin Primary and the nomination went to Thomas Dewey. H.W. Brands suggests that MacArthur’s interest in elected office was a factor in the friction between the General and the President.

It happened that Russia was boycotting the United Nations Security Council when it received the call from the Republic of South Korea asking for military assistance. Hence Russia was not able to block the UN’s decision.

China also had a permanent seat on the Security Council held by the Nationalist Chinese (Kuomintang). The Nationalists had lost a civil war on the Mainland to the Communists. Their power was confined to the island of Taiwan (Formosa). Most of the troops were supplied by the US, but several other countries also contributed: the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Philippines, and Turkey.

Almost from the beginning of our deployment, General MacArthur and President Truman had disagreed about the conduct of the War, and how autonomous a field commander should be from his Commander-in-Chief. MacArthur considered the Korean peninsula to be part of his Pacific command and, without waiting for instructions from President Truman, had begun sending military aid to the South Koreans. Next came American ground troops, part of the occupation forces stationed in Japan. Then the use of American airpower based in Japan, and then the bombing of the Yahu bridges to intercept the supply of arms coming from China and Russia.

Each time, MacArthur claimed that his decision was essential to keeping the North Koreans from permanently occupying the peninsula south of the 38th Parallel. And they were the prerogative of the field commander.  Each time Truman edged closer to firing MacArthur for insubordination; but hesitated to do so in view of his popularity with the American public.

The use of the atom bomb as a tactical weapon, according to Brands, was under discussion. It had only been five years since the bomb had been used against Japan. But that had been for strategic objectives, never on the battlefield. The Truman Administration worried about MacArthur being “trigger-happy.”

One major bone of contention was MacArthur’s suggestion that the UN make use of the Nationalist troops on Formosa against the North Koreans, now being reinforced by Chinese “volunteers.” Truman understood the nature of limited warfare better than did several of his successors in the Presidency, and he realized that this might bring on a larger confrontation and involve large numbers of American fatalities.

In 1951 my older brother turned eighteen. The extended family had lost a father/son in World War II. Even as a twelve-year old, I sensed the unpopularity of another war. But I was also captivated by The Des Moines Register’s daily maps showing the progress of the North Koreans; I read about the successful amphibious assault at Inchon and then the Chinese intervention and our retreat from the Yalu River.

The author makes clear his own reservations about MacArthur’s rambunctiousness. And that was true of this reader in the first half of the book. But Brands also allows the reader to wonder about the way MacArthur was treated after his dismissal. Was his firing the result of his advocating a more aggressive policy in Korea?  Might it have involved American presidential election politics? As it turned out MacArthur’s dismissal resulted in another general, Dwight Eisenhower, pushing MacArthur aside and ending any chance of his gaining the Republican nomination in1952.

MacArthur had his comeuppance, however. As he bid farewell to Japan, crowds gathered to provide him with a royal departure. More crowds greeted him when he arrived in San Francisco, and then in Washington. He received a ticker-tape parade in New York. MacArthur was the “man of the hour.”

Truman managed to sulk in silence. Though telling his Whitehouse staff and cabinet that his mistake had been not to fire MacArthur earlier. It is interesting that Eisenhower never invited MacArthur to assist his run for the Presidency.

The peace process stretched out over a two-year stalemate. Our demand for unconditional surrender was eventually relaxed and the war ended. Though obviously not the continuing conflict between the two Koreas and their sponsors. Fortunately so far in this twenty-first-century version of the scrap, both sides are being cautious.

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