Harry S Truman ascended to the presidency of the United States on April 12, 1945, a plain-spoken career politician and product of the political machine of Boss Tom Pendergast in Kansas City. It is clear that Douglas MacArthur, regarded arguably as the greatest American general of World War II, regarded him as little more than a cipher.
Over the next six years almost to the day when Truman fired the general — April 11, 1951 – MacArthur made Truman so furious that 60 years later, historian H.W. Brands, examining Truman’s papers, found handwritten documents in which the president gouged the paper with his pen out of anger.
Brands has written a boisterous history of the long series of confrontations that led up to the firing. It would be tempting to call the episode comical if MacArthur hadn’t been attempting to start World War III and Truman, whose authority as president the general ignored, overrode or deliberately snubbed, was hard-pressed to keep him from it as the supreme commander of United Nations forces in Korea following invasion by the north.
From the very start of their relationship on the death in office of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, MacArthur simply ignored the entire American diplomatic and political establishment. The general, already 65 when Truman became president, was a five-star officer regarded as a military genius for his prosecution of the so-called “island-hopping” campaign to rid Asia of the invading Japanese and their Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere. The iconic picture of the tall, imposing general wading ashore at Tacloban on Leyte Island in the Philippines, followed by staff members and diminutive Filipinos, was one of the most-printed photos of the war and resulted in a diorama that stands to this day on the beach where they landed.
It was MacArthur and not Truman who dictated the terms of the Japanese surrender, leaving Emperor Hirohito in place, creating the Japanese pacifist constitution that governs the country and fostering the somewhat imperfect democracy that runs the country to this day. MacArthur would never return to the United States until his firing, forcing the country’s leaders to fly to Asia to consult with him.
The world for the general and the president sputtered along well enough until June 25, 1950 – although Truman was quoted later as having said “I should have fired the son of a bitch a long time ago” – when troops of Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of the current ruler of North Korea, spilled over Korea’s 38th parallel, driving the Republic of Korea troops and a skeleton US Army garrison south into a tiny perimeter around the city of Pusan.
Brand treats the initial reaction by MacArthur and his command considerably kindlier than other historians, including David Halberstam in his 2008 history of the Korean War,” The Coldest Winter.” Halberstam was scathing in his assessment of the early attempt to counter northern troops, calling MacArthur out of touch and arrogant at age 70, with his Tokyo staff sacrificing lives for policy.
Whatever the conduct of the war, it is inarguable that MacArthur’s decision – his alone, to stage an amphibious invasion at Inchon, far north of the Pusan perimeter – was one of the greatest military decisions of the century. MacArthur’s troops cut the country in half, decimated the north’s supply lines, and resulted in the surrender of hundreds of thousands of confused and demoralized North Korean troops. His forces drove north, culminating in a humiliating defeat for the fleeing North Koreans.
The diplomatic slights MacArthur delivered to Truman and other great World War II generals including George Marshall and Omar Bradley paled in comparison to his actions from then on and make it almost seem the general had taken leave of his senses.
He “sketched out a breathtaking vision of American hegemony over the world’s greatest ocean,” calling the Pacific a “vast moat to protect us as long as we hold it. Indeed, it acts as a shield of all the Americas and all of the free lands of the Pacific Ocean to the shores of Asia.” Eventually that vision would encompass recommendations of atomic war with both the Russians and the Chinese.
Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, growing concerned about the general’s grandiosity, proposed a meeting. MacArthur insisted the meeting be held on Wake Island rather than Hawaii, meaning Truman and the assembled leadership of the US would have to fly more than 7,000 miles to meet with him while he would only have to fly 2,300 miles. After he gave a picture of the situation on the ground in Korea over two days, he again broke protocol, abruptly saying he was departing, leaving a fuming Truman and his party on the island with more business to transact. Truman abandoned the meeting and flew home, exasperated. That began a long list of snubs meticulously catalogued by Brand.
As he had in Japan when he allowed the Emperor to remain in place, MacArthur reinstalled Syngman Rhee as South Korea’s leader, without waiting for consent from a reluctant Washington, DC.
Unfortunately, MacArthur badly miscalculated, ignoring the advice of the president’s advisers, driving toward the Yalu River and the border with China, ignoring repeated warnings from the Chinese to back off. In October 1950, the Chinese had had enough. They poured across the Yalu in hordes, sustaining devastating losses but enveloping United Nations forces and driving them into a humiliating retreat that cost thousands of lives.
MacArthur responded by demanding the resources to destroy the Chinese Army, including bringing in Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Army, which had been forced to retreat to what was then Formosa. All of that possibly would have brought the Russians into the war. He not only moved on his own course, he began making addresses including a memo to the Veterans of Foreign Wars basically saying Washington was filled with cowards, vacillating politicians and incompetents.
Eventually, Truman had enough. He removed MacArthur from his command, setting off a political firestorm in the US that would envelop the Democratic Party and result in deep losses in the 1952 election. It destroyed Truman’s popularity and he chose not to run again for the presidency.
Nonetheless, it would be Truman who emerged as history’s champion. As Brand concludes: “Six decades after the general and the president, standing at the brink of nuclear war, wrestled over Korea and China; six decades after their contest brought to the head the issue of whether a president or a general determines American policy…it was hard to find any knowledgeable person who didn’t feel relief that the president, and not the general, had been the one with the final say in their fateful struggle. Truman’s bold stroke in firing MacArthur ended his own career as surely as it terminated MacArthur’s, but it sustained hope that humanity might survive the nuclear age.”