Truman vs. MacArthur

On June 25, 1950, the North Korean army streamed across the 38th parallel attacking the poorly equipped Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers, driving them southward.  With the backing of the United Nations Security Council, President Harry S. Truman ordered General Douglas MacArthur to send  members of the 8th United States army, then on occupation duty in Japan,  to reinforce the South Korean troops in their fight against the Communists.

Truman was Franklin Roosevelt’s choice  to run with him as the Vice Presidential candidate in 1944.  At that time Truman was a senator representing Missouri, chairing a committee looking into waste in the war effort.  He served in World War I with the Missouri national guard.  After the war Truman was a businessman and a machine politician before being elected to the United States Senate in 1935. Roosevelt and Truman won the election, but Truman was only vice president for 81 days, when FDR had a stroke and died on April 12 1945.

Douglas MacArthur’s father  had served in the United States Army in the Civil War.   MacArthur  won an appointment to West Point.   After graduation, he was posted to the Philippines, where he won a Medal of Honor.  Before his service in World War II, he served in Europe in the Great War, he was superintendent of West Point, and  in 1930, he became Chief of Staff of the United States Army.  While he was in Washington, President Hoover assigned him to drive the Bonus Marchers out of Washington, D. C. in 1932.   MacArthur retired from the United States Army in 1937 and he was appointed military advisor to the Philippines’ Army.   After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, MacArthur was recalled to active duty and by the end of World War II, he had earned his fifth star.  When the United States occupied Japan at the end of the war, MacArthur was put in charge of the country.  He was still in that position when North Koreans invaded the south on June 24, 1950.

Because MacArthur was known as a loose cannon to politicians, it was suggested to the President he be specific in any orders he gave the general.   Truman already had  issues with the general, particularly when he entered the Republican Presidential primary in 1948 without resigning his commission. (1)  On the other hand, MacArthur had little respect for President Truman, whose only wartime experience was in World War I.   Also, MacArthur was virtually running occupied Japan without bothering to pass his actions through the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which were above him on the chain of command.

When fighting started on the Korean Peninsula in June 1950 and MacArthur was put in charge of American forces, it did take not long for the general to come into conflict with the JCS and civilians in the Defense and State Department, as well as the President, who was  the Commander in Chief.   The North Korean Army pushed ROK troops and elements of the 8th American army into a perimeter around Pusan in southeast Korea.   MacArthur suggested UN forces attack the Communists behind their lines with an amphibious landing at the west coast port city of Inchon.   Despite fears Inchon would be a failure, it was a success and UN forces counterattacked  from the Pusan perimeter and drove the Communists north toward the 38th Parallel.

Crossing that line was a political decision as well as military one.  On September 21, President Truman, in response to a reporter’s question, stated the decision as to whether or not to cross the 38th parallel was in the hands of the UN. (2)  Before the end of the month, the Chinese Communist government  warned that if the ROK and UN allies went north of  the 38th Parallel, the Chinese would enter the war.

Truman and the general had never met, so the president and his advisors thought it might be a good idea to have MacArthur brief Truman in person in either Hawaii or Wake Island.  The meeting took place on the seabound atoll in the middle of the Pacific  Ocean on October 15,  1950, with the general making no bones about being beckoned by Truman to a political conference when he had more important things to do. In the course of the meeting, Truman asked MacArthur whether or not he thought the Chinese would join the fight in Korea.  MacArthur downplayed this by saying he planned to withdraw American forces from Korea by Christmas.  A few weeks later, the Chinese joined the fray and ruined the general’s plan. (3)

The basic difference was between the president’s containment policy in Korea and MacArthur’s plans to expand the war (police action).  In December, the Joint Chiefs  sent a order to MacArthur reminding him that the security of the Eighth Army was paramount, because it was the only defense Japan had, and, if necessary it should  be withdrawn from Korea. Furious, the general made his feeling known:  He suggested blockading China, using naval bombardment to diminish the Chinese capacity to wage war, and to use the Chinese nationalist army in Korea.  Before the end of the year the President ordered MacArthur to pass any statements, speeches, etc. through the JCS for approval.

Throughout the winter and the early spring of 1951, MacArthur, ignoring Truman’s order, made statements either to the press, political leaders, or to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that made clear he wasn’t agreeing with his superiors as to policy on the Korean peninsula.  By April President Truman had had it with MacArthur’s efforts to join with Republican politicians and newspapers that opposed him. The last straw, according to Truman, was when the House Minority Leader, Joseph Martin of Massachusetts, read a letter  into the record from MacArthur in which he suggested turning the Chinese Nationalists loose on their rivals on the Chinese mainland.

After consulting with his advisers, Truman asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their opinions about MacArthur and what to do about him. The chairman, General Omar Bradley, determined that MacArthur was opposed to the policy Truman had set out, and as Commander in Chief, he had the right to relieve a general in whom he no longer had faith.  The other members of the JCS agreed with Bradley, MacArthur must go. (4)  The president’s  decision  was announced at a one AM news conference on April 11, 1951.  MacArthur was ordered to turn his commands over to General Matthew B. Ridgway.

The general and his family landed in the United States a few days after his firing.  He received a ticker tape parade in New York and addressed a joint session of Congress, where he finished his speech by quoting the old barrack room ballad, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”   A shortly after his appearance before the joint session, MacArthur spent three days testifying before a combined session of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees.  After MacArthur, the committees heard from Secretary of Defense Marshall, Secretary of State Acheson, and Chairman of Joint Chiefs Omar Bradley.   Marshall and Bradley’s testimony, some of it behind closed doors, painted a different picture to the Senators than MacArthur’s vis a vis the state of American armed forces and the Russians and Chinese. (5)

1952 was a presidential election – Republican Dwight Eisenhower beat Democrat Adlai Stevenson – Truman retired to Missouri and MacArthur faded away.

(1) Actually, MacArthur later denied he was an open candidate, but rather supporters in Wisconsin got themselves on the state’s ballots.  It turned out  after all Harold Stassen was the state’s real favorite son, because the general only received 11 votes on the first ballot at the Republican convention and 7 on the second to Stassen’s 157 and 149.  William Manchester,  American Caesar, p. 620.

(2) Transcription of HST Press Conference, 9/21/1950

(3) Manchester suggests  having two elderly men meet  for the first time at an atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, when both were travel weary (Truman was seven time zones away from Washington, MacArthur was three from Tokyo), was ludicrous.  American Caesar, p. 708.

(4) Brands, The General vs. the President, pp. 297-98.

(5) Brands, The General vs. the President, pp. 331-369.  These pages contain an excellent summary of the committees’ hearing.

For further reading:

Clay Blair.  The Forgotten War: American in Korea, 1950-1953.

H. W. Brands.  The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War.

David Halberstam.  The Coldest Winter:  America and the Korean War.

William Manchester.  American Caesar:  Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964.

David McCullough.  Truman.

On Line:

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950, Volume 7, Korea

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1951, Volume 7, Prt. 1, China and Korea 

Truman Press Conferences, 1950-1951 

Barbara Tuchman

Recently, when I was reorganizing my personal library, I noticed I had a number of books by the American writer Barbara  Wertheim Tuchman, including one I used in my last blog, The Zimmerman Telegram. Her topics ranged time wise and  geographically  from  ancient history  to the twentieth century and from the Far East to the Americas.  Like David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, Ms Tuchman wrote history for the lay reader, not the academic.

Barbara Wertheim was born in New York, educated in a private school there and went to college at Radcliffe, a private women’s college in Massachusetts.  Two years after graduating from Radcliffe in 1933, she went to work for Nation Magazine, which  was published by her father.  She published her first book, The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700, in 1938.  Her  second book, Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour, came out in 1956.  In 1958, she delved into the United States’ involvement in World War I with The Zimmermann Telegram. Two years later  came  The Guns of August, her take on the opening months of the Great War and her first Pulitzer Prize.   After that,  in 1966, Tuchman investigated the world in the years leading up to World War I in  The Proud Tower.   Next, she used her experience in the Far East as background for her book about the American experience in China, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, centered around General Joseph Stilwell, who was the ranking American general in the China-Burma theater in World War II.  That book, published in 1971,  earned Tuchman  her second Pulitzer Prize.

Before her death in 1989, Tuchman wrote five more books.   Notes from China was her view of China during a six-week trip she took in 1972.   Nine years later, she published Practicing History, a combination of essays on the writing of history and reprints of articles she wrote in the 1930s and thereafter.

Tuchman’s book about 14th century Europe,  A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century,  concerned Enguerrand de Coucy, a french nobleman who lived through a turbulent time fraught with wars, disease, and a little Ice age.   Why do governments develop policies that go against their best interests?   This is the question Barbara Tuchman tries to  answer  in The March of Folly:  From Troy to Vietnam.   Her last book, The First Salute: A View of the American Revolutioncame in 1988, the year before she died from a stroke at the age of 77.  I’ll have more to say about this book and Stilwell and the American Experience in China below.

Tuchman’s interest in China stemmed from her stint as a volunteer researcher at the Institute of Pacific Relations immediately after graduation.  As such, she spent an extended period in the Far East, include a month in China in the mid-1930s.  Her book Stilwell and the American Experience in China, is not really a biography of General Joseph Stilwell, who spent most of his military career in that part of the world, but rather she uses Stilwell as symbol of the American experience in the country through the first half of the 20th century.

When Stilwell first arrived in China in 1911, it was a long way from being a modern country.  But rather, it was broken up into regions governed by warlords.  At the end of World War I, the Japanese took over German concessions in China  and gradually strengthened their hold on Chinese  territory.  Stilwell was in and out of China during the 1920s, during which Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Chinese Revolution (Kuomintang) died, and his place  was taken as the leader of the Kuomintang by Chiang Kai-Shek.  “Vinegar Joe” was Stilwell’s nickname  he earned stationed at Fort Benning, where he had a reputation of not suffering fools gladly. By the end of the 1930’s Stilwell had been promoted to Colonel.  The Sino-Japanese War started in 1938, but Stilwell stayed in China until May 1939.  On his way home, Stilwell found he had been promoted to Brigadier General.

In World War II, Stilwell rose among the general officer ranks to become a four star general in command of the China-Burma-India theater.  He attended the Cairo Conference in 1943 along with  Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, representing the Free Chinese.  His first order of business was to open a road from China into Burma, which was under Japanese control and posing a threat to India.  But, as usual, Stilwell had a hard time getting individuals and allies he could work with.  He didn’t trust his allies (the Chinese and the British), and most of all, he didn’t get along with Chiang Kai-Shek.  He was recalled to the states in October 1944 and worked there until his death in 1946,

Tuchman addresses the American Revolution, partially in the The March of Folly and to a greater extent in The First Salute.   She doesn’t attempt to cover the whole war, instead sets the Revolutionary War in the conflict between Great Britain and Holland and France. The book opens on November 16, 1776, when an American ship, Andrew Doria, flying the flag of the Continental Congress from her mast,  sails into the harbor of St. Eustatius on  the Dutch West Indies, her cannon saluting Fort Orange. Then the fort returned the salute, making it the first time an American flag was recognized by a foreign power.   

When Winston Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty at the start of World War I, he found the Royal Navy  had changed very little since end of the 18th century, the period Barbara Tuchman writes about.  Tuchman finds a lot to criticize both the British government and its military leaders for.  Neither those who ruled nor those who commanded took the trouble to find  out about the geography of America or about cost or what it took to transport soldiers and/or materiel from Great Britain to there.  What they did realize was the importance of keeping control of the West Indies which was a depot for Dutch merchants to export critical supplies to the colonies.  Admiral George Rodney was given the task of capturing St. Eustatius.

Rodney, according Tuchman, was a class above his Royal Navy colleagues.  “Thinking outside the box” would be the modern phrase that would suit the admiral well.  However, when giving the assignment to keep the French fleet from reaching Yorktown and trapping Cornwallis and British army, he failed.  To find why, you will have to read the book.

Tuchman’s books:

The Lost British Policy: Britain and Spain Since 1700 (1938)*

Bible and the Sword (1956)

The Zimmermann Telegram  (1958)

The Guns of August (1960)

The Proud Tower  (1966)

Stilwell and the American Experience in China (1971)

Notes from China (1972)*

A Distant Mirror:  The Calamitous 14th Century (1978)

Practicing History (1981)

The March of Folly:  From Troy to Vietnam (1984)

The First Salute: A View of the American Revolution (1988)

  • – Not available in NC Cardinal