Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Truman's Firing of MacArthur as Background to General McChrystal's Trip To Washington

As General McChrystal flies to DC, summoned to meet the President after speaking poorly of the President, Vice President, and the Ambassador to Afghanistan to the Rolling Stone magazine, it might be useful to recall another general, 60 years ago, who also spoke his mind to the press. 

Does the relationship between General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman sixty years ago tell us anything about Obama and McChrystal?  I would note here, that this post is all based on the account in  William Manchester's American Caesar:  Douglas MacArthur.  

 Of course, historical precedents can be tricky.  While some parts of a situation may be analogous to our present dilemma, there may also be factors that are very different.  So read this with care.  It is, I would say, instructive to consider all the unknowns and hidden issues that we can know about the 1950 situation in hindsight, that are obviously taking place today, but we won't know about for many years.  [This is probably going to be a little less proofread than normal.  I've been working on this a good part of the day and I'm losing my concentration.  I'll try to clean it up a bit later.]

It was June 24, 1950 in Washington DC when word came in that North Korea had launched an all out attack on South Korea. The Communists had declared victory in mainland China the previous year. MacArthur had been the General who had forged victory in the Pacific and was now in Japan where, since the end of the war in August 1945, as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) he had conducted the occupation and democratization of Japan with cultural sensitivity and respect.  He was a highly intelligent and independent general and had tangled with other generals and US presidents before. In 1948 he dabbled in presidential politics in the Republican primaries with poor results. 

After Kim Il Sung's North Korean army  had taken Seoul, MacArthur's responsibility was expanded to cover Korea.    His immediate call for more troops had been rejected by the Joint Chiefs who were more concerned about Europe.  There were press reports that cited General Chiang Kai-shek  of Formosa (Taiwan) misquoting MacArthur about his intentions for China.  The State Department's roving envoy Averell Harriman was sent by Truman to make sure MacArthur understood the Administration's position.  Harriman reassured Truman
"he was convinced that the Supreme Commander was loyal to 'constitutional authority' . . . and he felt that 'political and personal considerations should be put to one side and our government [should] deal with General MacArthur on the lofty level of the great national asset which he is." [Manchester, p. 566]
But within the week, MacArthur got further instructions from the Secretary of Defense regarding Formosa and the mainland.
The General tartly replied that he fully understood the presidential determination 'to protect the Communist mainland.'  That was insolent.  If Washington meant to take a hard line with him, this was the time to do it.  Instead Truman encouraged him by altering his stand on Formosa [more in line with what MacArthur wanted. (p. 567)
The reason for Truman's policy change was political, not military.  He was trying to ward off Republican attacks that he was soft on Communist China at the expense of Formosa.  Immediately after this MacArthur was invited to send a message to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) convention. Manchester continues:
Whitney tells us, 'MacArthur decided that this was an excellent opportunity to place himself on the record as being squarely behind the President.'
It was an excellent opportunity to remain silent.  U.S. policy in his theater was changing so swiftly that even those close to the oval office had trouble keeping up with it, and a General halfway around the globe, anxious to see in it what he wanted to see, had no business interpreting it for veterans or anybody else. [p. 568]
The message he sent strongly argued that
"Nothing could be more fallacious than the threadbare argument" that "if we defend Formosa we alienate continental Asia"
and continued with a lecture on Oriental psychology and
"The geographic location of Formosa is such that in the hands of a power unfriendly to the United States it constitutes an enemy salient in the very center"
The Administration got copies of the speech three days before it was to be read to the VFW meeting, but it was already being printed in Life, and the U.S. News and World Report and in England.
As Wayne Morse later pointed out, its impact could hardly have been greater had it already been delivered in person.  And the timing, from the President's point of view, could not have been worse.  He had just proposed that the U.N. investigate the Formosa situation in the hope of reducing the areas of conflict in the Far East.  He felt that "General MacArthur's message - which the world might mistake as an expression of American policy - contradicted this". . .[p. 569]
An angry President Truman toyed with relieving MacArthur of his command (but leaving him in Command of Japan) but did not want personally hurt MacArthur.  He demanded a retraction of the message before it was delivered.
MacArthur instantly complied, but he was, he said, "utterly astonished" . . . "My message was most carefully prepared to fully support the President's policy position.  My remarks were calculated only to support his declaration and I am unable to see wherein they might be interpreted otherwise."  He was hurt and angry, and with some justification.  He was capable of impudence and provocation, but in this instance his only sin was taking Truman's pronouncements on Formosa at face value.  The President was following one course in the United Nations and another in fencing with his critics on Capitol Hill.  MacArthur, believing that the administration was determined to keep the island out of hostile hands as a link to the U.S. defense system, had unintentionally embarrassed the chief executive in the world forum.  He was wrong to have said anything - the contretemps over his trip to Taipei should have taught him that - but right in his paraphrasing of what the White House was telling the American people.  He was a casualty of rough politics, a loser in a game whose rules he never mastered.  [p. 570]

Since he couldn't get more soldiers right away, he started a buddy program pairing US troops with ROK (Republic of Korea) troops.  But these troops were being pummeled by the North Korean troops and MacArthur came up with a plan to bring in a force behind enemy lines and cut off their supplies and take back Seoul.  His target was Inchon and everyone else said this was impossible.  He was given a reluctant green light and he pulled it off to everyone's surprise.  (For Alaskans, I would note that he crossed from Japan to Inchon on the Mount McKinley.)

But as MacArthur's UN troops routed the North Koreans and retook Seoul, he rubbed Washington the wrong way again when in the bombed out National Assembly Chamber, he reinstalled the ROK President Rhee, not a particular favorite in Washington, .
But these victories led to new policy dilemmas.  Should he stop at the 38th parallel, the dividing point between North Korea and the ROK, or should he go on north to reunite the two Koreas?  His directives were vague as Washington and the UN debated this.  Would China and Russia be provoked to enter the fray?
"...on September 27 [barely a week after landing at Inchon] he had been directed to "conduct military operations north of the 38th Parallel leading to "the destruction of the North Korean armed forces."  Just two restraints were imposed upon him.  He was forbidden to send aircraft over Sino-Russian territory, and only ROK troops could approach the Yalu.  In forty-eight hours he replied, tacitly accepting these limitations and proposing to capture Pyongyang with the Eighth Army, land X Corps at the east-coast port of Wonsan, and, after wide sweeps to effect a "juncture" of the two.  The White House agreed, but then, having committed itself, Washington felt uneasy over its own temerity.  MacArthur also had reservations.  He wanted a firmer mandate, and the day after the Seoul ceremony the new secretary of defense, George Marshall, gave it to him in an "eyes only" cable:  "We want you to feel unhampered tactically and strategically to proceed north of the 38th Parallel."  The General replied, "Unless and until the enemy capitulates, I regard all Korea as open for our military operations."
Marshall agreed, and the issue seemed resolved.  It wasn't quite.  When MacArthur submitted a directive he planned to issue to the Eighth Army on October 2, launching the coming offensive, Marshall wired him:  "We desire you to proceed with your operations without any further explanation or announcement and let actions determine the matter.  Our government desires to avoid having to make an issue of the 38th Parallel until we have accomplished our mission."  This, according to a SCAP aide, made MacArthur "raise his eyebrows."  It plainly intimated that the United States intended to present its allies with a fait accompli.  [p 584]
Now the Chinese started making statements that they wouldn't stand by idly if MacArthur crossed the 38th Parallel.  The UN called for the unification of the two Koreas. Mao's foreign minister, Chou En-lai broadcast that
The UN resolution was illegal. . . American soldiers were menacing Chinese security, and "we cannot stand idly by .  .  . The Chinese people love peace, but, in order to defend peace, they will never be afraid to oppose aggressive war."  That afternoon Mao's divisions began to slip over the Yalu to prepare a counterattack.  Meanwhile McArthur's men, unaware of the Chinese buildup, continued to roll forward over the disintegrating units of Kim's (Il Sung) army. [p. 587]
Truman called for a meeting with MacArthur and flew all the way to Wake Island to confer with him for two hours.  There was much debate about what was said at the meeting and whether it even should have been held.  It allowed both Truman and MacArthur to make claims about what they had said and the press to make their own claims.  Manchester suggests it was to boost Truman's flagging political popularity, but he also writes that
MacArthur affected to reject that interpretation.  He would write in his Reminiscences:  "Such reasoning, I am sure, does Mr. Truman an injustice.  I believe nothing of the sort animated him, and that the sole purpose was to create good will and beneficial results to the country." [p. 588]
A new problem arose.
Eventually paranoiacs exhaust their credibility.  MacArthur had long since lost his.  The Joint Chiefs were undismayed therefore, when, in the autumn of 1950, he began claiming that his "strategic movements" were being betrayed to the Communists.
This time, however, his suspicions may have been justified.  That fall the first secretary of the British embassy to the United States was H.A.R. "Kim" Philby.  The second secretary was Guy Burgess.  And the head of England's American Department in London was Donald Maclean. . . It is a shocking fact that all three men were Communist agents. [p. 596]
 In any case, the Chinese managed to hide two hundreds thousands of troops in North Korea, and while MacArthur saw victory in sight, his army walked into the Chinese trap.
American and British newspapers gave their readers the impression that UN forces had been ingloriously crushed, which was true, and had suffered staggering casualties, which was not at all true.  Indeed, MacArthur's Korean retreat was one of his most successful feats of arms. . . .And the price the Chinese had paid for the ground yielded to them was shocking.
Unfortunately, the General couldn't bring himself to leave it at that. [p. 611]
 MacArthur gave stories to various news outlets defending his actions and rejecting all blame.  Manchester's account basically agrees with MacArthur's assessment, but says he should have let others do the defending.  Nevertheless, Truman again leaves him in place.  However, a general directive is sent out to all agencies including the military banning all but minor issues being discussed with the press without prior approval from higher up.  It was clear that this was aimed at MacArthur, who didn't take long to violate it. 

Another important development occurs when General Ridgeway goes to Korea to replace General Walker, who was killed, as commander of all UN ground forces.   He began to win battles and make assessments that challenged MacArthur's stories of defeat if not given permission to go for all out victory.   This changed Washington's confidence in MacArthur and his indispensability.    

Basically, there was a disagreement between MacArthur who believed that he should be allowed to win or he should withdraw.  The White House asked him to maintain the status quo - a divided Korea pretty much back, geographically, to the way it was before hostilities erupted.  Politically, this was echoed by hard line Republicans who said that Truman had lost China and was about to lose Korea versus the Democrats and Europeans who saw Korea as of minor importance geopolitically and wanted to avoid war with the most populous nation in the world.

In the end, it seems that MacArthur, then 70, decided to go over the President's head and appeal to the US public.  He issued stories to three different media that challenged the administration's position.  After conferring with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Truman ordered MacArthur relieved of his duties.  When word came that MacArthur might resign first, the poorly worded memo was rushed to Tokyo.  Manchester writes,
Here, as so often in his feisty administration, he had done the right thing, in this case avoiding the hazards of a general war, in the wrong way.  Because he insisted that MacArthur be fired, instead of permitting him to retire gracefully, millions questioned the President's motives.  [p. 644]

Because the current situation involves a General who has gone to the press with his grievances with the Administration, doesn't mean that it is the same situation as with General MacArthur.  However, we can learn lesson relevant to today, by reviewing the MacArthur situation.  One thing is clear, that military and political considerations cloud every decision.  Uncertainty as to the strength and intentions of allies and enemies makes decisions difficult.  And miscommunication among the President and his General played a big role. 

MacArthur was a much more formidable and well known figure than McChristal is.  And MacArthur's comments were focused on policy differences rather than personal evaluations of individuals.


  1. Such country as North Korea does not exist. It is Democratic People's Republic of Korea. I heard that they are very sensitive about it and I am not surprised. I hate the joke when they confuse Hungary and hungry. I have heard it too often in my life.

  2. MacArthur should have been shown the same route out of the room as Admiral Kimmel and General Short, for letting his aircraft sit in neatly aligned rows for half a day after the Pearl Harbor sneak attacks. When the Japanese planes from the Taiwan MacArthur so loved destroyed his air force in a matter of minutes, he should have been relieved, along with his entire sycophantic staff. His negligence on December 8th 1941 was only exceeded that year by the lack of preparation for the Bataan defense he and his staff took.

    I've spoken to several Army and USMC veterans about their retreat from the Yalu in late 1950. Although MacArthur should have been dismissed for his 1941 Philippines mistakes and stupidity, he should have been shot for what his hubris and ego did to those thousands of troops in October, November and December 1950.

    Dugout Stan doesn't quite have the same resonance to it as Dugout Doug, does it?

    Pat Tillman's mom should be allowed to determine McChristal's next duty.


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