Truman & MacArthur – Book Review
Although the China-Taiwan policy issue was ostensibly the subject, Pearlman determines that it was old fashioned Washington, D. C. partisan politics that finally doomed MacArthur and pushed Truman into relieving the general. On March 21, 1951, MacArthur responded to a letter he had received from the House of Representatives’ Republican minority leader, Joe Martin – a vocal, bitter, high-profile critic of the Truman administration. The general’s reply – which Martin made public — praised the congressman’s call for “releasing” Chiang’s Nationalist army to attack mainland China and telling Martin, “as you point out, we must win. There is no substitute for victory” (a direct criticism of Truman’s policy of keeping the Korean “police action” a limited war). Yet, in Truman’s mind, MacArthur’s real crime was not in once more making public his disagreement with the administration’s China-Taiwan policy (called “inexcusable” by Truman, but nonetheless “excused” by the president on each occasion), but was the fact that the general had crossed the line into partisan politics by publicly aligning himself with the president’s political opponents. Pearlman explains, “[Truman’s] period of grudging forbearance ended in April 1951, when MacArthur linked his policies to domestic politics, particularly the president’s opponents in the Robert Taft-Joe Martin wing of the Republican Party. In Truman’s mind, MacArthur thereby lost his aura as a soldier by collaborating with the partisan opposition.” Suddenly, MacArthur was no longer simply a difficult and arrogant “Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat Five Star;” he had committed the inexcusable crime of turning into the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln’s military menace-turned-partisan-political-opponent, Union Gen. George B. McClellan. Truman revealed to his aides in April 1951 his real reason for relieving MacArthur, “I can show just how the so-and-so double-crossed us … [MacArthur] is going to be regarded as a worse double-crosser than McClellan.”
According to Pearlman, Truman, raised on stories of history’s military heroes, genuinely believed that military commanders in the field should be permitted to prosecute a war without interference from politicians: “Truman was not comfortable sending soldiers preemptive commands, for political reasons as well as personal discomfort over meddling with the military in time of war.” This belief had, in fact, helped stay Truman’s hand regarding MacArthur since the Korean War began. But, he believed that the principle was a two-way street – non-interference prevailed provided the general in question did not betray the president by disloyally engaging in partisan politics. The Martin letter, therefore, “outraged [Truman] by what he felt was personally disloyalty” and brought Pearlman’s triad of policy, politics and personality to their fateful culmination.
Other incidents, such as MacArthur’s August 1950 letter to the VFW, battlefield setbacks like the Chinese intervention, and, notably, MacArthur’s dramatic March 1951 ultimatum demanding that his Chinese enemy surrender – made public just as the Truman administration was beginning delicate armistice negotiations – contributed to but did not cause the final break (despite the claims of Truman partisans, even the ex-president, himself, in succeeding years). The Martin letter finally forced Truman’s “temper [to take] full control” thereby prompting the president to act like the “feisty” take-charge chief executive he often imagined himself to be: “personal disloyalty, partisan politics, and the McClellan precedent had to be added to long-standing disagreements over foreign policy and military strategy. Then Truman approximated his ideal of a take-charge/take-no-prisoners chief executive officer along the lines of his hero, Andrew Jackson.”
Truman, of course, was too savvy a politician to publicly blame partisan politics for MacArthur’s relief. If his relief action was to pass public muster, his reasons had to be framed in grander, global strategic terms – such as his linking of MacArthur’s firing to “preventing a Third World War.” Therefore, in his radio address to the nation on April 11, 1951, “Truman made it a discourse on reasons to limit the war to Korea. Three-fourths of the way through the presentation there were two short paragraphs: ‘A number of events [none identified] have made it evident that General MacArthur did not agree with that policy. I have therefore considered it essential to relieve … one of our greatest military commanders.” The speech, as Gen. Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and no friend of MacArthur, judged it, “was a flop.” The public didn’t buy Truman’s grandly-stated reasons, overwhelmingly supporting the war hero over “the pipsqueak politician” – alternatively “tinhorn politician” — 66-percent to 25-percent in public opinion polls at the time. Most Americans in the wake of MacArthur’s relief were “sick of politicians, sick of Truman.” Indeed, by 1953, as Pearlman notes, “both [men] were exiled from their position of power, a cold war case of mutually assured public destruction.”
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