Truman & MacArthur – Book Review
Pearlman does history a great service by using well documented facts to destroy the mythology surrounding the controversy, much of it purposely created by Truman and his partisan supporters in the wake of the relief in an attempt to weather the storm of public outrage and to fix the “feisty old Harry” image in the public conscious. Indeed, much of what today is presumed to be “known” about the Truman-MacArthur controversy is little more than myth or folklore, peppered with a scattering of “facts” removed from the context within which they occurred. Those who have accepted the Truman mythology version of MacArthur’s relief and assume they know what really happened would be well advised to read Pearlman’s Truman & MacArthur, the most revealing, well written account yet published about this watershed event in U. S. civil-military relations.
Truman and his loyalists waged a kind of guerrilla war against MacArthur and his reputation, a campaign that began even before the president relieved the general (unconscionably attacking MacArthur while he was still the president’s commander fighting a war in Korea), intensified during the Republican-forced Congressional hearings on the relief, and continuing for decades. Truman’s “operatives inspired surrogates to attack MacArthur,” Pearlman writes, “sometimes with rather shabby stories” and by falsely attributing statements to the general that he never made in order to make him look foolish. Truman ordered that “transcripts of the Wake Island conference be leaked” to reveal that MacArthur had said the Chinese would not intervene in Korea, purposely done to discredit MacArthur’s “assurance that the Soviet Union would not enter the war if American bombed Manchuria as he advised,” but also conveniently put on the record as support for the impression Truman later cultivated that MacArthur was to blame for the Chinese intervention. Although MacArthur must shoulder the blame for ignoring the tactical intelligence that Chinese forces had entered Korea by October 1950 and should be faulted for not realigning his scattered forces to meet that imminent threat, the Chinese intervened when Truman ordered MacArthur to move his forces north across the 38th parallel, not when they later approached the Yalu river Manchurian border.
Another popular myth Pearlman explodes is that the Joint Chiefs of Staff “unanimously recommended” MacArthur’s relief, a deliberately-cultivated misperception that Truman partisans have trumpeted for years. Truman did, in fact, seek support from military leaders for his action since he realized his administration “was too weak to carry national policy on its own accord” – military heroes were popular; politicians were not. Truman laid his case for MacArthur’s relief before the JCS prior to relieving the general, Pearlman notes, but what he got was merely their concurrence: “In point of technical fact, the JCS had merely ‘concurred,’ a word with a particular definition within military organizations. It did not mean advocated, but rather accepted without objection, if ‘that should be the President’s decision.’” Pearlman emphasizes that “the JCS did not ‘recommend’ that MacArthur ‘must be relieved’ – contrary to claims in DOD’s press office, its department of legal/legislative affairs and stories planted in the columns of some prominent newspapermen … In early April [the Joint Chiefs] were not saying much more than that a president has a right to have the theater commander a president wants to have”(that is, reiterating the Constitutional principle of civilian control of the military by noting that all military officers serve at the pleasure of the president and he may dismiss them whenever he wishes — exactly what MacArthur himself years later stated in a Life magazine article about his relief in response to the publication of Truman’s rather self-serving memoirs).
But, perhaps the most egregious calumny created by Truman and promoted by his partisans is the myth that the president relieved the general for “gross insubordination,” i.e. that MacArthur had deliberately disobeyed a direct order from his Commander in Chief (more often than not in pro-Truman accounts, usually presented as MacArthur having “repeatedly disobeyed direct orders from the president”). As Pearlman shows, one of the major contributing factors to the incident was that the general never received a direct order from Truman, who likely could have avoided the final confrontation if he had. Instead, Pearlman writes, Truman was “hardly presidential by the president’s own standards” in his “dealings with MacArthur,” right up to the point where Truman relieved him. Even the Joint Chiefs of Staff, men who held no love for MacArthur, testified before Congress that none of his actions “constituted the military crime of insubordination.” MacArthur later wrote that the issue of his insubordination was never mentioned at the time of his relief and that, had it been, he would have demanded a court martial to clear his name. Yet, as Pearlman writes, “the passage of time and testimony by Truman loyalists helped solidify [the] image, whereby ‘feisty old’ Harry Truman eventually became an American icon reminiscent of ‘Old Hickory’” by supposedly relieving MacArthur for insubordination, thereby preserving the sanctity of Constitutionally mandated civilian control of the military. At least, that’s how “feisty old Harry” remembers it.
The truth, as Pearlman clearly proves in his authoritative, outstanding new book is much more complex and not nearly the black vs. white issue that Truman ever after wished it had been.
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