Forget about McChrystal; Obama's real problem is MacArthurism.

The history behind current events.
Oct. 9 2009 1:30 PM

The Old Soldier Hasn't Died

Forget about McChrystal; Obama's real problem is MacArthurism.

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The picture that took root—of a hotheaded, charismatic general with an angry and dedicated popular following—was worrisome, especially with the general positioned as the president's political rival. Americans didn't have to fear full-blown fascism to grasp that MacArthur's grandstanding could erode Truman's constitutional authority. While history came to look well on the president's decision as brave and correct, the episode nonetheless left a lasting current of popular sentiment that in matters of war and peace, the military really knows best. At odds with the American tradition of the primacy of civilian rule, this attitude—call it MacArthurism—has continued sporadically to haunt American politics. More than McChrystal's opinions on strategy, this disposition is what Obama now needs to address.

For all our incantations about the wisdom of civilian control, politicians remain afraid to cross the top brass. Democrats in particular take pains to show their respect for admirals and generals. Excepting Dwight Eisenhower, whose military bona fides were for obvious reasons never questioned, every postwar president has had to deal with MacArthurism. Curtis LeMay blustered through the Kennedy administration, though JFK resisted his counsel to invade Cuba during the missile crisis. LeMay and other generals urged Lyndon Johnson to intensify the bombing of North Vietnam and escalate the war. While LBJ managed to ease LeMay into retirement, he never conquered his fear of incurring a reputation for softness in the face of Communist aggression. That insecurity kept him from winding down the war until his last year in office.

Subsequent presidents found themselves bolstering the culture's MacArthurist tendencies by their very efforts to deflect it. Worried about being challenged by military leaders, they chose not to lay down the law, a la Truman, but to showcase their deference to the armed forces—often to little avail.

In 1992, Bill Clinton tried to palliate concerns about his ability to be commander in chief by touting endorsements from Adm. William Crowe, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and 21 other retired officers. But these gestures didn't stop Gen. Colin Powell or others in the armed forces from undermining him as president—particularly over letting gays serve openly. Even after that humiliation, Clinton still pandered to the culture's MacArthurism with unseemly touches that Reagan had inaugurated, such as habitually saluting servicemen and turning every D-Day anniversary into a publicity stunt. Later, John Kerry, a real war hero, learned that stressing his military credentials hardly insulated him from—and in fact encouraged—MacArthurite demagoguery about his fitness to lead.

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In 2008, Obama, under fire for lacking foreign policy chops, followed the Clinton route. At the Democrats' Denver convention he trotted out a procession of generals, who stood erect as a stadium of Democrats cheered. The tableau implied that the fence-sitting public should put special stock in these generals' judgment about who should make decisions on war and peace. Obama's selection of the relatively low-profile Gen. Jim Jones as his national security adviser also seemed designed to pre-empt military criticisms of the sort that hobbled Clinton. But having struck the familiar bargain with the forces of MacArthurism, Obama is now imperiled by them, as his own general threatens to undercut his authority as commander in chief.

It's premature to discuss McChrystal's firing. For now, the rebukes from Jones and Defense Secretary Robert Gates seem to have chastened him. But Obama should remember that, whatever the short-term political risks, history has rewarded those who stood tall for constitutionalism—and remember, too, that capitulating to MacArthurism may serve only to make it stronger.

Correction, Oct. 12, 2009: This piece originally stated that Gen. Douglas MacArthur made his famous vow—"I shall return"—57 years ago. He made it 67 years ago. (Return to corrected sentence.)

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.