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.

General McChrystal. Click image to expand.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

Sixty- seven years after his famous vow, Gen. Douglas MacArthur has returned. * Gen. Stanley McChrystal's recent warnings that the White House had better heed his call for an Afghanistan surge have provoked comparisons to the showdown between President Truman and his truculent commander in Korea. To the left, McChrystal's shot across President Obama's bow amounts to insubordination; some have demanded his firing. To the right, McChrystal is a soldier carrying out his mission, giving his superior his best advice on how to meet his own stated goals successfully.

Like most historical analogies bandied about in the media, this one is overdrawn. As serious as it is, the war in Afghanistan hardly approaches the Korean War in its magnitude or impact. McChrystal, for his part, has nothing like MacArthur's prestige, and his testing of Obama's supremacy falls well short of MacArthur's defiance. Yet the story of Truman and MacArthur remains useful to remember—not because it directly mirrors today's but because it created a dynamic in which subsequent presidents felt unduly constrained by the prospect of military commanders undermining them.

In 1950, the first year of the Korean War, MacArthur showed his strategic brilliance with his marine landing at Inchon, South Korea, then behind enemy lines. That move reversed the sagging fortunes of the multinational United Nations force, which the United States was leading to repel North Korea's invasion of the South. Alas, MacArthur's self-confidence, already outsized, could have done without the boost. Determined to rout the North Koreans, he ignored signals that a U.N. offensive beyond the 38th parallel—the line dividing the Koreas—would spur Chinese intervention, and his northward push resulted in a massive setback.

Disinclined to own up to defeat, MacArthur issued a volley of public statements blaming Washington for keeping him from attacking Chinese bases within Manchuria. Truman's decision to contain the war, he said, imposed "an enormous handicap, without precedent in military history." Until that point, Truman had indulged MacArthur's ego and recoiled from his mystique. He had let the general run the Japanese occupation unchecked and had praised him extravagantly. Now he responded, albeit with a mere wrist slap, ordering MacArthur to clear future statements with Washington.

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Like the rift between McChrystal and Obama's civilian team, the Truman-MacArthur conflict stemmed from a split over war aims: MacArthur wanted victory at all costs, while the administration, seeking to avoid a wider conflict, set forth the more limited goal of restoring South Korea's integrity. To this end, the Truman administration was pursuing a diplomatic settlement. Yet MacArthur was incorrigible. (Perhaps he thought he was in Corregidor.) He publicly insisted on an enemy surrender and Korean reunification, derailing the diplomacy. Privately, the president resolved to fire him, but he delayed—letting the Joint Chiefs instead send a curt rebuke.

Soon, MacArthur forced Truman's hand. The general sent a letter to House Republican leader Joe Martin endorsing the congressman's demagogic call to have Chiang Kai-Shek's Chinese Nationalists open a second front. "There is no substitute for victory," MacArthur portentously asserted.

"Rank insubordination," Truman wrote in his diary. His trusted aides—Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Defense Secretary George Marshall, Averell Harriman, Gen. Omar Bradley—agreed that MacArthur's time was up. Political advisers warned of an outcry, but Truman took solace in Abraham Lincoln's Civil War decision to fire Gen. George McClellan—a controversial move for which Lincoln was ultimately vindicated.

MacArthur's sacking enraged the right. "This country today," charged Sen. William Jenner of Indiana, "is in the hands of a secret inner coterie which is directed by agents of the Soviet Union." Richard Nixon of California, typically, preferred insinuation: "The happiest group in the country will be the Communists and their stooges." Cries arose for Truman's impeachment. The foot soldiers of the grass-roots right hung effigies of the president and Acheson from the trees.

Returning home to the United States, MacArthur received a classic hero's welcome. Martin invited him to address the Congress, where he famously declared, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away." A Senate inquiry grilled Acheson, Bradley, Marshall, and others on the decision to dismiss the general. The mayor of Chicago declared MacArthur Day and invited the general to star in a parade and a rally at Soldier Field.

MacArthur's support, though considerable, was disproportionately magnified by the ballyhoo. In a landmark 1953 essay, sociologists Gladys and Kurt Lang showed that the media hyped and overstated the enthusiasm for the deposed general. People who were actually present at MacArthur Day found the crowds to be sedate, with few attendees riled about the general's firing. A poll showed that most people came out of curiosity, not hero worship. Those who watched on TV, in contrast, had their expectations of wild crowds validated by the tenor of the coverage. The notion that the American people were lining up behind MacArthur had been blown out of proportion—and as the idea seared itself into the public consciousness, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Not too self-fulfilling: MacArthur's bid for the Republican presidential nomination the next year foundered.)