I have long been a student of the Korean War. It has many compelling dimensions to it—political, military, social, personal, diplomatic—and any one of these facets makes it a fruitful field for study. I also had the good fortune to live and travel in Korea for over a year, and developed some sympathy for the people and the culture. One revealing episode that occurred during the war has come to stand for the principle of ultimate civilian control over the military. This was the removal of General Douglas MacArthur by President Truman in 1951.
It is difficult today to grasp fully the awe in which MacArthur was held by the American public in the early 1950s. He had been in the public eye in one way or another since the early 1930s, and had cultivated his public image in such a way as to appear as a military genius sitting atop Mount Olympus. A major figure in the defeat of Japan in the Pacific in the Second World War, he had remained in Japan as an administrator, ruling the country with Oriental remoteness and absolutism. Long accustomed to doing what he wanted and adept at insubordination, he had been indulged by his superiors for so long that he came to believe himself beyond scrutiny. His nominal bosses, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were actually afraid of him; and MacArthur, an expert political infighter, knew how to keep them off balance with a mixture of drama, innuendo, and veiled threats.
He was a man of contradictions. As superintendent of West Point, he proved himself an efficient administrator and progressive reformer; in the Second World War, he showed his tactical brilliance on many occasions; and in Korea, his amphibious landing at Inchon turned the tide of the war and came within an ace of winning it. Charismatic, highly intelligent, and brave, he could also be vain, spiteful, pathologically insecure, and jealous of colleagues and subordinates.
MacArthur’s gamble at the Inchon landings in 1950 had been brilliantly successful. He had pulled off a masterstroke, outflanking the North Koreans who just weeks earlier had had the US and South Koreans boxed into a steadily shrinking perimeter around Pusan. Against all the naysayers, he had triumphed; the North Koreans, in full retreat, seemed now close to complete collapse. As he moved into North Korea and plunged northward, he committed two unforgiveable military blunders: he divided his forces for separate northward advances, and he refused to listen to intelligence reports that China was preparing an all-out invasion in support of its beleaguered North Korean ally.
But the Chinese did enter the war, and with both feet. MacArthur’s forces were sent reeling back down the peninsula. The US Army came close to full collapse; the US Marines, with their superior discipline and cohesiveness, were only with great difficulty able to extricate themselves from the frozen wastes of the Chosin Reservoir. The situation deeply shocked MacArthur; his carelessness and vanity had been responsible for the disaster, yet he refused to accept any measure of blame.
Losing the war on the ground and increasingly divorced from reality, he reverted to living in his fantasies. MacArthur’s public statements became more and more provocative. He began to openly challenge US policy in the Far East: he threatened to “unleash” Chiang Kai-Shek in Taiwan on the communist Chinese mainland, and to widen the war beyond Korea. In increasingly bombastic and insubordinate public statements, he appeared to endorse to use of atomic bombs on China and the Soviet Union, and, even worse, edged towards suggesting the inadequacy of President Truman’s leadership. Repeated attempts to admonish him and rein him in came to nothing. Like a spoiled child who had been indulged too often, MacArthur’s behavior by 1951 had become nearly impossible to correct. Thus was the stage set for one of the most dramatic confrontations in the history of American politico-military affairs.
The National Security Agency (NSA), newly created in 1947, routinely monitored communications of both friends and foes of the US from its monitoring station at Atsugi Air Base near Tokyo. Intercepts of MacArthur’s conversations with foreign diplomats (mainly Spain and Portugal) demonstrated his inclination to widen the war outside Korea, so as to destroy the communist Chinese and chasten the USSR. When Truman was briefed on MacArthur’s machinations, he was furious. It simply could not be tolerated. Even without these secret conversations, Truman had enough evidence of his general’s insubordination—from MacArthur’s professionally suicidal public statements questioning US policy in Korea–to justify his sacking of MacArthur. He had finally forced Truman’s hand.
All that remained was to notify MacArthur of his firing. To spare MacArthur embarrassment, it was decided to have a courier quietly hand-deliver the relief notice to the general’s home in Tokyo. Everyone involved was sworn to secrecy. But somehow the message traffic got stalled, and then a loose-lipped official in Tokyo leaked the story to a reporter. Panic seized the Truman administration. It was feared that, if MacArthur got wind of his firing before being officially notified, he might make some sort of grandstanding speech to the press to further sabotage US policy in Korea.
Truman’s only option was to preempt MacArthur by calling a press conference at one o’clock in the morning on April 11, 1951. Truman’s announcement to the press was terse and resolute. “With deep regret” he declared that he believed MacArthur was “unable to give his whole-hearted support” to US policies in Korea. “For that reason I repeat my regret at the necessity for the action I feel compelled to take in this case.” It was unfortunate that these circumstances—rousing reporters in the dead of night for a press conference–made the firing of MacArthur seem a rushed, impetuous, and irrational act by Truman, which was in fact untrue.
The comic opera continued, and had one final act. MacArthur found out about his sacking in the worst way possible: a colleague heard it on the radio, who then called MacArthur’s wife to inform her that her husband had been “relieved of all his commands.” When the general himself finally got the official notice, he hugged his wife and said, “Jeannie, we’re going home at last.”
On his return to the US, MacArthur addressed a joint session of Congress with a masterpiece of oratory. He then went on a speaking tour of America. The fallout was devastating. Feeling ran high against Truman, who had already been deeply unpopular on account of the little-understood Korean War. Truman wisely laid low until the storm passed, but the public deeply resented his removal of MacArthur, and Truman’s political enemies made the most of it. But the public, easily led astray by hero-worship and prone to emotionalism, is almost never on the side of wisdom and restraint.
As time has given us some perspective on the matter, it is clear that Truman’s removal of MacArthur was an act of deep courage, taken under circumstances that Truman knew would expose himself to hatred and retaliation from MacArthur’s political friends in Congress. But MacArthur had had it coming, and he knew it. He had stonewalled on his orders, had expressed open contempt for his president, had conspired against his nation’s policies behind the scenes, and had failed on the battlefield.
In the history of armed conflict, no removal of a wartime general has been as justified, and as necessary, as the removal of MacArthur. It is a leadership lesson that resonates with us today, wherever lawful authority is fundamentally challenged by the malignant brew of charisma, hubris, and guile. And so the fates of men and nations may hinge on the denouement of these fateful contests.
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