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 Harry Truman and his truculent commander in Korea.
To the left, McChrystal's shot across President Barack 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. 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. Determined to rout the North Koreans, MacArthur 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.
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. 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. 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.
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."
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 (declared by Chicago's mayor) 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 picture that took root — of a hotheaded, charismatic general with an angry and dedicated popular following — was worrisome. 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.
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. 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 national security adviser James 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.
David Greenberg is a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers.