Famous showdown helped GOP to landslide, shaped decades of Cold War politics.
Harry Truman was no dove.
But Douglas MacArthur made him look like one.
And the political consequences for Democrats of Truman’s legendary dismissal of the iconic hero of World War II — at the height of the Korean War — were both dramatic and long-lasting. In fact, those consequences are part of the political baggage of the American left — and the Obama administration — to this day. It is a history that stirs yet again with the decision of President Obama to fire General Stanley McChrystal in the wake of the now infamous Rolling Stone interview with the General and his aides.
First, the history.
World War II was over, and the world celebrated. Within a month of Truman’s decision to drop two atomic bombs — the brand new weapon of the day — on Japan, the Japanese had finally yielded. General Douglas MacArthur, the hero of the Pacific Theater, had accepted the Japanese surrender onboard the battleship USS Missouri.
MacArthur was quickly installed as, in effect, the American Shogun of Japan in the aftermath of the war. Working effectively to keep the Japanese tradition of the Emperor yet melding it with a solid constitutional underpinning of democracy, the General played no small role in helping the Japanese people recover and thrive as the Asian democracy they have been ever since.
Yet while MacArthur was busy reconstructing Japan, Truman was coming to the recognition that the Soviet Union was turning from an American ally against Hitler to its central dream of imposing a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship on the world. The Cold War had begun.
Americans, still celebrating and trying to resume the joys of a normal civilian life, were finding themselves increasingly caught up in a bewildering if not frightening new world they simply hadn’t seen coming. It wasn’t the peace they thought they had won.
Startling accusations flew along with a host of new names.
Gone were FDR and the bulk of the household names that had filled the newspapers, radio newscasts and newsreels since 1932. In their place were tumultuous allegations of Communist spies in the government, secretly salted throughout the Roosevelt and now Truman administrations. A young California Congressman named Richard Nixon burst on the scene helping a Time magazine editor named Whittaker Chambers expose an ex-FDR aide named Alger Hiss as a Communist spy. A Wisconsin veteran styling himself “Tail-Gunner Joe” McCarthy was elected to the U.S. Senate in the 1946 elections and soon was making accusations of communists in government. Abroad, the United States was finding itself in one crisis after another with Communism. Berlin was blockaded, Greece was under assault, Mao Tse-tung toppled the Chinese government. Winston Churchill pronounced the reality of what he called “The Iron Curtain.” The Russians — with the help of American spies — had gotten their hands on The Bomb.
And inside the Democratic Party an at-first almost invisible fissure began to widen and show itself, separating Truman from self-described left-wing “progressives” as represented by his predecessor as FDR’s vice president, Henry Wallace. The dividing line? How to deal with the Soviet Union and its increasingly relentless drive to remake the world — by murderous force — in the Communist image of Marx and Lenin.
In this new era, on June 25, 1950, Communist North Korea invaded South Korea, stunning both Truman and the world. No slouch in taking action, Truman quickly arranged for the new United Nations — a decision from which the Soviets had deliberately absented themselves — to call for a police action and send member country troops to South Korea. MacArthur, the hero of World War II who had spent much of his career in Asia, was called from Japan to take command.
Which, in his usual and famously imperious fashion, he did. In MacArthur’s world Truman, while president, was little more than the failed haberdasher and crass World War I artillery captain that was the caricature of Truman’s political enemies. The notion that fate would have Truman giving orders to MacArthur simultaneously amused and infuriated.
There were increasing clashes between the two. Most behind the scenes, but increasingly some leaking into the media of the day. Even more irritatingly to Truman — and, in retrospect a sign of the historic division to come — MacArthur was picking up allies among prominent Republican conservatives in Congress.
In particular, the once isolationist-leaning GOP of the 1930s was now focusing on the new Communist threat. And what it perceived as the growing problem internal to the Democrats, as exemplified by Henry Wallace and his “progressives.” The problem? Weakness towards Communism, a philosophy that was, with increasing clarity, seen as a sworn enemy of America, freedom and democracy. A re-start of the war just ended by other means. In the vernacular of a day that was belatedly yet correctly sensitive to the rise of Hitler — Republicans saw this as appeasement. Appeasement of Communism. And this time, the GOP had no intention of sitting on the sidelines as many felt it had during Hitler’s rise to power and war.
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