Famous showdown helped GOP to landslide, shaped decades of Cold War politics.
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The steady decades-long decline of the once immutable idea of Democrats as the party of national security had begun. Drop-by-drop, like an acid eating away at metal, the MacArthur firing in retrospect was a turning point, putting the American Left constantly on the political defensive when it came to national security issues.
The first political blow came almost immediately. In November of 1952, Americans rejected Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, the Democrats’ nominee to replace the by now highly unpopular Truman. In a sign of things to come, they elected retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower — MacArthur’s one-time aide and the commander of D-Day — as president, along with a GOP House and Senate. Eisenhower ran as the anti-Communist’s anti-Communist, selecting the by now famously anti-Communist Senator Richard Nixon as his running mate.
Over and over and over again in the succeeding years, the question of how to deal with America’s Cold War enemies — the Soviet Union, the Communist Chinese, the Koreans, the Vietnamese, Eastern Europe, Berlin, Cuba and Communists in Latin America repeatedly surfaced the idea first writ large by the MacArthur firing: that Democrats could not be trusted with national security. Over time, the Truman Democrats — and their hardline successors JFK and Lyndon Johnson — would lose control of their party to the forces supporting Truman’s old intra-party foe, the pacifist-leaning ex-Vice President Henry Wallace. Their leader: South Dakota Senator George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic nominee who lost a 49-state blowout to Nixon but in the process began the finalizing of the party’s image as one of appeasement and military weakness.
WHY IS ALL OF THIS important politically today? Because the Rolling Stone article shows in vivid detail that the sentiments that first surfaced in the MacArthur firing are still alive, well and exceptionally powerful today in America’s fight against Islamic fascism. The banning of the latter phrase by an Obama administration that deems it politically incorrect is in itself a symbol of the politics launched by the MacArthur firing. Doubtless that kind of political correctness is one source of the derision that was carelessly expressed by McChrystal’s aides to Rolling Stone.
General Stanley McChrystal was wrong to be giving time to discuss his views with Rolling Stone, his aides unimaginably stupid to be so free with a reporter for a magazine with a considerable anti-war reputation. Ironically, the politics of Rolling Stone itself — indeed the magazine’s very existence — are a legacy of the anti-war sentiments that were first bubbling with progressives during the time of MacArthur’s firing.
Without doubt, the essence of what McChrystal so obviously believes — that the answer to al Qaeda is victory, not appeasement or negotiation — is what was once believed by those millions who thronged the streets of San Francisco and New York to cheer Douglas MacArthur. This is the political view that propelled the electoral careers of presidents who sided with MacArthur’s views in one form or another throughout the Cold War, from Eisenhower to George H.W. Bush. It has elected literally hundreds of senators and congressman.
From 1952 on through to the last Cold War election in 1988, the victorious candidate for the presidency was always the one perceived as the more MacArthur-like, which is to say an unrelenting foe of the Soviet Union and its various Communist allies. At a minimum the candidate had to be at least as tough as the other guy. Anything less and the candidate was simply un-electable. Even Jimmy Carter passed that test in 1976, campaigning as a tough ex-Navy officer with scorn for Gerald Ford’s supposed soft views on the Communist domination of Eastern Europe. When events proved otherwise after his election, Carter was out in an Eisenhower-esque landslide for Ronald Reagan. In addition to Carter’s failure in 1980 the MacArthur test was failed successively by Democrats Stevenson (twice), Humphrey, McGovern, Mondale and Dukakis.
Make no mistake.
The firing of General McChrystal — all constitutionally correct — will be hailed in some quarters for that reason.
But what is being missed is the real political message that came through loud and clear in the Rolling Stone McCrystal article.
That the American military thinks the Obama team is not up to the job of defeating Al Qaeda and winning a war which it is even terrified of calling by name. That those on the front line in a life-and-death struggle with a serious enemy think the President a wimp, the Vice President a blowhard, the national security adviser a “clown,” Ambassador Richard Holbrooke a man consumed by the need for relevance, and that the French act like…well…the French.
The spirit of Douglas MacArthur and his fury at what he perceived as a weakness in fighting Communism resonates through every last word of McChrystal and his impolitic aides. In fact, McCrystal himself, if you read the actual article, is extraordinarily reticent. But combined with the blunt, caustic sentiments of his aides, there is no doubt of what the troops think of the commander-in-chief and his team.
Yes, the history books give Truman high marks for firing MacArthur.
But ever after that dismissal Americans, beginning with the very next election, awarded the vast majority of political prizes of power and influence to those who echoed the heart of MacArthur’s message. Elections were won by those who, in word if not in deed, reminded them of the 71-year-old general’s headline vow: “to spend the rest of his life fighting communism.”
Yesterday, Barack Obama fired General Stanley McChrystal. Obama acolytes will hail him as another Harry Truman. Forgetting one very, very important political point at Obama’s peril. For decades to come after that fateful day in April of 1951, as winning and losing candidates came and went, there was always one very significant constant in the political results.
MacArthur always defeated Truman.