By Jeffrey Lord on 6.24.10 @ 6:08AM
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.
So there was strong support for MacArthur’s sentiments as he expressed them in a January 1951 interview with the New York Times, an interview that had this headline:
M’Arthur, Near 71, Bitter Over Reds:
Says He is ready to Fight Them the Rest of His Life.
Read a MacArthur quote at the beginning of the story:
“Democracy — the American way of life — is the most wonderful thing we have and it is worth fighting for when it is threatened.”
Four months later, with Truman fed up over the increasingly public nature of MacArthur’s comments, the condescension he felt his general was showing the presidency and the general’s tendency to freelance diplomacy that went against White House policy, Truman astonished the world.
He fired MacArthur.
At that moment — and more importantly for the rest of the almost half-century duration of the Cold War and now extending into the War on Terror — the template of a central conflict between the Left and Right, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives began to harden.
The Left was perceived as favoring appeasement or negotiation or acceptance of enemies sworn to destroy America. The Progressive Party, Henry Wallace’s soapbox, quickly issued a statement saying that firing MacArthur “makes a profound re-direction to peace possible.” Within days the party that symbolized the ideas that would come to dominate the American Left over the next seven decades — right up until today — was calling a meeting “to chart a course” for “peace” — a peace that was widely interpreted by millions of Americans as appeasement, pacifism, or worse. The Right, on the other hand — anticipating Ronald Reagan by four decades — favored outright victory over the Soviet Union and Communism itself. Period.
The impact of MacArthur’s firing was immediate, a political earthquake.
In California Truman was hung in effigy. The Los Angeles City Council adjourned, furious at it what it called “the political assassination” of General MacArthur. Cars suddenly appeared on city streets carrying homemade banners demanding “Oust President Truman.” Newspapers across the country were flooded with calls of protest. The American Legion, in post-World War II America some four million members strong, was outraged. Incongruously, the Chicago Board of Trade reported that prices for wheat, corn, rye and oats were plunging as a result of the firing. The President’s poll numbers tumbled, finally bottoming on the eve of the 1952 election at 22%.
MacArthur returned, fired, as the conquering hero. Half a million people cheered him on his arrival in San Francisco. Over a million New Yorkers turned out just to see MacArthur ride from Idlewild (now JFK) Airport to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. Five million turned out for New York’s ticker-tape parade honoring MacArthur, with a record 2,850 tons of paper littering the city afterwards. There was a famous address to a cheering Congress and the memorable line that “Old Soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
That is, effectively, what did happen — to MacArthur. History records that MacArthur’s potential presidential candidacy fizzled. It is commonly held today that Truman did the correct thing in asserting his rights as commander-in-chief.
BUT THERE WAS SOMETHING ELSE, a very big political something else, that the media and historians of today always miss about that famous showdown between MacArthur and Truman.
It was a something else so politically potent it would eventually explode the image of Democrats as fearless opponents of American enemies. The once seemingly invincible image created by FDR’s wartime leadership in the greatest war of all time — the fight against Hitler and the Japanese that was World War II — was eviscerated.
MacArthur’s refusal to bend the knee to Communism drew a vividly bright line between the American Left and Right that exists to this day. Damaged in the moment was the perception of Truman’s own adamant opposition to Communism, and his emergence as America’s first hard-as-nails anti-Communist Cold War president. Truman’s appointment of another heroic World War II general, Mark Clark — the David Petraeus of his day — to take MacArthur’s place in Korea ,did nothing to halt the sea-change in American politics that the MacArthur removal signaled.
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.
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at email@example.com.
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