Monday, June 28, 2010

General Malaise

The smoking gun document leaked out, and its words were damning for the words' originator.

The President of the United States, no less, was being called out by a powerful general for having a different sort of wartime strategy than the general would prefer. If the president's path was taken, the words said, then the ramifications could be dire.

The president, after huddling with his Defense Secretary and the Joint Chiefs, rendered a decision: the general would have to be replaced. Because no one calls out the Commander in Chief on military matters, especially during wartime.

And that's how it came to be that Harry S. Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur.

If you had Stanley McChrystal's name on the brain, you're forgiven. But it's another example of the adage: if you stick around long enough, you're liable to see history repeat itself.

The Korean War was the conflict in 1951, when much-decorated General MacArthur, commander of the forces defending South Korea, became mystified by President Truman's "limited war" strategy.

MacArthur wrote a letter critical of Truman, and it fell into the hands of U.S. Rep. Joseph William Martin, Jr. (R-Massachusetts). Rep. Martin read it on the floor of Congress, along with providing copies for the press.

The letter ended, "It seems strangely difficult for some to realize that here in Asia is where the Communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest, and that we have joined the issue thus raised on the battlefield; that here we fight Europe’s war with arms while the diplomats there still fight it with words; that if we lose the war to communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable, win it and Europe most probably would avoid war and yet preserve freedom. As you pointed out, we must win. There is no substitute for victory."

It was obvious that the "some" in that first sentence refers to Truman, as does "you" in the second-to-last sentence.

The letter of April 1951 wasn't the first time MacArthur had been critical of Truman.


President Truman and General MacArthur, in happier times


On August 26, 1950, Gen. MacArthur was addressing the 51st National Encampment of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. In condemning President Truman's policy toward the island of Formosa, MacArthur said: "Nothing could be more fallacious than the threadbare argument by those who advocate appeasement and defeatism in the Pacific that if we defend Formosa we alienate continental Asia."

The relationship between Truman and MacArthur began to be strained from that point on, though the two worked together without much incident.

Then came the April 1951 letter, and Truman had had enough.

The decision to fire MacArthur was portrayed as being pretty much unanimous among the President and his close military advisers, along with the Joint Chiefs. While it was agreed that MacArthur hadn't been guilty of out-and-out insubordination, he had come perilously close and that was enough to render his leadership counter to the greater good.

General McChrystal's brain fart, in the form of his profile in Rolling Stone Magazine, made it impossible for President Barack Obama to keep McChrystal in command of the forces in Afghanistan.

The President had no choice but to fire McChrystal.

If an "old soldier" like the esteemed General Douglas MacArthur can be fired for publicly challenging his president's---and thus the country's---war strategy, then who can't be?

It took almost 60 years this time, but these things have a way of cycling back, sooner or later.

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