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  • >> Jim Lindsay: Most Americans believe that presidents should listen to the military advice

  • that generals give. But a bedrock principle of American politics is civilian control of

  • the military. What happens when those two beliefs come into conflict?

  • I’m Jim Lindsay, and this is Lessons Learned. Our topic today is President Harry Truman’s

  • announcement on April 11, 1951, that he had dismissed General Douglas MacArthur as commanding

  • general of U.S. forces in Korea.

  • Douglas MacArthur was an American hero. The son of an U.S. army general, he graduated

  • first in his class from West Point, fought with great distinction in World War I, and

  • became chief of staff of the Army in the 1930s. After a brief retirement, he returned to lead

  • the U.S. Army in the Pacific during World War II. When Japanese forces pushed U.S. troops

  • out of the Philippines in 1942, he famously vowed, “I shall return.” And he did. MacArthur

  • was awarded a Medal of Honor for the Philippines campaign, and he became one of only five Americans

  • to ever hold the rank of five-star general. He accepted Japan’s formal surrender on

  • board the USS Missouri in September 1945, and for the next five years he ran the U.S.

  • occupation of Japan.

  • MacArthur’s military career did not end with World War II. When North Korea attacked

  • South Korea in June 1950, Truman tapped MacArthur to command U.S. forces sent to repel the invasion.

  • He responded brilliantly. In September 1950, he ordered one of the most daringand successfulmilitary

  • operations of all time: the amphibious assault at Inchon. The operation cut North Korean

  • forces in half and turned the tide of the warat least for a while.

  • MacArthur pressed his military advantage, pushing across the 38th parallel into North

  • Korean territory. But as U.S. forces drove toward the Yalu River and the border with

  • China, the unthinkable happened: Some 300,000 Chinese troops came to North Korea’s defense.

  • The war’s entire military and political calculus suddenly changed. Unwilling to risk

  • a wider war with China, and perhaps with its ally, the Soviet Union, Truman refused to

  • order attacks on targets in China.

  • Truman’s decision to limit the fighting infuriated MacArthur. He wanted to take the

  • war to China. Despite being told to keep his views to himself, MacArthur wrote a letter

  • in late March 1951 to the Republican Speaker of the House criticizing the limited-war strategy.

  • Truman wrote in his diary: “This looks like the last straw. Rank insubordination. . . I’ve

  • come to the conclusion that our Big General in the Far East must be recalled.”

  • On April 11, 1951, Truman announced withdeep regretthat he had relieved MacArthur of

  • command.

  • >> President Harry S. Truman: A number of events have made it evident that General MacArthur

  • did not agree with that policy. I have therefore considered it essential to relieve General

  • MacArthur so that there would be doubt or confusion as to the real purpose and aim of

  • our policy. It is of the deepest personal regret that I found myself compelled to take

  • this action. General MacArthur is one of our greatest military commanders. But the cause

  • of world peace is much more important than any individual.

  • >> Jim Lindsay: It was a risky move for the president. His public approval rating was

  • just 26 percent; the man he had just fired was a national hero.

  • Within a week of his firing, MacArthur returned to the United States. Some thirty million

  • Americans watched on TV as he gave a rousing address to a joint session of Congress. Lawmakers

  • responded with thunderous applause when MacArthur declaredIn war there can be no substitute

  • for victory.”

  • >> General Douglas MacArthur: I now close my military career and just fade away, an

  • old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty. Good

  • bye.

  • >> Jim Lindsay: MacArthur then went to New York City, which gave him the largest ticker-tape

  • parade in history.

  • There were no parades for Truman. Hotheads called for his impeachment. He was hanged

  • in effigy in several cities. And in a major breech of manners for the 1950s, he was publicly

  • booed.

  • Truman had one thing on his side, though. Most Americans, and most U.S. generals, opposed

  • the military strategy that MacArthur favored. They wanted nothing to do with a war with

  • China, not when America’s main foe was the Soviet Union. As General Omar Bradley told

  • the Senate during hearings prompted by the dismissal of his fellow five-star general:

  • in the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, [MacArthur’s] strategy would involve us

  • in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy.”

  • What is the lesson of Truman’s dismissal of MacArthur? Just this: Presidents can be

  • justified in overruling the military advice of even their most decorated generals. MacArthur’s

  • desire to take the war to China, though well-intentioned and certainly heartfelt, failed to consider

  • America’s broader interests, the public’s appetite for war, and the merits of other

  • strategies. But those were precisely the factors that weighed most heavily on Truman’s mind.

  • Today the United States is again at war. How long U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan

  • and what they should do while they are there are matters of dispute. The U.S. military

  • will recommend steps that the White House should take next. The president may accept

  • those recommendations, revise them, or reject them entirely. That is the meaning of the

  • principle of civilian control of the military, and it’s what the Framers intended when

  • they make the presidentcommander-in-chief.”

  • So here’s a question to consider: How much deference should presidents give to the military,

  • and under what conditions should they overrule military advice?

  • I encourage you to weigh in with your answers on my blog, The Water’s Edge. You can find

  • it at CFR.org.

  • I’m Jim Lindsay. Thank you for watching this installment of Lessons Learned.

>> Jim Lindsay: Most Americans believe that presidents should listen to the military advice

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Lessons Learned: General MacArthur's Dismissal

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    Cathy Wang   posted on 2014/07/19
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