The Korean conflict between President Harry S. Truman and General Douglas MacArthur has been framed in history by the partisans of Truman as a case of the commander-in-chief replacing an insubordinate general. However, the full context is not only more relevant, but also applicable to today.
When asked how he would get out of an impossible military situation, Napoleon reportedly said that he was a good general because he would not have gotten into such an impossible situation. The sacking of MacArthur by Truman is one of those situations that developed over time and could have been avoided with better leadership from titular superiors.
Beyond the two principles, grave errors were committed by Secretary of State Dean Acheson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Omar Bradley. However, President Harry “The Buck Stops Here” Truman led this cluster f, which could more accurately be called a SNAFU.
Ultimately, the blame lies with the American electorate as they selected a dying man to be president in 1944, and an inferior one to remain president in 1948.
In examining such conflicts, the media too often simplifies and personifies it as an issue of did the President win or lose with partisans for or against a President following their assigned role in lockstep. The antecedent causes are ignored, which if properly managed would have prevented or mitigated the crisis. Meanwhile, the essential roles played by subordinate players in developing and implementing policy is ignored as if a President could decide and things would automatically happen according to that decision; consequently, the importance of managerial skill is given insufficient priority.
Just as Napoleon claimed that his success as a general came from avoiding impossible situations, voters need to recognize our own role in creating the problems that our country currently faces. In the last election, we choose to return all the same individuals to office that failed to solve our country’s fiscal problems, and so far they still are failing to do so. That was a predictable consequence, so we as voters should not be surprised that our unsustainable fiscal conflicts persist.
Truman’s mismanagement precipitated his conflict with MacArthur over policy in Korea; whereas FDR was able to manage MacArthur during WWII, Truman failed to do so. Just as Truman’s failure built over time, we voters are failing in managing our elected leaders as we have rewarded their failure to the danger of our country. Unlike Truman, we voters could chose to take responsibility for our mistakes, instead of blaming our subordinates, and examine and correct our erroneous premises that caused our current “impossible” situation with the public debt and unfunded liabilities. We are the boss, and the buck stops with us.
This is the first is a series of six posts on the lessons from the Truman-MacArthur conflict.
6) Limited War and Defeat