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.
While MacArthur was not a faultless individual, he was a superior leader, strategist, and an active executive.
After listening to many complementary biographers of Truman, I conclude that he was an unaccomplished, inferior man, who was smaller than the responsibility that he held; while my judgment may soften with reading a definitive Truman biography, I doubt it as the more I learn of him the smaller he becomes. As an example of Truman’s unfitness see his personal policy related to his undue deference to military commanders.
Truman’s two favorite military generals in history were in the end losers: Hannibal of Carthage and confederate Robert E. Lee. Instead of crediting their defeats to the political and military leadership of Scipio and Abraham Lincoln, Truman blamed the interference of politicians back home for causing superior generals to lose; for example: the politicians in Carthage recalled Hannibal from Italy to defend the homeland from Scipio’s attacks. Truman was not going to be one of those interfering politicians and would instead give the generals free reign to do their jobs. For an examination of this point of Truman’s psyche, see Michael Perlman’s 2009 lecture at the Pritzker Military Library.
In this light, contrast Truman’s failure to achieve victory in Korea with Lincoln’s pushing and replacing of generals until he could find one that would wage war against the South (see Sheridan’s Valley campaign, which put Virginia’s breadbasket to the torch, and Sherman’s famed March to the Sea with its Sherman bowties made from the South’s rail lines ).
Meanwhile, the Joint Chiefs demonstrated ponderous indecisiveness and inaction at the cost of our soldiers’ lives. More on that in a future post in this series.
In MacArthur, Truman selected the wrong man to be commander in Korea based upon Truman’s eventual strategic objective, which was to lead a stalemate that would kill American soldiers without a substantial investment of America resources. MacArthur’s leadership, values, and skills were not compatible with that mission.
So that this aspect of the conflict related to the disparity in the quality of leadership will not be misconstrued as a past problem or a potential future problem only, see the recent firing of General Stanley McChrystal by the Obama Administration in 2010 over comments reported in Rolling Stone that were derogatory related to individuals in the civilian leadership.
Extra Point: For a detailed examination of the critical aspects of the leadership and strategies of Scipio and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, see John David Lewis’ book Nothing Less than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History.
This is the second in a series of six posts on the lessons from the Truman-MacArthur conflict.
6) Limited War and Defeat