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.
During different phases of the Korean War, the Truman Administration’s policy swung erratically; there wasn’t one policy, but many conflicting policies.
Before the invasion by North Korea, the Truman Administration excluded both Korea and Formosa (aka Taiwan) from the area of U.S. military protection. Like April Glaspie to Saddam Hussein, this diplomatic faux pas essentially green lighted an invasion of South Korea. Later, after the invasion, the Truman Administration verbally extended protection to not only South Korea, but also Formosa (Taiwan) and Indo-China (Vietnam).
After authorizing MacArthur to perform a counter-invasion of North Korea, the Truman Administration later denied a counterattack into China following the Chicom’s crossing the Yalu River. Instead, the Truman Administration granted the Chicom enemy staging areas that were protected by Truman from attack by MacArthur. What principle differentiated these different responses to communist aggression?
That is the key: the Truman Administration’s policies lacked any rational principles, which are needed to predict the likely future consequences of current action.
They even lacked a consistent goal. While MacArthur sought victory after being committed to battle, the Truman Administration sought different and contradictory goals overtime. Reacting to events, the Truman Administration’s twin ephemeral guides were (1) What can we get away with? And (2) What will make Truman popular at home?
Truman apologists would say that Europe was more important to Truman; but if so, why get involved in repelling the North Korean invasion at all. Like today, our military was under the budget ax and there was only so much it could do. Why rhetorically write a policy blank check to anti-communism in the Pacific and then fail to act consistent with that commitment? Just kidding?
Are we making such over commitments now as the military is being cut back? Obama and the Congress has expanded our commitments in Africa to Uganda, Sudan, and Mali. Where are the cuts to the ambition of our current Administration’s foreign policy commitments to match the cuts it seeks in military spending?
This is the fourth in a series of six posts on the lessons from the Truman-MacArthur conflict.
6) Limited War and Defeat