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.
Even at the same moment in time, the Truman Administration was inconsistent. MacArthur would get one set of instructions from Sec. of Defense George Marshall, which MacArthur would dutifully implement; meanwhile, Sec. of State Dean Acheson would criticize MacArthur for acting against State’s policy, which differed from Marshall’s instructions to MacArthur.
In his autobiography, Don Rumsfeld described the same problem with the postwar policy in Iraq. According to Rumsfeld, it happened because President George W. Bush was not making decisions to unify his Administration on policy alternatives, which Rumsfeld blamed on then National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, who failed to bring these conflicts to Bush to decide.
While MacArthur did raise these conflicts for resolution, which is why he was fired, it is evident that Truman evaded making clear and consistent choices.
At other times in Korea, MacArthur would receive ambiguous instructions from Washington. These directives without directions appeared designed to evade responsibility for saying either yes or no to MacArthur’s initiative.
Such double speak is standard for today’s politicians, who cannot speak without contradicting themselves so that audience members of different opinions will be certain that the speaking politician agreed with them and not the other person. Further, this allows the politician to shift on policy in the political wind until they can jump on the winning side as if that politician mattered.
This is the fifth in a series of six posts on the lessons from the Truman-MacArthur conflict.
6) Limited War and Defeat