The first session of DIP 750 we touched on the distinction modern states have from the ancient model of statecraft and military policy. Modern states divide responsibility between civilian and military systems and organizations. That is in stark contrast to the Ancient Romans, just as one example, where victorious generals often saw their political stock rise along with their military glory. However, hard as we might try, there continue to be disputes about the parameters set on military power, and not just in developing democracies who have a history of military dictatorship. One of the most consequential and contentious civilian/military standoffs of the 20th century happened within the United States government post WWII.
One of the most calamitous aspects of the Korean War was the repercussion it had on American foreign policy, illustrated rather perfectly by the policy disagreement and personal collision between President Harry Truman and General MacArthur. Douglas MacArthur was first introduced to the American military scene in the Far East in 1941, when FDR appointed him Commander of American forces in the region after the Japanese invasion of Indochina. Having already served as Supreme Commander for Allied Powers in Japan, MacArthur was no typical general. As de facto ruler of over 80 million Japanese citizens, he was not used to answering to his civilian superiors, including the Commander-in-Chief.
Generally, the characteristics that distinguish politicians from officers are that officers think tactically, while politicians think politically. MacArthur thought tactically and politically, and he fancied himself to be quite the politician as well as a brilliant General. The beginning of the miscommunication and mutual distrust between Truman and MacArthur was that Truman initially saw him as a political foe, as someone aligned with the Republican Party. He feared that MacArthur might run against him in 1952, after a groundswell of support had formed for him during the last several election cycles. The catalyst for their divergence would prove to be less about domestic politics, and more about the dichotomy between the civilian and military control of foreign policy decisions.
Our first session also touched on the fact that the military apparatus inevitably deals with problems of miscommunication between civilians and military personnel. That very dichotomy began to manifest itself when the Joint Chiefs began reevaluating their initial analysis of Korea and the rest of Eastern Asia in mid-1950. There was a misunderstanding between Washington and the military personnel on the ground with regards to Korea from the beginning of the conflict, for nearly all the U.S. intelligence agencies were disastrously false in their predictions pertaining to North Korea’s attack on South Korea. Additionally, General MacArthur’s insistence and eagerness to engage the Chinese militarily alarmed the Truman administration.
Truman was dubious of MacArthur’s dismissive attitude towards him in the past when he reached out to the General, saying, “I have always regretted that General MacArthur declined the invitations that were extended to him to return to the United States, even if only for a short visit, during his years in Japan.” Truman suggest that part of the disconnect between himself and MacArthur was because the General had been in the Orient for 14 years, and all his thinking revolved around the Far East. Perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back was Gen. MacArthur’s meddling in domestic politics, as well as his seemingly open alliance with the President’s Republican opponents in Congress. Truman explained that in his mind there was a right and wrong kind of victory. It was MacArthur’s apparent zero sum theory of victory in Korea that led Truman to remove him from his post.
On April 11th, 1951, Truman formally fired MacArthur from all his official posts. Truman did acknowledge the extraordinary accomplishments of Gen. MacArthur, saying he was “one of our greatest military commanders,” but since he openly disagreed with American foreign policy, he could not remain at his post. Truman writes in his memoirs his justification for MacArthur’s firing, “Our Constitution embodies the principle of civilian control of the military. This was the principle that General MacArthur threatened. I do not believe that he purposefully decided to challenge civilian control of the military, but the result of his behavior was that this fundamental principle of free government was in danger.” The President must be the vanguard against such disregard for civilian authority, by assuring that we do not devolve into a military dictatorship through the oftentimes-subtle neglect of civilian oversight. Truman’s vigilance of this issue was even more indispensable during wartime, when the people are susceptible to such claims about the need for more military autonomy. While it might have cost him a third term in the White House, his belief in the American system of non-military governance and respect for the Office of the Presidency transcended his ambitions for his political career.