Harry S. Truman served as vice president of the United States for eighty-two days, until the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, elevated him to the White House. Visibly stunned, he told the reporters the following day that he “felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.”
He was not exaggerating. World War II was still raging in Europe and the Pacific. Nazi Germany was weeks away from surrendering, but the Pacific campaign seemed far from over, with a costly invasion of the Japanese main islands still the likely conclusion. Truman had been unaware of the development of the atomic bomb, the eventual deployment of which would be his decision alone. A dozen years before, his greatest responsibility had been building roads in rural Missouri. Now he had the fate of the world in his hands.
The most famous and flamboyant military leader in the Pacific was General Douglas A. MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area, who would never publicly admit any doubts about his own abilities. There is no doubt that MacArthur was a brave and resourceful commander. But as John C. McManus observes in Island Infernos: The US Army’s Pacific War Odyssey, 1944, the general was “a man of astonishing pomposity, megalomania and egocentrism,” plagued by “petty vanities, a slew of insecurities, and troubling character flaws.”
MacArthur was certainly a consummate showman. He commanded a vast retinue of public relations professionals who were deployed not only to exalt his military reputation, but also to engineer a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 1944. He soon abandoned his nascent campaign, but his yearning for the presidency was undiminished.
After accepting the Japanese surrender on the deck of USS Missouri in August 1945, MacArthur was appointed Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in Japan and successfully oversaw the occupation and reconstruction of that defeated land. He turned his eyes again to the White House in 1948, so alarming Truman that the president offered to cede the Democratic nomination to General Dwight D. Eisenhower if he would help block MacArthur’s election. But just as in 1944, MacArthur was too proud to actively seek the Republican nomination, waiting instead to be drafted. The draft never came.
But MacArthur was the obvious choice to lead the United Nations military effort in the Korean War, which began with the invasion of South Korea by North Korea in 1951. The Chinese-backed North Koreans swept all before them for several weeks, and the U.N. forces were reeling. But MacArthur’s daring landing at Inchon on September 15 led to the recapture of Seoul, the South Korean capital, and the capture of much of the enemy army.
MacArthur then took the fight to the enemy in the North but took time to meet with Truman on Wake Island on October 15, a few weeks before the midterm elections. Truman asked the general, “What are the chances for Chinese or Soviet interference?” MacArthur replied, “Very little.” But he was wrong, and before long thousands of Chinese soldiers were pouring into Korea. To make matters worse, MacArthur wrote a letter to House Republican leader Joseph Martin, which Martin read on the House floor. In it, he declared, “There is no substitute for victory,” implying that Truman’s heart was not in the fight.
Truman had had enough, writing in his diary on April 6, 1951, “This looks like the last straw.” He relieved MacArthur from duty, announcing, “With deep regret I have concluded that General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is unable to give his wholehearted support to the policies of the United States Government and of the United Nations in matters pertaining to his official duties”. By doing so, Truman reaffirmed the principle of civilian control of the military and avoided a potentially disastrous escalation of the conflict, possibly involving nuclear weapons.
But MacArthur had the last word. He returned home a national hero, with a ticker-tape parade in New York. Congress, many of whose members were furious at Truman for his decision, invited MacArthur to address them in a joint session on April 19, 1951. His closing words were greeted with rapturous applause: “I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that ‘old soldiers never die; they just fade away.’ And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.” And fade away he did, the White House forever beyond his grasp.
Michael F. Bishop, a writer and historian, is the former executive director of the International Churchill Society and the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.