What MacArthur’s Farewell Teaches Us Today

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It was 60 years ago this month that Gen. Douglas MacArthur delivered his farewell address to a joint session of Congress, effectively closing the book on a consequential and controversial public life. What do the words an “old soldier” have to do with today? More than you might think.

What brought MacArthur to the House chamber in April 1951—and brought his career as a soldier and general to an abrupt end—is fairly well-known: He openly challenged the commander-in-chief, President Harry Truman, who, with an eye on the Soviet Union’s global capabilities, was committed to “limited war” and “police action” in Korea. MacArthur, on the other hand, advocated expansion of the war in Korea to targets in China, criticized “those who advocate appeasement and defeatism in Asia” and famously declared, “There is no substitute for victory.” Toward that end, as Niall Ferguson details in “Colossus”, MacArthur called for blockades of China, attacks on Chinese airbases, the use of Taiwanese forces against Mainland China and the deployment of atomic weapons against China.

Even MacArthur’s critics, Ferguson among them, concede that the general’s proposed strategy was “seriously discussed” after his departure and, in a sense, adopted to bring the war to an end. Just months after MacArthur was ousted, Truman threatened to blockade China and contemplated atomic weapons. In fact, upon his election, general-turned-president Dwight Eisenhower raised the possibility of an atomic strike on China to bring the Chinese to heel, conveying the message to China via India. They took the threat seriously, and an armistice was quickly signed.

In other words, MacArthur’s proposals were not the problem; it was how and where he aired them that was the problem. And to preserve the principle of civilian control over the military, Truman had to dismiss MacArthur. The Truman-MacArthur showdown is a subject for another essay. Suffice it to say that MacArthur and Truman embodied the tension that has been at the very heart of our republic since the founding. After all, the first president was a general, a war hero, a conqueror. He wouldn’t be the last. Moreover, the Founders divided war-making authority, opening the way to disputes between the executive and legislative and between civilians and the military. Although the Constitution made civilian control over the military paramount—and thankfully so—it led to a system that encourages great deference to military command.

The Limits of Time-Limited War

This century’s version of “police action” is on display in Libya and Afghanistan. The White House, for example, calls Libya a “time-limited, scope-limited” war. NATO’s description of the Libya intervention declares, incredibly, that “NATO is impartial in this operation.”

Over in Afghanistan, the enemy is using Pakistan as a safe haven, allies fly fighter-bombers without bombs and shout warnings before engaging the enemy, and President Barack Obama concluded that “it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops” before promising that “after 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.”

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  • Jim_C

    It's a good article, but it brings up the specter of just what we imagine we're trying to accomplish, and why.

    Our "war" is actually part police action, part diplomacy, part construction effort, part intel operation. What happened to killing people, breaking things, submitting enemies to our will? That's what the military is made to DO. And if we are not using it to do that–JUST that–WHY are we using it in the first place?

    MacArthur's farewell speech is wise concerning the successful prosecution of war. But Eisenhower's farewell speech strikes deeper at the heart of just what has gone wrong since. In essence, the two are intrinsically linked.

    • Steeloak

      LOL, I wonder what Ike would have thought of the Entitlement-Politician complex that spends over half our budget today.

      • Jim_C

        His "Cross of Iron" speech gives a clue…I don't think Ike would be well-received, or even recognizable as a Republican, by today's GOP.

        • Steeloak

          I'm not sure what you mean, that speech was about money spent on making war is wastefull, but that aggression must be resisted at all cost. That the US stands for peace & the Soviet union for agression. Sounds like a typical Republican to me.
          My point is, if he was afraid of the Military-Industrial complex, he would have been far more afraid of the entitlment complex that exists today, primarily built by Democrats (with the help of a few RINOs too). He didn't live to see it, so we'll never know for certain what he would have thought.

  • damon beckett

    The Great General was right of course. We haven't won a war since 1945 and probably never will again.

  • ObamaYoMoma

    To be sure, Libya and Afghanistan in 2011 are not the same as Korea in 1951 in terms of American lives lost. However, as in Korea, committing just enough force not to lose but not enough force to win doesn’t make sense or deliver results, which is why Washington would do well to adopt the best of MacArthur—his single-mindedness about victory and unapologetic views on pursuing it.

    Here’s the problem that Dowd and a lot of other RINOs and liberals can’t seem to get through their thick hard headed skulls, the war in Afghanistan, which amounts to a fantasy based nation-building mission to win the hearts and minds of Muhammadans who are obligated to have nothing but enmity in their hearts for kafir infidels, was lost even before it was implemented, since it was based on political correct fantasy based myths like, for instance, Islam is a Religion of Peace™ being hijacked by a tiny minority of extremists. As a matter of fact, the only loons that still support endless fantasy based nation-building missions inside Muhammadan countries today are mentally incompetent RINOs and liberals. Thankfully, most conservatives have realized the futility of such idiotic nonsense.

    If, as Obama has declared, Qaddafi can no longer be permitted to lead Libya, and if Qaddafi is directing the attacks against civilians that rightly outrage the world, then the objective must be removing Qaddafi from power.

    Uhm…here is something that Dowd and his fellow RINOs and liberals can get through their bleeding hearts, those so-called civilians in Libya that in reality are really rebels, are also Muhammadans, and all devout Muhammadans are not our allies or our friends, but instead our perpetual enemies, as orthodox mainstream Islam, not radical Islam because that is also a fantasy based political correct myth, commands all Muhammadans to wage jihad perpetually against all unbelievers for the spread of Islam, until the entirety of the world had been subjugated into a very draconian form of Islamic totalitarianism via the imposition of sharia.

    Indeed, Muhammadans can’t even question, much less challenge those commandments as to do so In Islam is a capital offense punished by death. Hence, not only should the US avoid fantasy based nation-building missions like the plague, but also it should never ever intervene to stop Muhammadan on Muhammadan violence under any circumstances whatsoever.

    Can anyone argue that we are doing that in Afghanistan and Libya?

    What Dowd doesn’t understand or seem to realize, because he is blinded by political correctness and multiculturalism, is that there isn’t anything to win in either Afghanistan or Libya. I would suggest that Dowd take off his rose colored political correct glasses, hold his nose, and study Islam, which should have been done already long ago and immediately after the 9/11 terrorists attacks.

  • Fred Dawes

    you he is right

  • Fred Dawes

    the system set is ways long ago and we have fallen from the right way to think and live to something non liberty way of fools.

    • tagalog

      You can say THAT again!

  • Frans Jong

    Well, we need the carrot and the stick, appeasement and strengh are important.
    Didn`t Rooseveldt say: "Speak softly, but hold a bog stick behind your back"
    Finally, the solution cannot come through war, which is a most primitive and destructive means to solve problems, and will never lead to lasting peace. Interreligious harmony and dialogue, will be a necessary step first, to take away all the misunderstandings and distrust.

    • Poppakap

      Chamberlain couldn't have said it better. When has appeasement worked at anytime in the history of the world? Appeasement only weakens the appeasing party and emboldens the party being appeased. Even if the carrot and stick metaphor works in international relations, appeasement can never be either and simultaneously have any expectation of achieving a nation's objective.

      In addition, we all know war is a primitive action that causes destruction. However, it HAS lead to lasting peace in many places in the world. How many of the warring nations of WWI and WW2 are at war against each other today? Clearly, you've spent far too much time singing kumbaya and holding hands to realize the world is a dangerous place full of dangerous people who have no intention of respecting international law or norms (North Korea, Iran, Sudan come to mind). Those nations, unfortunately, will not respond to anything but war or revolution.

      Finally, Roosevelt said, "..speak softly and carry a big stick." He NEVER advocating holding the stick behind one's back so as to prevent it being seen. The purpose for carrying a big stick is making sure people see it, with the hope that it doesn't have to be used.

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