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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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