When President Obama fired General Stanley McCrystal yesterday, the Americans were reminded of another episode from their military history — the firing of General Douglas MacArthur by Harry Truman.
The slow and plodding Truman administration, then struggling with the nascent Cold War, annoyed bombastic and gung-ho MacArthur. The general believed Truman was unfit to be his commander-in-chief while the latter thought the general was “Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat”.
A bone of contention concerned Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, whom the general was specifically asked by the White House to stay clear of. Communist forces under Mao Tse-tung had taken over China, chasing Chiang’s Nationalists off to the island of Formosa (now Taiwan). As the conflict in Korea grew, Truman felt that courting Chiang might prompt the entry of Red China and the Soviet Union into the Korean peninsular. MacArthur, however, believed Chiang could be a valuable ally, if not an ideal one: “If he has horns and a tail, so long as Chiang is anti-Communist, we should help him,” he declared. “We can try to reform him later,” he added.
In late July 1950, Douglas MacArthur visited Formosa under his own initiative, and was photographed (above) kissing the hand of Madame Chiang. Madame Chiang, an urbane daughter of Shanghai socialites, looked delighted, but the general public in Taiwan was shocked at the public display of affection and intimacy. Equally incensed were President Truman and the etiquettists.
For the latter, MacArthur was not only kissing a gloved hand, but also wearing his hat and grasping a pipe in his left hand. The question of whether this was proper for a gentleman was furiously debated, and ensared grandees around the world. Even the Duc de Levis Mirepoix, the French aristocrat and esteemed authority on manners (being the writer of La Politesse, Son Role, Ses Usages) weighed in and noted that it was okay.
Truman couldn’t care less. In September, he met the general for the first and the only time. When he decided to dismiss the hero of the Pacific Treater in April, 1951, the Army, including MacArthur was the last to know. The public outrage was unprecedented; newspapers reacted furiously, with the New York Times lamenting “Asia apparently will be surrendered to Communism.” City councils adjourned. The American Legion was outraged, and in California, Truman was hung in effigy. Truman’s approval ratings pummeled to low 20s, and he decided not to seek a second term.
MacArthur, on the other hand, returned triumphant. Half a million greeted him on his arrival in San Francisco; New York threw him the biggest ticker-tape parade ever, with five million people turning out to see MacArthur. The general gave an address to a defiant Congress; the speech which was interrupted by fifty ovations ended with the iconic line, “Old Soldiers never die, they just fade away.” In fact, that’s what happened to the general. His subsequent presidential candidacies came to nothing, and the only American who reigned as a de facto emperor fade away into oblivion.