On what significantly differentiates the war’s most prominent American leaders, and what links them nonetheless.
Last March, I wrote about the 80th anniversary of General Douglas MacArthur’s famous departure from the Philippines in this post. It provides important contexts for what I want to say in the remainder of this post, so please check that one out if you would and then come on back.
Welcome back! As I detailed in that post, MacArthur had a long history of disobeying presidential orders by the time of the Korean War, which began with him in the role of Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (in post-WWII Japan, but it transferred more or less directly to Korea). But to my mind the division between him and President Harry Truman wasn’t simply about the chain of command, although that was the overt and understandable (and Constitutional) rationale for Truman relieving MacArthur of his position in April 1951. I would emphasize instead the stunningly reckless attitudes MacArthur took toward both China and (especially) the use of nuclear weapons to achieve “total victory,” attitudes which if pursued to their endpoint would almost certainly have resulted in the third World War that was always possible during the Cold War. While Truman’s description of the Korean conflict as a “peace action” is certainly a complicated one, it does reflect his crucial unwillingness (particularly compared to his top general) to pursue total warfare.
That’s a vital point, indeed quite possibly a world-saving one, and I don’t intend to undermine it with this third paragraph. But at the same time, it’s difficult to argue that Truman’s decision to involve the United States in the Korean conflict at all wasn’t driven by his own belief that this was a proxy war against Communism, was part of larger Cold War conflicts with both the Soviet Union and China. Because of the respective lengths of the conflicts and numbers of U.S. casualties and presence in popular consciousness and so on, I don’t think the Korean War has ever received anything close to the kinds of critiques that the Vietnam War did, not in their own respective eras nor since. But this was another global conflict in which the United States did not have to be involved, and at least in part Truman involved the U.S. because of parallel perspectives to those which motivated MacArthur. The drastic differences in their actions and goals notwithstanding, those perspectives are a frustratingly shared part of these histories.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any other Korean War contexts you’d highlight?