Reading about General McChrystal’s lack of political smarts, I could not but think of the dustup between Truman and MacArthur. The issues were largely different, but in one sense, identical. In 1950–’51, the Korean war, though boldly begun, had degenerated into a bloody stalemate. General MacArthur wanted to carry the war to China, and made his passionate recommendations very public, against the stated policy of the President. MacArthur was the leading military figure of the nation. As Walter Karp has written…
By any standard General MacArthur was an awesome and prodigious figure. He possessed an uncommonly powerful intellect, one sharpened by vast erudition, intense meditation, and an extraordinary facility with words. He was utterly fearless, unshakably self-possessed, and relentlessly willful.
The Truman administration had grown hesitant and timid, and the nation was convulsed by anti-communist ideologies. When Washington reporters were called to the White House, they assumed that they would be hearing a declaration of war against China. That was not the case. Truman did not appear. His press secretary merely handed out a brief statement. The president had not adopted the war plans of the most famous general of the 20th century. Instead, he had relieved MacArthur of all commands, “effective at once.”
A field day for the Republicans, it was eventually seen for what it actually was: a reaffirmation of civilian control of the military. The Constitution does a unique thing in the annals of politics, something still not typical of all nations. It places the military in the hands of the civilian government and makes the President the military chief.
Right or wrong, McChrystal has overstepped the boundaries of his military role, challenging the civilian leadership with an article expressing his frustration with the Vice-President. It is an issue of street smarts, but it’s also an issue of who’s in charge.
I’ll be curious to see whether Obama terminates the General. It would be an appropriate use of presidential power.