Fox News tonight mentioned this day in history — Monday, April 11 — as the day in 1951 when President Harry Truman caused an uproar by firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur as the commander of United Nations troops fighting the communists in Korea.
Such moments in history are important, especially when they refer back to great events and great personages, like Douglas MacArthur.
Busy as we are living in the here and now, we naturally tend to forget our nation’s past. Sometimes, however, we can unexpectedly encounter reminders of American history right in front of our eyes.
That happened to me in 1993 when Jeff Katz, a friend, and I had just stepped outside the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City.
Amid the hustle and bustle of pedestrians, I noticed an elderly woman being pushed in a wheelchair by a nurse. Without any hesitation, I leaned down and gently asked, "Are you Mrs. MacArthur?"
"Yes, I am," her high-pitched Southern-accented voice responded. I knew that the late MacArthur's wife, Jean, lived in the Waldorf Astoria.
Living in relative anonymity at the hotel, Mrs. MacArthur was in her mid-90s at that time. But her mind was sharp, and she lit up when I addressed her by name (no one seemed to know who she was).
"I want you to know that I believe your husband was one of the greatest Americans that ever lived," I told her.
She politely asked me my name and then addressed me, "Mr. Ruddy, my husband, General MacArthur, died many, many years ago. But I want you to know I think of him every single day. I miss him so. I love him so."
It was touching. Jean was no ordinary Army wife. She had been in combat zones with her husband. She was with MacArthur on Corregidor Island as it was shelled by Japanese forces. She and her husband, along with their young son Arthur, narrowly escaped capture using PT boats in the dark of night.
Looking back on that day, I’m glad I had the opportunity to greet her. In a way, I touched history. I also had a glimpse into true love, Mrs. MacArthur's eternal devotion to her late husband.
Not everyone has such a rosy view of MacArthur, who had his share of detractors every since he came into the national scene, beginning as Army chief of staff in the 1930s.
But that should not dilute the simple, indisputable truth that he was a great American.
I recently finished Nigel Hamilton's book, “American Caesars: Lives of the Presidents from Franklin D. Roosevelt to George W. Bush.” While an excellent read, I disagree with Hamilton's view that MacArthur was a megalomaniac with a Dr. Strangelove-type inclination to casually drop atomic weapons.
It should be noted that MacArthur opposed Truman's decision to use atomic weapons on the civilians of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
Later, when China unexpectedly entered the Korean War, MacArthur urged Truman that if the United States bombed the bridges over the Yalu River connecting Korea to China, the Red Chinese assault could be stemmed. Truman vetoed the idea.
After the massive Chinese invasion began driving U.N. forces into retreat, MacArthur suggested that that the U.S. threaten to use atomic weapons against the Chinese.
This never happened. In the end, MacArthur was fired by Truman.
Hamilton and others have painted a picture of MacArthur as whacky, especially with his consideration of atomic weapons. Interestingly, Hamilton later praises Eisenhower for ending the war by bringing the North Koreans and Chinese to the table. How did Ike do it? As Hamilton writes, Eisenhower made it clear to the Chinese he was prepared to use atomic weapons if they did not cease hostilities.
Had Truman followed MacArthur's advice early on, tens of thousands of American casualties might have been averted.
MacArthur was indeed a shrewd military strategist. A winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor like his father before him (Arthur MacArthur won his in the Civil War), a victor in the military campaigns he led during two world wars and a stabilizing military ruler of Japan from 1945 to 1950 (he proved himself to be an administrative genius in resuscitating that nation after it had been pulverized into submission by the United States) — MacArthur’s resume is as impressive as it gets, even when one factors in his human flaws.
If Douglas MacArthur was not the greatest general in American history (military experts usually rank Robert E. Lee first), he is certainly ranked among the greatest.
It’s an open question whether or not MacArthur would have made a strong president, but he certainly possessed one leadership trait that all great presidents have displayed during their careers and which the current occupant in the White House seems to lack.
I’m talking about decisiveness — the ability to make a tough decision in a timely manner. Unlike so many of our political leaders, Douglas MacArthur was fearless in his willingness to take bold action when the situation called for it. There is no greater example of his decisive leadership than his landing at Inchon — a brilliant stroke which nearly won the Korean War.
In the darkest days of that conflict, when the beleaguered American Army was on the verge of being pushed into the sea by communist North Korea, MacArthur devised an audacious plan for an amphibious assault on Inchon, a coastal port city a few hundred miles in the enemy’s rear.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff back in Washington argued against the operation and their reasons were persuasive. As one officer involved in planning the landing put it, “We drew up a list of every natural and geographic handicap — and Inchon had em’ all.”
As any good leader should, MacArthur listened closely to all the objections, but he would not be dissuaded by any of them. MacArthur recalled, “I could almost hear my father’s voice telling me as he had so many years before, ‘Doug, councils of war breed timidity and defeatism.’”
In the end, MacArthur was vindicated. As he anticipated, the North Koreans were taken by total surprise. Forced to retreat northward on all fronts after the unopposed American landing, they were on the verge of complete defeat when Red China suddenly entered the war on their side, supplementing the drained, demoralized North Korean forces with hundreds of thousands of fresh troops.
Nevertheless, MacArthur's bold act prevented a defeat that might have been catastrophic for American interests, both in the Far East and in the global Cold War against the Soviet Union. It also saved the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers.
MacArthur always had his men very much in mind when he made his battle plans. Whether it was his island hopping strategy in the Pacific against the Japanese or his Inchon operation, MacArthur always limited American casualties.
Had MacArthur been made supreme commander in Europe instead of Eisenhower, I believe the Nazis would have been defeated at least a year earlier and with far less carnage.
When we are confronted with the cartoon image of Douglas MacArthur that the historians have drawn for us, that of a pompous, preening general obsessed with his own glory, we should not forget that he also cared deeply about his troops and his country.
MacArthur was a great lion who believed in this country and its people, a most worthy example for Americans today to remember and emulate.
An Important Note:
Few Americans probably realize that there is a museum and memorial commemorating the life of Gen. MacArthur, the MacArthur Memorial Library.
Located in Norfolk, Va. (the hometown of his mother), it houses MacArthur’s artifacts, papers, and personal effects. It draws thousands of visitors from all of the world and is well worth a visit. I recently had the pleasure of a tour from Col. William Davis, a former combat Marine veteran of the Vietnam War and the Memorial’s very able director.
Several years back I became a member of the MacArthur Foundation, which supports the library and other programs. The foundation is currently undertaking a major expansion with the goal of raising the Memorial and its museum up to the level of a presidential library.
Thus far they have raised about $4.5 million of the $5.5 million needed to complete the expansion.
If you feel as I do about MacArthur, you can join the foundation as a member, and also contribute to this worthy expansion effort by contacting Col. William Davis, executive director of the MacArthur Foundation:
General Douglas MacArthur Foundation,
MacArthur Square, Norfolk, VA 23510
Phone: (757) 441-2968
Or by visiting the foundation’s website: www.MacArthurMemorial.org.
*The quotes attributed to Gen. MacArthur in this article can be found in "American Caesar," William Manchester’s wonderful biography of Douglas MacArthur and the definitive rendering of the general’s career.
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