When North Korea's army suddenly launched a full-scale invasion of the South in June 1950, throwing an already tense international situation into outright crisis, American policymakers reacted with understandable alarm, scrambling to organize an immediate military response. At the same time, however, several top figures in the Truman administration saw the Korean crisis not only as a threat but also as an opportunity—or perhaps even an unlikely kind of salvation. Looking back on the frenzied events of June 1950 with several years' hindsight, Secretary of State Dean Acheson—the most powerful figure in President Truman's foreign policy brain trust—offered an unexpected analysis. "Korea," he said, "came along and saved us."20
How could Acheson possibly have seen the Korean War—a vicious struggle, fought in brutal conditions, in which the United States and its allies found themselves pushed to the brink of defeat on more than one occasion—as some kind of rescue?
The answer lies in the difficult situation in which the Truman administration found itself, both at home and abroad, by the summer of 1950. If the outbreak of open warfare in Korea somehow seemed like a kind of lifeline, it was only because President Truman and his advisers were already on the verge of drowning. The Korean War gave them something to hold onto... if only temporarily.
Harry Truman became president in 1945 when Franklin D. Roosevelt suddenly and unexpectedly died in office, elevating Truman to the White House only 82 days into his term as vice president. Truman did his best to fill Roosevelt's shoes, but he struggled (as anyone would have) to deal with the overwhelming array of difficult challenges—military, political, diplomatic, economic, and social—that confronted the nation as World War II ended and an uncertain postwar era began. Over the next three years, Truman's public approval ratings steadily fell, and it came as something of a shock when Truman managed to eke out a narrow victory over three challengers—Republican Thomas Dewey, Progressive Henry Wallace, and segregationist "Dixiecrat" Strom Thurmond—in the 1948 elections to win another full term in the White House. (No one was more surprised by Truman's victory than the Chicago Tribune, which infamously published an incorrect election-day story under the banner headline, "Dewey Defeats Truman.") Buoyed by his electoral success, Truman sought to push forward with an agenda calling for far-reaching liberal programs at home and muscular opposition to Communism abroad.
But the first year of Truman's second term proved to be a disaster. In August 1949, the Soviet Union successfully detonated its first atomic bomb, years earlier than American scientists had estimated they would be able to accomplish the feat. The end of America's nuclear monopoly shocked and terrified the American people, forcing them to face the threat of nuclear annihilation for the first time. Little more than a month later, Communist leader Mao Zedong declared victory in China's long-running civil war, forcing American ally Chiang Kai-Shek and his Nationalist government to flee to the island of Taiwan. Americans—especially Republicans critical of Truman—blamed the administration for failing to prevent this "loss of China." The political damage of these serious Cold War setbacks abroad was only heightened by a growing hysteria over Communist espionage at home. Shocking allegations that Soviet spies had penetrated the top-secret American atomic research program and the highest ranks of the State Department led many to conclude that the Truman administration was "soft on Communism," both inside and outside the United States.
Truman and his advisers resolved to develop a tougher American policy against international Communism. Early in 1950, Truman's National Security Council began working on a top-secret strategy document known as NSC-68. (The document was so top-secret, in fact, that its contents would not be declassified until 1975.) In NSC-68, Truman's advisers defined the Cold War in the starkest possible terms, as an unavoidable fight between good and evil. "What is new," the document read, "what makes the continuing crisis, is the polarization of power which inescapably confronts the slave society with the free.... [T]he Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world. Conflict has, therefore, become endemic..." The only way to prevail in this struggle, the document suggested, was to pursue "the rapid building up of the political, economic, and military strength of the free world." To this end, NSC-68 called for a huge (and hugely expensive) buildup in American military capability, dramatically increasing troop levels and pouring money into development of new hydrogen superbombs—nuclear weapons 1000 times more powerful than the original atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. To implement fully the recommendations of NSC-68 would require tripling or quadrupling the national defense budget—something unprecedented in American history outside times of war.
The trouble with NSC-68—and probably the reason why it remained secret for so long—was that the American people wouldn't support it. Although by 1950, many Americans were deeply alarmed by recent Communist advances all around the world, they still had little interest in fighting an atomic World War III against the Soviet Union. They also had little interest in a total militarization of American society, and even less in paying higher taxes to pay for it. It was difficult to see how the already-unpopular Truman could ever convince his countrymen to back the aggressive new foreign policy called for by NSC-68.
Until, that is—in the words of Dean Acheson—"Korea came along and saved us."
As dire as the situation may have been for Syngman Rhee's South Korean regime following the Communist North's successful invasion of his country, the outbreak of war in Korea presented Harry Truman with an immediate political opportunity at home. The North Korean invasion—which was perceived in the West as an act of unprovoked Communist aggression, ordered directly by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, even though we now know the actual situation was somewhat more complicated—seemed to prove correct NSC-68's thesis that international Communism was an inherently aggressive movement that could only be checked by forceful resistance. Truman's decisiveness in committing American forces to battle earned him renewed support from the public, and the string of victories won by General MacArthur through the autumn of 1950 helped Truman's approval ratings rise above 40 percent for the last time in his presidency. And once tens of thousands of American soldiers were fighting on the ground in Korea, most members of congress felt it would be unpatriotic to oppose Truman's requests for additional military spending. The huge increases to the defense budget called for by NSC-68—increases that would have been all but impossible to obtain in peacetime—occurred almost as a matter of course during the Korean War. Military spending shot from $13 billion in 1950 to $55 billion in 1952—and then it never really dropped back down. The Korean War thus provided an unstoppable rationale for putting NSC-68 into practice, largely setting the course for the next 40 years of American Cold War military strategy.
The early political advantages offered to Truman by the Korean War vanished, however, shortly after China entered the conflict in November 1950. Both General MacArthur and President Truman had convinced themselves, by that time, that there was little or no chance of large-scale Chinese intervention in the conflict, and that total victory over North Korea was near. Both were thus caught completely off-guard when hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers suddenly appeared in the rugged mountains of North Korea, throwing overstretched and unprepared American units into disorganized retreat. A war that had seemingly offered the prospect of an epic triumph now threatened to devolve into disastrous defeat—and neither Truman nor MacArthur wanted to take the blame.
MacArthur responded to the crisis by calling for the United States to redouble its efforts in Korea, pushing on to victory even if it meant risking a wider war. On 9 November, just as it became obvious how serious the Chinese threat had become, MacArthur sent an impassioned cable to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, begging "with all the earnestness that I possess that there be no weakening at this crucial moment and that we press on to complete victory which I believe can be achieved if our determination and indomitable will do not desert us."21 Truman acquiesced to the general's request for permission to bomb the bridges crossing the Yalu River, which formed the border between North Korea and the Chinese province of Manchuria. When this proved unsuccessful—some of the bridges survived, and more importantly, more than 300,000 Chinese troops had already entered Korea before the bombings even began—MacArthur began drawing up plans for a broader bombing campaign against major cities and military targets within China itself. Later, when some 30,000 retreating American troops nearly found themselves encircled by four times as many Chinese near the frozen Chosin Reservoir, MacArthur even contemplated the use of nuclear weapons to secure their escape.
Such aggressive measures might have allowed the United States to regain the upper hand in Korea. But they also would have almost certainly started World War III.
By December 1950, when American forces—including those who narrowly escaped from the Chosin Reservoir—were forced into a desperate retreat from their recently captured positions in North Korea, it became clear to top officials in the Truman administration that the goal of liberating all of Korea and reunifying the country under anticommunist leadership had become an impossibility. The United States would need to recalibrate its strategy to fight a limited war for limited aims.
But "limited war" and "limited aims" were not in General Douglas MacArthur's vocabulary. A strategic dispute between MacArthur and Truman over Korea policy would soon escalate into an unmanageable personal conflict pitting the country's top civilian and military leaders against each other in a political fight to the finish. In the end, both lost.
Douglas MacArthur, the most old-school of military leaders, had graduated from West Point in 1903, when the doctrines of "total war" developed during the Civil War by Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman still formed the center of the curriculum. MacArthur was also enormously self-confident—his critics would say arrogant—and monumentally egotistical. A triumphant victory in Korea would have provided the perfect capstone to the general's glorious 50-year military career and cemented his reputation as one of the greatest military leaders in American history. MacArthur he had no interest in battling a bunch of North Korean Communists to a draw. MacArthur simply could not comprehend any military strategy that did not involve taking any and every measure necessary to achieve total victory.
But in a world in which the Soviet Union possessed atomic bombs, such pursuit of total victory might come at an unbearable cost—nuclear war. Following China's intervention in Korea late in 1950, President Truman struggled to ensure that the fighting there didn't escalate uncontrollably into World War III—even if it meant he was forced to settle for something less than total victory in Korea. When MacArthur sought to bomb strategic targets inside China, Truman countermanded his orders. When MacArthur began drawing up contingency plans for the tactical use of atomic bombs against North Korean forces, Truman reassured nervous allies that the Americans had no plans to use nuclear weapons.
The fundamental difference in strategic outlook between MacArthur and Truman soon escalated into a bitter personality conflict. To MacArthur, Truman was a contemptibly weak civilian leader who lacked both a clear understanding of warfare and the determination of will needed to overcome adversity on the battlefield. To Truman, MacArthur was a dangerously uncontrollable militarist who could not be trusted not to force the country into a disastrous general war. The two men's respect for each other soon evaporated into mutual contempt.
Whether Truman or MacArthur was correct in their dispute is a matter of much historical controversy. In the American system of constitutional government, however, the military is always supposed to be subordinate to the nation's civilian leadership; the president, not the general, is commander-in-chief. Thus MacArthur's ongoing refusal to accept wholeheartedly Truman's restrictions on his conduct became more and more problematic.
In March 1951, MacArthur issued a statement—without authorization from Washington—threatening China with destruction if it did not withdraw its forces from Korea immediately. Truman, who opposed any plan that contemplated expanding the war into China, was aghast. A month later, another belligerent and unapproved statement from MacArthur—this time calling for "maximum counterforce" against China and insisting that there was "no substitute for victory"—appeared in the form of a letter to Congressman Joe Martin, a leading Republican in the House of Representatives. Martin read MacArthur's letter into the Congressional Record on 5 April; less than a week later, the general lost his job. For President Truman, MacArthur's open flirtation with the opposition party, coming after months of insubordinate public comments, was simply too much to take.
On 11 April 1951, Truman relieved Douglas MacArthur of his command over American forces in Korea. In a statement broadcast on national television and radio, Truman announced, "With deep regret I have concluded that General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is unable to give his wholehearted support to the policies of the United States Government... Full and vigorous debate on matters of national policy is a vital element in the constitutional system of our free democracy. It is fundamental, however, that military commanders be governed by the policies and directives issued to them in the manner provided by our laws and Constitution. In time of crisis, this consideration is particularly compelling." Truman thus cast MacArthur's removal as a matter of grave constitutional principle; the preservation of democracy itself was at stake when a military commander challenged the authority of his president.
MacArthur, of course, saw things differently. And, at least at first, the bulk of the American people seemed more inclined to support the five-star general than the unpopular president. MacArthur returned to the United States six days after his firing, receiving a hero's welcome in San Francisco. Later 7.5 million people turned out to cheer him in a New York parade, and a bipartisan majority of both houses of Congress showered him with applause, interrupting his 30-minute speech with 34 separate standing ovations. Truman called the whole spectacle a "bunch of d--n bulls--t," but public opinion seemed to be tilting hard toward MacArthur's point of view. Truman's popularity plummeted to the lowest levels ever recorded in modern presidential public-opinion surveys.
With the passage of time, however, Truman's stance on the issue became more and more compelling. Over the course of more than a month of Senate hearings investigating MacArthur's firing, the general offered up a string of testimony that made it clear to the American people just how extreme his views were. He insisted that any restriction at all on the use of force—even a ban on the use of nuclear weapons in battle—amounted to "appeasement." He argued that the loss of any territory, anywhere in the world, to Communists amounted to defeat in the Cold War. And he suggested that the traditional American rule of civilian control over the military was no different than the "system that the Soviets once employed of the political commissar." Most Americans, who supported the president's constitutional status as commander-in-chief and wanted no part of a nuclear World War III, were appalled. Now it was MacArthur's turn to endure a steep decline in popular support. The general, who had momentarily seemed almost a lock to receive the Republican nomination for president in 1952, soon found that he had little or no political backing.
In the end, then, the Korean War undermined the popularity and tarnished the reputation of both Harry Truman and Douglas MacArthur. And while both men spent a great deal of effort in trying to fix blame on each other for the catastrophic turn of events in Korea after November 1950, the truth is that neither was completely innocent. Both men agreed, enthusiastically, in making the most disastrous strategic decision of the war—the decision to push far beyond the 38th parallel, all the way to the Chinese border, in hopes of destroying the North Korean regime. Both men convinced themselves, incorrectly, that there was little or no real risk of Chinese intervention. Both men were thus complicit in leading American forces into an ambush in the rugged mountains of North Korea.
The debacle in Korea destroyed the political viability of both President Truman and General MacArthur, opening the door for new political candidates from both parties in the 1952 elections. The primary beneficiary was Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, who crushed Democrat Adlai Stevenson in the general election to become the 34th President of the United States. Like MacArthur, Eisenhower had been a five-star general in World War II, becoming a national hero by organizing the successful D-Day invasion of Normandy, France in 1944. But as military officers, Eisenhower and MacArthur could not have been more different. Where MacArthur was brash, "Ike" was humble; where MacArthur was bold, "Ike" was cautious. Eisenhower's calm and steady persona served him well in the 1952 campaign, when Korea still loomed as a major—perhaps the major—issue. Without offering any specifics, Eisenhower simply promised "I shall go to Korea" to arrange a speedy and honorable end to the war. Voters elected him in a landslide.
Thus a war that began as a potential source of salvation for Democratic President Harry S. Truman ended with the sweeping electoral victory of the first Republican president since 1928.