Monday, March 12, 2007 03/12/07-Truman meets MacArthur

In today's excerpt--President Harry Truman meets General Douglas MacArthur. The occasion is MacArthur's advance across the 38th Parallel in Korea, a move that is viewed as beyond what the President has authorized, and one that seems destined to turn a defensive intervention on behalf of South Korea into a true war:

"[Truman's] lack of pretense and blunt manner worked against him, standing in stark contrast to Roosevelt's consummate elegance. ...His early life had been filled with failure, and ... as he wrote [his wife] Bess in 1942, 'Thanks to the right life partner for me we've come out pretty well. A failure as a farmer, miner, an oil promoter, and a merchant, but finally hit the groove as a public servant--and that due mostly to you and Lady Luck.' ...

"Far more than most generals, [MacArthur] held to the view that the commander in the field was the decision maker--not merely tactically, but strategically as well. ... He was brilliant, talented, petulant, manipulative, highly political, theatrical, and given to remarkable mood swings. ... He was addicted to publicity and fame; he went nowhere without his chosen coterie of journalists and photographers. It was virtually impossible to take a photograph of him that was not posed; he was aware every moment of where the light was best, of how his jaw should jut, and how the cap could be displayed at the most rakish angle. ...

"In late October, [Truman] arranged a meeting with MacArthur at Wake Island. The two men were not a natural fit. Long before Korea, Truman, the good old- fashioned unvarnished populist, had written a memo on the dilemma of dealing with MacArthur: 'And what to do with Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat, Five Star MacArthur. He's worse than the Cabots and the Lodges--they at least talked with one another before they told God what to do. Mac tells God right off. It is a great pity that we have to have stuffed shirts like that in key positions. ... Don't see how a country can produce such men as Robert E. Lee, John J. Pershing, Eisenhower and Bradley, and at the same time produce Custers, Pattons, and MacArthurs.' That, of course, was before they even got to know one each other."

David Halberstam, The Fifties, Ballantine Books, 1993, pp. 20-22, 80-1, 85.

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