Other presidents have experienced the difficulties that now exist between President Obama and General Stanley McChrystal. General George McClellan treated Abraham Lincoln with disdain. Douglas MacArthur did the same to Harry Truman. Those are just the most famous cases.
Lincoln struggled with the decision to fire McClellan, as Truman did with the decision to fire MacArthur. In neither case did the first instance of insubordination lead to dismissal. But as history has proven, it should have.
McChrystal is no Douglas MacArthur. Maybe he shouldn't be fired. But you can bet that the political debates that Truman had with his advisors on the subject of firing MacArthur are probably something like the discussions that have taken place in Washington in the last twenty-four hours.
The excerpt below is from Plain Speaking, an oral biography of Truman by Merle Miller, who had interviewed the former president extensively for a television series.
The subject that made Truman the angriest, Miller said, was MacArthur.
Quick background: At the time of his firing, General Douglas MacArthur was based in Tokyo as supreme commander of allied forces in the Pacific (among other titles). MacArthur, who had great self-regard, clashed many times with Truman, the cabinet, and the Joint Chiefs over his independent announcements of foreign policy. Rather than limit the Korean War to a stalemate, he believed the United Nations forces should advance into China to destroy the communist government.
Mr. President, I know why you fired MacArthur, but if you don't mind I'd like to hear it in your own words.
I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President. That's the answer to that. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the laws for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail. That's why when a good one comes along like General [George] Marshall, why you've got to hang onto them, and I did....
Mr. President, how can you explain a man like that?
I've given it a lot of thought, and I have finally concluded... decided that there were times when he . . . well, I'm afraid when he wasn't right in the head. And there never was anyone around to him to keep in line. He didn't have anyone on his staff who wasn't an ass kisser....
In August 1950, MacArthur announced his own foreign policy by sending a message to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The next morning Truman met with the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
I told them I wanted to fire him, and I wanted to send over General [Omar] Bradley to take his place. But they talked me out of it. They said it would cause too much of an uproar, and so I didn't do it, and I was wrong.
Mr. President, suppose you had done it that morning in August [1950, when MacArthur sent a message to the Veterans of Foreign Wars announcing his own foreign policy] instead of the following April?
I don't know. I do not know. We might have got out of Korea six months earlier and not been at one time on the brink of a third world war. But I don't know for sure.
The only thing I learned out of the whole MacArthur deal is that when you feel there's something you have to do and you know in your gut you have to do it, the sooner you get it over with, the better off everybody is."
Oddly, Truman and MacArthur had never actually met.
I decided it was time that we do so. The damn fool hadn't been back in the United States for fourteen years or more, and the messages I'd sent him through other people he somehow or another never seemed to understand. And so I decided he ought to come back to the United States. To Washington. I thought we'd meet in the White House.
I talked with General Marshall about it. [Marshall was Secretary of State at this time.] But the general advised me against having him come to Washington. He said, "That man has become a kind of living legend with certain groups and certain members of Congress, and if you brought him back here. I think it might do more harm than good. He'd stir up the China Lobby and all those people....
He was right, of course.
Truman and MacArthur met at Wake Island in the Pacific.
MacArthur was always playacting.... He was wearing those damn sunglasses of his and a shirt that was unbuttoned and a cap that had a lot of hardware. I never did understand, an old man like that [MacArthur was 70] and a five-star general to boot, and he went around dressed up like a nineteen-year-old second lieutenant. But I decided to overlook his getup, and we shook and we arranged a meeting. I got there on time, but he was forty-five minutes late, and this meeting - - it was just between the two of us you understand....
When he walked in, I took one look at him at I said, "Now you look here. I've come halfway around the world to meet you, but don't worry about that. I just want you to know I don't give a good goddamn what you do or think about Harry Truman, but don't you ever again keep your Commander in Chief waiting. Is that clear?"
His face got as red as a beet, but he said, he indicated that he understood what I was talking about, and we went on there.... He was just like a little puppy at that meeting. I don't know which was worse, the way he acted in public or the way he kissed my ass at that meeting.
A few days later, when Truman was back in Washington and MacArthur was back in his headquarters, MacArthur ignored Truman's direct orders to refrain from using American troops in a new offensive. Then, the day before the 1950 elections, he released a message intended to scare American voters into voting for Republican candidates, because the Republican party supported his desire to invade China.
A few months later, after China had advanced to Seoul, Truman, hoped to negotiate a cease-fire that would end the war. MacArthur wanted to bomb China.
Mr. President, you have the reputation of being a somewhat impatient man, somewhat quick on the draw, but it seems to me, sir, under these circumstances, that you displayed Job-like patience. How did you manage to keep silent?"
...I knew that if the slightest mistake was made, we would find ourselves in a third world war, and as I told you time and again, I had no intention in any way of allowing that to happen. General Bradley said at the time that that would be the wrong war at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy, and he was absolutely right....
Was that possibly your most difficult time as President?
[After a "very long" pause] I believe it was.
You said General Marshall had some doubts about discharging MacArthur.
Yes, he did; he was concerned about the reaction of certain Congressmen, and he wanted to think over what he felt the reaction of the troops would be. And so at the end of the meeting I asked him, I said, "General, you go over there and you read all the correspondence that's passed between MacArthur and me for the last two years. Then be in my office at nine in the morning, and if you still feel I shouldn't fire him, I won't."
I knew the general very, very well; we'd been through a lot together, and I knew how his mind worked, and there wasn't a doubt in the world in my mind that when he saw what I'd put up with, that he'd agree with me.
And the next morning at eight fifteen when I got to my office, he was out there waiting for me, which was very unusual. General Marshall was usually a punctual man, but I had never known him to be ahead of time. He worked on a very tight schedule.
But that morning he looked up at me, and he says, "I spent most of the night on that file,Mr. President, and you should have fired the son of a bitch two years ago."
And so we went right ahead, and we did it. There were a good many details to be worked out. I asked General Bradley to be sure we had the full agreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which he got; they were all unanimous in saying he should be fired. And we had to arrange to turn the command over to General Ridgway.
And then of course, we wanted to be sure that MacArthur got the news through official channels. We didn't want it to get into the newspapers first. I signed all the papers and went over to Blair House to have dinner. Some of the others stayed behind at the White House to decide on exactly how to get the word to Frank Pace [secretary of the army, then in Korea]. Pace was supposed to notify the general.
While I was still at Blair House, Joe Short [press secretary] came in to where the others were, and he said he had heard that the Chicago Tribune had the whole story and was going to print it the next morning.
So General Bradley came over to Blair House and told me what was up, and he says if MacArthur hears he's going to be fired before he officially is fired, before he's notified, he'd probably up and resign on me. And I told Bradley, "The son of a bitch isn't going to resign on me, I want him fired."
MacArthur was fired on April 9, 1951.
As I recall, there was plenty of shouting.
No more than I expected. I knew there'd be a big uproar, and I knew that MacArthur would take every advantage of it that he could, but I knew that in the end people would see through him and it would all die down.
From Plain Speaking by Merle Miller. New York: Berkley. Copyright 1973, 1974 by Merle Miller. pp 287-305.