General Douglas MacArthur

When President Obama fired General Stanley McCrystal yesterday, the Americans were reminded of another painful episode in American history — the firing of General Douglas MacArthur by Harry Truman. “When you have nothing to say, take refuge in history” notes one aphorism and that’s precisely what I am going to do: the stories were pretty similar; the extremely bureaucratic ways of the Truman administration, which was then struggling with the nascent Cold War, annoyed more gung-ho MacArthur.  The general believed Truman was unfit to be his commander-in-chief while the latter thought the general was “Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat”.

The first bone of contention was with Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek, whom the general was specifically asked by the White House to stay clear of. Communist forces under Mao Tse-tung had taken over China, chasing Chiang’s Nationalists off to the island of Formosa (now Taiwan). As the conflict in Korea grew, Truman felt that courting Chiang might prompt the entry of Red China and the Soviet Union into the Korean peninsular. MacArthur, however, believed Chiang could be a valuable ally, if not an ideal one: “If he has horns and a tail, so long as Chiang is anti-Communist, we should help him,” he declared. “We can try to reform him later,” he added.

In late July, MacArthur visited Formosa under his own initiative, and was photographed (above) kissing the hand of Madame Chiang. Madame Chiang looked both shocked and delighted, but Truman was incensed and more incensed were the etiquettists. The fact was that MacArthur was shown not only kissing a gloved hand, but also wearing his hat and grasping a pipe in his left hand. The question of whether this was proper for a gentleman was passed around and furiously debated until the-then Due de Levis Mirepoix, the world’s foremost authority on manners and the writer of La Politesse, Son Role, Ses Usages delivered the verdict that it is okay.

Truman probably couldn’t care less. In September, he met the general for the first and the only time. When he decided to dismiss the hero of the Pacific Treater in April, 1951, the Army, including MacArthur was the last to know. The public outrage was unprecedented; newspapers reacted furiously, with the New York Times lamenting “Asia apparently will be surrendered to Communism.” City councils adjourned. The American Legion was outraged, and in California Truman was hung in effigy. Truman’s approval ratings pummeled to low 20s, and he decided not to seek a second term.

MacArthur, on the other hand, returned triumphant. Half a million greeted him on his arrival in San Francisco; New York threw him the biggest ticker-tape parade ever, with five million people turning out to see MacArthur. The general gave an address to a defiant Congress; the speech which was interrupted by fifty ovations ended with the iconic line, “Old Soldiers never die, they just fade away.” In fact, that’s what happened to the general. His subsequent presidential candidacies came to nothing, and the only American ever to become a de facto emperor slowly fade into oblivion.

The above photo is in a poor condition. If anyone has a better version, please send it my way. 🙂

Eisenhower’s Inauguration

Life magazine reflects on the above photo, taken by Hank Walker on President Eisenhower’s first inauguration: “This scene has a democratic feel to it, with the mighty being made to take a joke. Times change, however, and this photograph makes us aware how much. Today’s lasso tosser would have to deal with bulletproof glass and a very nervous Secret Service.” The Hollywood cowboy Monty Montana did ask Ike’s permission before he lassoed the leader of the Free World. At the back, former president Herbert Hoover raised his arm to protect himself from the lasso.

Inauguration ’53 didn’t go that smoothly. In 1947, Harry Truman asked Eisenhower to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 1948, with Truman as his vice-presidential running mate. The Republican-leaning general didn’t like Truman very much and viewed Truman as an inept leader who had surrounded himself with cronies. Truman was apprehensive that Eisenhower would undo his efforts to end the Korean War and other aspects of his foreign policy. He also never forgave Ike for not denouncing Senator Joseph McCarthy during the campaign and said Eisenhower “has betrayed almost everything I thought he stood for.”

By the time, they rode together as president and president-elect to Eisenhower’s inauguration, the mutual hatred was evident. Eisenhower wondered aloud “if I can stand sitting next to that guy,” and to irritate the outgoing President, he wore a Homburg rather than a traditional silk top hat. When Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower arrived at the White House to pick up the president, they not only refused to enter for coffee with the Trumans, but stayed in the vehicle until Truman came outside.

FDR, Truman, Wallace

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November 10th 1944. It was a week after FDR had won the reelection for the unprecedented fourth term. In one of the rare photos from 1944 Presidential Election, haggard-looking President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Vice President-elect Harry S. Truman sit in a car with sitting Vice President Henry Wallace relocated into the backseat. Taken at Union Station in Washington, D.C., by Abbie Rowe

In one of the most ruthless backdoor dealings in recent political history, Wallace was dumped as the Vice Presidential candidate in favor of Truman when the Democratic Party doubted FDR’s chances of getting elected for the fourth term. Wallace was unpopular with the leaders of his party, who didn’t like his liberal politics and considered him unreliable and eccentric. The nomination went to Harry S. Truman, who did not actively seek it, and whom Roosevelt hardly knew. Within six months, FDR would be dead, and Truman would be President.

Attempted Assassination of Truman

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November 1st 1950. Puerto Rican pro-independence nationalist Oscar Collazo lies wounded at the base of the steps to Blair-Lee House, President Truman’s temporary residence in Washington, D.C., after a failed attempt to assassinate Truman Nov. 1, 1950. Truman was living in Blair House because the White House was undergoing the repairs. Collazo’s accomplice Griselio Torresola and a Secret Service agent were both killed in the gun fight outside the residence. The president was never in serious danger during the attack. (AP Photo/ Harvey Georges)

Collazo was sentenced to death, which was later commuted by Truman to a life sentence. He was finally pardoned by Jimmy Carter in 1979.