The shape of U.S. foreign policy for most of the 20th century and into our own time was set by Progressive Republican statesmen, Elihu Root and Henry L. Stimson. They believed that military action should be pursued, if at all, for international peace and order, not to advance specifically American interests. Their colleagues—Andrew Carnegie, Nicholas Murray Butler, and David Starr Jordan (Herbert Hoover’s mentor)—were outright pacifists. Democrats Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Cordell Hull (FDR’s secretary of state for almost 12 years, longer than any American has ever served in that office), and their successors, Dean Acheson and Harry Truman, turned the idea of international order into realities: the League of Nations, United Nations, and subsequent permanent alliances embodying “collective security.” That ruling Progressive consensus has determined America’s military objectives ever since, and largely deprived America of peace.
By 1950, polite society—which excluded the American people’s vast majority—was well-nigh unanimous that victory and peace, as well as the very notion of an overriding, peculiarly American national interest, were concepts that belonged to the age of the dinosaurs. Military officers however were mostly dinosaurs, the most prominent of whom was General of the Army Douglas MacArthur. His conquest of the western Pacific in World War II, followed by the 1950 masterstroke that reversed military defeat in Korea, had captivated American opinion. By firing MacArthur in April 1951, President Truman began to enforce polite society’s wisdom on the military. By the end of the Vietnam war some 20 years later, that wisdom about war and peace conquered the Democratic Party wholly, spread to much of the Republican Party, and to the senior U.S. officer corps, too. Hence, since 1951, America’s renowned generals—Matthew Ridgway, William Westmoreland, Colin Powell, and David Petraeus—have brought only stalemate, defeat, waste, and more war, while drawing down the nation’s reservoir of respect.
As you might expect, our slow slide from WW2 victory into hapless, floundering futility was instigated by a dithering Democrat president more concerned with political appearances than winning wars; he tied the hands of a competent general, refused to clarify his wartime goals when directly asked, then saw to it that the general was smeared as an over-ambitious dictator-in-waiting with political ambitions of his own—an unjust tarring, helped along by a partisan mainstream media, that has stained his reputation to this very day.
Washington’s “responsible officials,” up to and including Truman, refused to take responsibility for ordering any course of action whatever. Brands gives the fuller account. MacArthur, the option of victory having been denied, asked, “Is the present objective of United States political policy to maintain a military position in Korea—indefinitely, for a limited time, or to minimize losses by evacuation as soon as it can be accomplished?” Brands writes, “Dean Acheson read MacArthur’s letter with astonishment,” saying afterwards that MacArthur was “incurably recalcitrant and basically disloyal to the purposes of his commander in chief.” But what were these purposes, and how did they translate into how and why American draftees were dying?
Truman, on advice of his counselors, had resisted bipartisan calls for a declaration of war. Such a request would have forced his administration to define and submit its objectives to a vote by both Houses of Congress. But by creating the fiction that the war was by, of, and for the United Nations, Truman et al. believed they were gaining flexibility, which is of great strategic value—but only to leaders who know what they’re doing. But Truman and his advisors did not, so their flexibility and disunity acted like a sail in the winds of events.
Truman, after convening the National Security Council, also chose not to answer MacArthur’s request for orders. “This present telegram is not to be taken in any sense as a directive. Its purpose is to give you something of what is in our minds.” U.S. troops’ successful resistance would demonstrate that aggression does not pay and would encourage others to believe in America’s pledges of assistance. “We recognize, of course, that continued resistance might not be militarily possible with the limited forces with which you are being called upon to meet large Chinese armies…if we must withdraw from Korea, it [must] be clear to the world that that course is forced upon us by military necessity.” Translated from bureaucratese, the message was: hold on with the forces and restrictions you’ve got, regardless of how many American lives it costs.
And cost it did. Some three fourths of the Americans killed in Korea died after the U.S. government stopped trying to win the war. Since Truman’s decision taught the world that no-win wars were now the American ruling class’s modus operandi, the cost of three later generations’ wars, including the incalculable toll of domestic decay resulting from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, should also be added in.
And so Truman, despite such scurrilous waffling and weaseling, goes down in history as “Give ’em hell Harry”—a tough, flinty-eyed president and CinC, who brooked no nonsense when it came to defending the Constitution and the nation—while MacArthur is remembered as an egotistical megalomaniac—a blustering, incompetent would-be despot whose reach, thankfully, far exceeded his grasp. Truman’s record, now pretty much buried for all practical purposes, speaks for itself; let MacArthur’s own parting words speak for him:
MacArthur returned from Korea to a conquering hero’s reception: ticker-tape parades and a speech to a joint session of Congress. The pledge he made and kept to “just fade away” belied the contention that he had tried to usurp the Constitution, and bolstered the two warnings he left his fellow citizens. First, “In war, there is no substitute for victory.” Forgetting something so very basic had been no mere mistake, but a symptom of moral decay. Hence his other warning: “History fails to record a single precedent in which nations subject to moral decay have not passed into political and economic decline. There has been either a spiritual awakening to overcome the moral lapse, or a progressive deterioration leading to ultimate national disaster.”
And we haven’t won a war since—not because we can’t, but because we won’t. And until and unless that changes—stipulating, of course, that we should always be very damned careful and conscientious about doing so in the first place—we damned well need to make sure we don’t get into any more of them.