Some 70 years ago next week, on October 15, 1950, President Harry Truman met with General of the Armies Douglas MacArthur at Wake Island, a tiny and almost uninhabited dot on the map between Japan and Hawaii. The issue was the use of atomic bombs against China in the Korean War.
The war had started on June 25, 1950, when Communist forces from North Korea, under the grandfather of the present dictator, and an ally of communist China, attacked South Korea, a U.S. ally. The vast forces the U.S. had used to fight World War 2 against Japan had long been reduced to a small force with MacArthur as commander in occupied Tokyo. MacArthur reacted with a brilliant stroke behind the North Korean lines and drove them out of the south and nearly to the Chinese border, whereupon the Chinese attacked and drove what were by that time United Nations forces back about to the border between the two countries.
The issue became the use of atomic bombs which we had and China did not. MacArthur, the so-called “American Caesar,” who had done much to defeat Japan, was an imperious man unwilling to accept anything but victory over what he considered a second-rate power. Oddly, he retained his World War II rank as a 5-star general while the others holding that rank had long retired. As such, he theoretically commanded the U.S. army worldwide, including the Pentagon. He intended to use whatever power he had against China. Preparations were made to bring atomic bombs to Okinawa which was in range of China for our bombers.
On Truman’s side, as commander-in-chief, he saw the old general as trying to upstage him and assume power that was not his: he ordered a meeting at Wake Island. Both later told different versions of what had happened. One might expect the imperious general to shade the truth some, but Truman had a solid reputation for at least two things, very colorful language, and for telling the truth. In his book Plain Speaking, however, he says that having flown the longer distance to get to Wake, MacArthur was late in flying in from Tokyo and so kept the President’s plane from landing (the old idea is that a subordinate officer will be in position to received his commander and act as host).
Actually, Truman lied. MacArthur arrived in advance and was a gracious host; and the meeting was actually quite cordial. Nevertheless, things soon broke down when MacArthur said a few things he should not have, and on April 11, 1951, he was relieved of his command. He milked it for all he was worth by giving his amazingly famous “Old Soldier’s Never Die, They Just Fade Away” speech to which millions of Americans nearly shed a tear.
Interesting to think how the world would be different if we had used atomic bombs against the Chinese (USSR, the ally of China had atomic weapons). But most people think plain old Harry, the only non-college graduate of the Presidents of the last century, the former haberdasher from Independence, Missouri, was correct to let the tragic and thoughtless war drag on to a stalemate in 1953, the borders completely unchanged.