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Doug MacArthur

I had a weird case of inverse de ja vu this evening. I'll explain what I mean by that in a minute.

I was watching a movie I rented, called Truman. It's a biography of Harry Truman, starring Gary Sinise. Damn good, actually. I had very little prior knowledge of Truman era history, but there was an aweful lot of shit that happened while he was President. Also, the story of his rapid rise all the way up from a nobody to President, through a series of very lucky events and being in the right time at the right place, is quite remarkable too.

At any rate, what gave me the "inverse de ja vu" was watching the part right near the end, during the Korean War. The general in charge of the Korean War was Douglas MacArthur. I don't know how true the movie is to real life, but in the movie, there's a scene where some of his top advisors walk in and say something like "MacArthur has been publicly criticizing the whitehouse in his press conferences, saying that he would be able to win the war if only the whitehouse wouldn't keep tying his hands. Clearly, he's out of line. You should seriously consider replacing him." As soon as I heard that I was like "wow, this sure does sound familiar! Except that it reminds me of something that happened 60 years in the future, rather than the past!" So what is Truman's response? Truman thinks about it for a second, and then says "no, don't replace him. The last thing the troops in Korea need is for someone to fire their general right in the middle of a critical part of the war. That would do too much damage. If MacArthur says he needs more troops, give him all the help he needs!"

Flash forward to the future... Stanley McChrystal requests 40,000 more troops for Afghanistan, Obama thinks about it for a while, then takes *almost* the same strategy and gives him 30,000, most of what he needs. Of course, McChrystal wasn't being nearly as openly critical of the whitehouse as MacArthur was, at least at that point.

So what happens next? Basically, the same thing that's happening today. MacArthur gets more troops, and then instead of being happy now he becomes even more critical, defiant, and outspoken against the whitehouse. At this point though, Truman has had it, and can't take any more of his shit. So he does what his advisers recommended in the first place... replaces MacArthur with General Ridgway. In fact, he was mad enough about MacArthur's insubordination and ingratefulness by that point, that he didn't even give MacArthur the chance to resign (as his advisers recommended)--instead, he deliberately fired him before he could resign.

The ghost of the runaway general, Douglas MacArthur:

Harry Truman's letter of termination to MacArthur:

You know what they say... history repeats itself. I guess it's true. The main difference seems to be that McChrystal was far less insubordinate, Obama did not cave in as much the first time, and was not as harsh the second time. It appears that Obama and McChrystal are both tamer versions of Truman and MacArthur... either that or politics has made everyone a lot more mild and moderate in their actions over the years.

Now here's the really scary thing though. What happened after Truman replaced MacArthur? There was a humongous public backlash over it. Almost everyone had loved MacArthur, and suddenly the public hated Truman for firing him. A lot of the backlash was driven by Republican Senator Joe McCarthy who happened to be reaching the height of his popularity at the time. McCarthy used it as an opportunity to paint the Democratic party as "weak on anti-communism" (which today translates directly to "weak on anti-terrorism") and the Truman administration as not only weak on anti-communism (for firing him instead of increasing the troop level yet again like MacArthur wanted) but as filled with actual communist spies, all a part of a secret communist conspiracy within the US government.

Directly as a result of his firing MacArthur, his ratings plummeted and McCarthy's soared. By the time Truman left office, his public approval rating had fallen to an abysmal 30%! Earlier, southern democrats had been pissed at him for passing civil rights legislation, which democrats were traditionally opposed to at the time. But that didn't hurt his ratings as much as the MacArthur thing.

So the question is... will Obama's ratings suffer similarly? While there are a lot of parallels, I think it's worth pointing out there are some big differences too. One is that McChrystal is nowhere near as popular with American citizens as MacArthur. And the other is that the party lines are a bit orthogonal these days to the war in Afghanistan. If it was Iraq, then the Republicans would know to stand up and cheer in support while the Democrats would know to boo... but for Afghanistan, the divisions are all kind of mixed up and neither party is all that sure how much they support adding more troops versus bringing them home soon. A third difference is that Obama was a bit nicer about it than Truman was, and there wasn't as much blood between them. But will this be enough to avoid a 30% approval rating? I dunno, but I sure hope so.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jun. 29th, 2010 04:43 am (UTC)
That was interesting, thanks.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


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