Robert Dallek: The Other Truman Doctrine

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Robert Dallek is the author of the forthcoming history “The Lost Peace: Leadership in a Time of Horror and Hope, 1945-1953.”]

IRRESPECTIVE of anything he said, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in Afghanistan, committed a clear breach of traditional standards by even agreeing to give an interview to Rolling Stone magazine. Presidents and defense secretaries make policy decisions, and military officers, from the lowest to the highest ranks, are obliged to follow orders without public comment. To be sure, civilian authorities ask military chiefs for private counsel on the best means to fight a war, but final decisions on grand strategy are the responsibility of the president. If a top officer feels strongly that his commander in chief is mistaken, he can resign and take his case to the public as a private citizen.

The precedents are clear. During World War II, Gen. George C. Marshall, the country’s highest-ranking officer, was so determined to stay out of politics that he made a point of refusing to laugh at President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s jokes. It was Marshall’s way of preventing his being co-opted by a president who might wish to use him for political purposes. And Marshall was of course discreet about what advice he gave the president.

In the fallout from General McChrystal’s remarks, many have pointed out that when Gen. Douglas MacArthur publicly defied President Harry S. Truman over how to fight the Chinese in Korea, the president fired him. Indeed, MacArthur had crossed a line, and Truman knew he could not be allowed to set a precedent. “If there is one basic element in our Constitution, it is civilian control of the military,” Truman later wrote. “If I allowed him to defy the civil authorities in this manner, I myself would be violating my oath to uphold and defend the Constitution.”...

There is, in fact, a better historical analogy than the MacArthur controversy: President Roosevelt’s approach to Gen. Joseph Stilwell, the top American commander in East Asia during World War II. Stilwell never openly defied the president (except in the privacy of his diary, where he was scathing). He did, however, treat Chiang Kai-shek, China’s Nationalist leader, disrespectfully, even calling the generalissimo “the Peanut.”

Roosevelt, who believed it was essential to keep Chiang and his armies in the war against Japan, complained that Stilwell could not treat Chiang “the way we might ... the Sultan of Morocco.” The president removed Stilwell from command — not because he had directly defied the White House’s authority, but because he had lost his usefulness as an instrument of the president’s policy....

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