The President Confirms the World’s FearsBreaking News
tags: Korean War, Harry Truman, international relations, Douglas MacArthur, Donald Trump, 2020 Election
The world watched today as the president of the United States confirmed his critics’—and American allies’—fears, railing baselessly against election fraud, arguing from his perch in the White House that he had won an election whose result remained in doubt.
Donald Trump’s remarks signaled a dangerous new episode in the soap opera of his presidency. Waking up to the news that he has claimed victory—despite official and media sources, to say nothing of the Joe Biden campaign, insisting any final result remains some ways off—the world has been forced to confront its faith not just in America, but in the American idea.
America has suffered crises of confidence before.
Flying home from South Korea in April 1951, after his dismissal by President Harry Truman, General Douglas MacArthur was uncertain of the reception he would receive, as Robert Caro recalls in the third volume of his biographical series The Years of Lyndon B. Johnson. MacArthur was a war hero, ordered home by Truman for openly questioning the president’s control of the conflict in Korea. It was a conflict between elected leader and imperial warlord that would test the strength of not only the U.S. Constitution, but the norms that held it together.
MacArthur was welcomed home by half a million San Franciscans, before heading to Washington, D.C., the following day to address a joint session of Congress, giving an unapologetic defense of his policies and a denunciation of Truman’s. It was a direct challenge to the concept of civilian control of the armed forces, and the frenzy it produced caused some to fear for the nature of American democracy itself. In the pandemonium after MacArthur’s speech, Representative Dewey Sort of Missouri shouted: “We heard God speak here today.” Herbert Hoover called the general “a reincarnation of Saint Paul into a great general of the Army who came out of the east.” The reporter George Reedy, who would go on to work for Lyndon Johnson, recalled that it was “the only time in my life that I ever felt my government to be fragile.” The Senate, that archaic, delaying body of conservatism, eventually took the sting out of the affair by moving to investigate the dispute, and eventually protecting the authority of the president.
Like what is happening today, this was not simply an American crisis, but a global one. In Japan, where MacArthur had been supreme commander for the Allied Powers, a form of imperial governor representing the new superpower, the population was “stricken,” William Manchester wrote in his biography of MacArthur, American Caesar. The emperor appeared at the American embassy before MacArthur departed and told him of his distress. Japan’s parliament, the Diet, passed a resolution of gratitude in honor of the general. The Tokyo daily, Mainichi, declared that MacArthur had dealt with the Japanese people “not as a conqueror but a great reformer.” In Europe, the response was different: The front page of London’s Evening Standard trumpeted “Mac Is Sacked,” Manchester noted, while the French paper Ce Soir declared that Truman had acted under the volunte pacifique, or “desire for peace,” of the world’s peoples, implicitly acknowledging that the American president was the leader of the world as well. The American idea had enormous effects far beyond the country’s borders, as it does now.