SE39 Week 7 – Old Soldiers

This week’s final sound bite clue was a little difficult to understand, and its upper-range frequencies made it the favourite clue of dogs across Ottawa. It was Douglas MacArthur’s farewell address, after getting fired. It’s a rather interesting story; here’s the super quick edition.

General MacArthur was the hero of the United States Pacific campaign in the Second World War, or at least the army version. After the Japanese rampage in the region MacArthur’s overmatched forces in the Philippines were doomed to defeat. He stayed on, with his entire family (!!) until ordered to flee, which he did via PT boat (basically a really small boat). He ran a Japanese blockade and escaped to Australia, where he reorganized his forces and began to turn the tide of the war. The troops he was forced to abandon were subjected to the famous Bataan Death March. MacArthur vowed to return to the Philippines, and in 1944 he did just that…

The original "I'll be back"
The original “I’ll be back”

So basically he was a pretty serious badass, war hero, and highly esteemed in the minds of the American public. After the war he stayed on in Japan to lead the rebuilding there, and so was the man in charge when Korea went kablooey in 1950. That was when Kim Il-Sung, Perfect Eternal Leader and demigod decided to at last lead the greatest armed struggle in all of world history and establish a worker’s paradise through flawless victory against the enemies of workers and the running dogs of the international capitalist conspiracy.

Look, baby Kim Jong-Il! A grey jump suit!
Look, baby Kim Jong-Il! A man in a grey jump suit! I shall shoot him and take it from him, and you shall wear it on the day that you become a man and every day thereafter.

I’d like to note here the Kim Il-Sung was a self-appointed winner of the Double Hero Gold Medal, so you can keep your snickering cynicism to yourself. Dear North Korea: please don’t hack me.

Anyways, things went perfectly (obviously) for the North Korean side at first, and the United Nations (read: mostly American and South Korean) side was in a shambles. Seoul was overrun and the situation was grim. Then MacArthur showed up and pulled off a brilliant maneuver: an amphibious landing at Inchon, behind the North Korean lines, and completely to their surprise. It was a good one, and the public loved MacArthur even more. Here’s a somewhat helpful map:


And thus the situation flipped. The UN forces retook Seoul and chased the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel and right into the waiting arms of… the Chinese. Woops. The intricacies of at all are worth a more detailed look, of course, but the basics are that at this point MacArthur started to chafe against the political concerns affecting his campaign. For example, the president allowed him to bomb the bridges over the Yalu river you see there, in order to prevent more Chinese troops from joining the fight, but stipulated that US bomber pilots weren’t allowed to fly over the winding river. Good luck with that. He made a few statements contradicting administration policy, including accusing the President of appeasement for not pursuing the Korean war more vigorously. Truman then upped the stakes by prohibiting all military officials from saying anything of any substance without political approval. Truman also staged a strange field trip to Wake Island, with the press corps in tow, to meet with MacArthur and discuss nothing at all of import, but to be seen to in control. Funny enough Truman, a former haberdasher, was insulted by the general’s “ham and egg” hat.

Then, weirdly enough, MacArthur penned a letter to a U.S. congressman about his views, which said congressman read into the record on the floor of the House:

It seems strangely difficult for some to realize that here in Asia is where the Communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest, and that we have joined the issue thus raised on the battlefield; that here we fight Europe’s war with arms while the diplomatic there still fight it with words; that if we lose the war to communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable; win it and Europe most probably would avoid war and yet preserve freedom. As you pointed out, we must win. There is no substitute for victory.

Doesn’t exactly sound controversial but it was. The British were concerned that MacArthur was going to start a full on war with China and the Soviet Union (ed. note: that would have been bad), and Truman had to go out of his way to specify that he, not his out of control General, was in charge of the nuclear arsenal in the theatre.

And so it came to pass that Truman, with the lowest approval ratings of any president (22%) ever, fired his highly acclaimed, top general (and a decorated, bona fide war hero) in the middle of an ongoing and unpopular war. Ultimately Truman decided not to seek reelection, in no small part because of these circumstances. MacArthur gave his farewell address – from whence came the clip we heard – at Soldier Field in Chicago, to a crowd of 50,000 people. MacArthur won the hearts and minds of the people, Truman asserted the primacy of the Oval Office, and many people were confirmed in their belief that politicians were little more than meddlers in military affairs best left to generals. Read this excellent article in the Atlantic for more on that idea.

General Stanley McChrystal “retired” under Obama, but it wasn’t even close to as big a deal. It’s hard to imagine a parallel scenario playing out in our times.

Here’s your wikipedia wormhole on the whole affair. Godspeed.

4 thoughts on “SE39 Week 7 – Old Soldiers

  1. Let’s not forget, though, that invading China, like MacArthur wanted to do, with nukes, like MacArthur wanted to do, without necessarily interrupting Truman’s busy schedule of implementing farm tariffs to let him know, would probably have led to World War III. Which I think we all agree would have been a bad thing.


    1. Yes, I think I was remiss in maybe presenting the MacArthur side of the story. People crazy enough to learn history only from me take note: this was maybe the closest the world ever got to World War III, and yes I’m including Cuba. Cursed blogging – I would have gone for a 20,000 word explanation of the ins and outs if only anyone was likely to read past the first paragraph.


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