Tactics vs Strategy: MacArthur vs Truman



  • Knowing means from ends
  • Knowing tactics from strategy
  • Understanding why the first must always be subordinate to the second

These, as I argued in the previous post, are the greatest and most enduring lessons of Carl von Clausewitz, and the reason why I include him in my pantheon of great minds.

Where I have most fun in my forthcoming book is in fleshing out his ideas in contexts other than war, to show that strategy applies to all areas of life. But today I want to make his ideas a bit more concrete in the obvious context: war.

So allow me to introduce the two archetypes:

  1. Douglas MacArthur and
  2. Harry Truman


Here is their story (from one of the best biographies ever written):

Nuke to win, nuke to lose

In June of 1950, Communist forces from North Korea poured south across the 38th parallel in an all-out attack on South Korea. Harry Truman, having come to power late in life, was the American commander-in-chief and had already made history by dropping the first and only two atomic bombs on Asian cities just five years earlier. He knew immediately and instinctively that this Communist attack had to be reversed or contained. And there to execute this purpose, in theory, was Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the United Nations forces in the region, as well as a certified American Hero from World War II and a notorious prima donna.

MacArthur began true to form, with a swashbuckling landing at Inchon in South Korea. He took the enemy by surprise, liberated Seoul in eleven days and, by October 1st of 1950, brought UN forces—primarily composed of Americans—back to the 38th parallel that the North Koreans had crossed. MacArthur now wanted a “hot pursuit” , and Truman authorized him to cross the 38th parallel.

Truman, however, added a crucial strategic condition: Do not to provoke the Chinese to enter the war, lest that should spark World War III and possible nuclear Armageddon!

Right around then, things began going wrong, not only in the war effort but also in the relationship between MacArthur and Truman.

When the two men met–for the only physical meeting of their lives–on  a tiny coral islet in the Pacific, MacArthur tellingly greeted his commander-in-chief but failed to salute. The two men then met alone, before inviting others to join them. Truman made clear his overarching concern, one that Clausewitz would have approved of: to keep this a “limited” war,  meaning a war to meet one single objective—rebuffing Communist aggression in Korea—without risking an escalation into what Clausewitz would have called an “absolute” war.

But the following month, Truman’s fears came true and the Communist Chinese attacked with huge force. Suddenly, MacArthur, who had been dreaming of another glorious military victory, was trying to avoid a humiliating defeat. He demanded:

  • huge reinforcements,
  • a wholesale naval blockade of all of China and
  • immediate bombing of the Chinese mainland.

MacArthur wanted to broaden the war and to burst any remaining “limits” on it. For MacArthur, there was only one objective: victory. At all costs!

Truman thought the exact opposite. His first fear had already come true, and he now worried that the Chinese were the advance guard of a Soviet Russian intervention, what he called “a gigantic booby trap”  that could lead to the explosion of World War III.

Truman and MacArthur started issuing competing press releases. MacArthur began publicly blaming Washington for everything that was going wrong. He disobeyed specific orders. He called on Truman

  • to drop thirty to fifty atomic bombs on the cities of China (!) and
  • to “sever” Korea from China by laying down a field of radioactive waste all along the Yalu River.

MacArthur appeared to have lost his mind. He even issued his own ultimatum to the Chinese government, as if he were president.

Big Man vs Little Man

At last, Truman took the inevitable measure and fired MacArthur. This was an obvious step, but not an easy one. MacArthur, to ordinary Americans, was still a war hero, whereas Truman’s approval was at an all-time low of 26%. (Hard to remember today, but true.) Time Magazine wrote that “Douglas MacArthur was the personification of the big man” whereas “Harry Truman was almost a professional little man.”  In a poll, 69% of the country backed MacArthur. There were calls to impeach Truman. (Never underestimate the capacity of a democracy, whether Athenian or American, to run amok!)

In time, minds cleared. Truman settled for a stalemate in Korea that continues to this day and is as tense and unsatisfactory this week as ever. He chose a “defeat” of sorts that has brought lasting peace. Communism would be contained for another four decades and then crumble, leaving American as the only superpower. Parts of East Asia, like Western Europe, would prosper in relative safety.

Had MacArthur prevailed, America might well have achieved “victory”, at the cost of another world war, nuclear annihilation of millions, and perhaps nuclear counterstrikes on America from the Soviets, who were fast catching up to the Americans in the technology. It would have been the ultimate impostor of a triumph, with nobody left to march in the victory parade through the radioactive planet.

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14 thoughts on “Tactics vs Strategy: MacArthur vs Truman

  1. Great post as always, Andreas. Not to get all nitpicky … but it wasn’t actually Truman that settled for a stalemate. The cease fire was concluded under Eisenhower who had assumed power in January 1953. Eisenhower won, partly due to his enormous personal popularity, but also due to a campaign based on ending the war. Truman, technically, could have run for re-election but chose not to due to his enormous unpopularity, much of it based on displeasure with the war.

    So while Truman was willing to accept a settlement to end the conflict, it was Eisenhower that actually did so.

    In line of your impostors theme it’s also interesting to note that MacArthur, who was treated like a hero when he returned to the US after his dismissal, faded from popularity rather quickly as he made more and more outlandish statements against Truman. It’s also a good example of a tactical victory: MacArthur got a bump in popularity, but history (the strategic view) is overwhelmingly on the side of Truman for his decision.

    BTW, when’s the book coming out?/Cheers, Jens

    • Thanks for clarifying, Jens.

      And I love the way that you bring it to the individual level for MacArthur. That’s exactly what I do in the book. (Should know when it comes out fairly soon, btw)

  2. Thanks, Jens.

    After rereading this post and Jens’ comment, both made me wonder about several issues regarding strategy vs. tactics in current events.

    This morning, North Korea, may be trucking its longest ICBM, for another missile launch. As you know, I am studying missiles for my book. What should our strategy be with the North Koreans? It would appear that Clinton’s and Bush’s strategies have failed. I am just curious what you all would say about North Korea as it relates to this post.

    Also, do you think that years from now, Bush will be seen as changing the Middle East for the better? Even though he is reviled now?

    • I think our strategy vis-a-vis North Korea is a mess and is about to get a lot more messy and fluid: They just announced, apparently, the successor to Kim Jong-Il. Surprise: it’s his son. Now we have to figure out who we’re dealing with, then think strategically.

      Regarding Bush: I doubt that we can ever think of him as a great strategist, even if the Middle East takes a turn for the better (which I hope). that’s because he did not think clearly and strategically at the time he made his decisions with the information available. I’ll need a few more words to make that clear, and I might try in a post.

  3. There is a belief by many that victories in battle lead to victorious conclusion of war.
    As you have pointed out that is not always so. For example, if the U.S. had not lost the Battle at Kassereine Pass we may have not made the necessary changes in organization and personnel to successfully prosecute the war. If the Axis had simply let North Africa after our successful landings, we wouldn’t have truly understood our deficiency’s, or theirs. The loss at Kassereine gave the Axis a tactical victory that fostered a false sense that fighting in Tunisia made sense. So, we learned better how to fight and the ultimately they lost a quarter million troops and equipment, that we would not find opposing our landing in Europe.

    There are so many historical examples. Your blogs namesake may by virtue of his three astounding victories over Rome early in the 2nd Punic War, set Rome on a course of total war that ended in the complete annihilation of Carthage. Without Hannibal’s brilliant failure, how likely is it that Rome would have had the will, determination, or opportunity to win all or be destroyed.

    The USSR v. Nazi Germany another example of strategy defeating tactics.

    Our own Revolution too.

    So many!

    • My god, Tom. You brought the discussion to Hannibal. And, if I may say so, in a very perceptive way indeed. Yes, in a nutshell you might say that Hannibal, by winning, …. made the Romans a superpower and Carthage extinct. How about that for the pithiest and hugest statement ever!

      If you want that in 110,000 words, with application for your own life and lots of others, read my book, when it comes out. 😉

  4. totally lacking in insight and inappropriate example. In the end, at Panmunjom, Eisenhower needed the threat of nuclear bomb to force the commies to capitulate. It is not a certainty that MacArthur’s plan would deploy an atom bomb.

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