Of all the decisions that Truman made as president — the atom bomb, Israel, Korea, the mining strike — I believe that the most important decision was to fire MacArthur.
Douglas MacArthur was a bona fide war hero, who had won the battle of Incheon just months before, who had stood in front of Truman when he pinned MacArthur’s fifth Distinguished Service Medal to his uniform. He was a cowboy general, who acted boldly (and occasionally idiotically) to achieve victory and glory.
MacArthur was also a strong opponent of Truman’s “limited war” strategy, which proposed to end the war at the 38th parallel and not push onwards past Seoul. In letters to Congressmen and others, MacArthur made clear his displeasure. Finally, on the eve of Truman’s planned cease-fire offer to China, MacArthur challenged the Chinese to admit defeat. Truman understood that to appoint MacArthur as head of the operation would mean a few blow-ups here and there, but even Truman would not have predicted MacArthur’s deliberate undermining of his plan.
MacArthur was acquitted on charges of insubordination by court martial, and rode to Washington after his firing on a wave of goodwill from Republicans and ticker tape parades across the country.
In spite of this, in spite of impeachment calls from Sen. Bob “Mr. Republican” Taft, of being booed at Griffith Stadium, of MacArthur’s famous “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away” speech to Congress, Truman stood his ground. To him, there was nothing more important than civilian control of the military.
Which brings me to the end of the lesson: there will be those who say that McChrystal’s crimes do not come close to MacArthur’s. After all, MacArthur deliberately undermined a strategic military/diplomatic objective, while McChrystal just let his staff give some snarky quotes to Rolling Stone. In an age when PR matters, and selling the war to the Afghans and Americans is as important as actually fighting the war, I would argue that McChrystal’s ill-advised on-the-record boondoggle has undermined his President’s ability to wage the war. This would easily get a Cabinet secretary fired; why not a general?
No-Drama Obama will probably not use the sudden Trumanesque dismissal; I imagine that McChrystal will stay in the job, then be replaced in about three months.
Tl;dr McChrsytal’s transgressions of stupidly letting his staff talk to the press may seem like small potatoes, but in a PR age, they constitute insubordination. The suspicion of disloyalty compromises McChrystal enough that he should be replaced.