Obama’s Truman Moment

So just how low can America’s political leaders sink into acrimonious gridlock? Indeed, we might soon find out. After all, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner is about to welcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the floor of the United States Capitol to condemn President Obama’s policy towards Iran.

Apparently, Boehner not only failed to ask for the President’s feedback before inviting the Prime Minister to give his speech, he didn’t even bother to tell the President that he was extending the invitation. Commentators have said that the situation “has no precedent in American history,” noting that Congressional leaders have always consulted with Presidents before inviting outsiders to speak on the floor of the Capitol.

Well, perhaps not quite always. During at least one prior time in American history, a very similar dispute erupted between the Congress and the President. That situation also involved a hostile Congress that invited an outsider to criticize Presidential policies on the floor of the Capitol building.

In the midst of the Korean War, in 1951, President Truman relieved the famous General Douglas MacArthur of all command duties and replaced him with the far lesser known Matthew Ridgway. MacArthur was a legendary war hero in both the first and second world wars, and had masterminded a brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon that temporarily swung the momentum of the Korean War in favor of the United Nations forces.

Nevertheless, MacArthur’s behavior during the Korean War was marked by rashly inappropriate decisions and, at times, outright insubordination towards President Truman. The General foolishly pursued the North Korean Army to its border with China, an aggressive action that brought the Chinese army into direct and catastrophic conflict with American forces. And MacArthur repeatedly complained, in a public manner, that the President would not permit him to attack Chinese soil or to deploy nuclear weapons.

When Truman decided to relieve MacArthur, the political prospects of his Democratic Party were not particularly bright, and many politicians were openly discussing the possibility that MacArthur might run for President as a Republican candidate. Upon MacArthur’s dismissal from duty, Congressional leaders invited the General to speak on the floor of the U.S. Capitol as a political rebuke to Truman.

So how did that speech work out for MacArthur? And what was its outcome for Truman?

In the short term, MacArthur’s popularity soared even higher, and Truman’s sunk to new lows. The General gave a brilliant speech to Congress, one that is now remembered for its immortal line “Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.” He was also honored with a ticker tape parade in New York City, and he began presenting his political views at venues across the nation.

Truman, meanwhile, began a political death spiral. Declining to run for re-election, he retired from office in early 1953 and was initially considered one of the most unpopular and unsuccessful presidents in American history. Sure enough, his successor was a Republican candidate who swept into office as a military war hero who commanded Allied armies during the Second World War.

But the President who succeeded Truman was General Dwight Eisenhower, who masterminded America’s victory against Nazi Germany, and not MacArthur, who led the Pacific war against Imperial Japan. So what happened to MacArthur’s nascent political career? Apparently, as American citizens learned more about his views, they became less enthusiastic about electing him President.

And over the ensuing decades, Harry Truman’s reputation has risen among both Presidential historians and the American public. He is now considered to be one of the most successful Presidents in the history of the United States, a leader who was willing to make tremendously unpopular decisions that were in the long term interests of the nation.

Today, of course, there’s no way to know whether the contemporary struggles of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu will evolve in the same manner as the twentieth century battles of President Truman and General MacArthur. Modern times are very different, and thus modern outcomes may differ as well.

Nevertheless, if history is any guide to the future, we may eventually decide that President Obama’s decisions are downright Trumanesque. And Netanyahu? As MacArthur might say, he may, quite simply, fade away.