Truman and the Two Generals

President Harry Truman (top), General Douglas MacArthur (bottom left), President Dwight Eisenhower (bottom right)
President Harry Truman (top), General Douglas MacArthur (bottom left), President Dwight Eisenhower (bottom right)

Any study of the Korean War would be incomplete without looking into the conflict between President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur. Truman’s firing of MacArthur was a pivotal event in American history, and it almost certainly drove a nail in the coffin of any possible plans of President Truman to seek a third term in office.

As Truman left the White House, he handed it over to Dwight Eisenhower — another general with whom Truman feuded. Much has been written and said about the conflict between the two men. While a close, professional relationship once existed between this general and his commander-in-chief, by the time of the inauguration of 1953, they had grown so distant that hardly a word was exchanged between the two of them as they drove from the White House to the Capitol for the swearing-in ceremony.

Two generals. Two adversaries. Two different stories of conflicts of personality with a very determined commander-in-chief. Two stories that each ended with a general receiving the praise and adulation of President Truman’s political enemies.

On one issue, however, Harry Truman and Ike Eisenhower were in complete agreement. This one issue, despite all their differences, united the two men in philosophy. This one issue paved the way for General Eisenhower to become the 34th President of the United States. That issue was the Marshall Plan.

Both parties wanted Eisenhower as their nominee in 1952. Neither party was quite certain where Eisenhower’s political leanings rested. In fact, Eisenhower wasn’t too sure himself. He always felt that his job as a soldier was to follow orders, not to try to dictate policy.

The Republican heir apparent to the nomination in 1952 was Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio. Eisenhower respected Taft greatly but disagreed with him on one crucial point: the Marshall Plan. Taft was a steadfast opponent to the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II. Eisenhower, on the other hand, was very much in favor of it.

Eisenhower called Taft one day. He said, “If you will come out in favor of the Marshall Plan, I will categorically remove myself from consideration for the presidency and leave the field wide open to you.” Taft was a man of strong principles; he said he would think about it. Finally, after considering the proposal, he called Eisenhower and said, “I’m very sorry, but I cannot support the Marshall Plan. I am that much opposed to it.”

The rest is history. Primarily out of concern for the passage of the Marshall Plan, Eisenhower put himself into contention for the Republican nomination, received it, and won the Presidency in a landslide that November. Support of the Marshall Plan was a primary plank in the platform of the Republican Party – primarily at Eisenhower’s insistence. The Marshall Plan would pass. It would be implemented, and it would be successful because of the unified efforts and support of President Truman and President Eisenhower.

Their joint support of the Marshall Plan did not seem to be on their minds as they made that historic and silent drive to the Capitol on January 20, 1953. They had become political enemies, and it would be years before that particular Cold War would begin to thaw.

Yet there is one final chapter to be written in this melodrama: one further twist in history’s pathway that came about because of the Marshall Plan. History tells us that shortly after Eisenhower was sworn in as President, Sen. Robert Taft died. In other words, had he received the nomination, and had he been elected, he would have died in office.

And then, the man who was to be Taft’s Vice President — the man who would have then become President of the United States — would have been none other than General Douglas MacArthur.

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