MacArthur’s Last Stand Against a Winless War

He leaned on JFK to stay out of Vietnam. Had Kennedy survived, might history have been different?

On April 28, 1961—a decade after General Douglas MacArthur was fired for defying Harry Truman on Korea—the controversial commander hosted President John F. Kennedy at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where MacArthur and his wife lived in a suite on the 37th floor. The contrast between the two could not have been more obvious: MacArthur, then in his early eighties, was mottled, frail, and walked with a slight stoop, while the newly inaugurated Kennedy was young, fit, and vibrant. The two sequestered themselves in MacArthur’s suite, then posed for photographers, the young president obviously proud to appear with the aging legend.

Fortunately for historians, Kennedy recorded notes on his Waldorf Astoria discussion, committing MacArthur’s advice to a personal memorandum that he later referred to in White House policy discussions. The meeting itself was the subject of news stories and featured on national newscasts that same day. Later, the meeting provided grist for two generations of Kennedy-besotted commenters who debated whether the young president, had he not been assassinated in Dallas, might have recoiled from committing tens of thousands of U.S. troops to a winless war in Southeast Asia—a course of action taken by Lyndon Johnson, his successor.

It turns out that Kennedy’s memo of the Waldorf Astoria meeting (now at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum) is crucial for historians for a number of other reasons. It offers not only a glimpse of how the young president intended to navigate the treacherous waters of the Cold War, but suggests how one of America’s most celebrated military officers viewed what might be called the grand strategy of the American Republic: that is, whether and how the U.S. might win its dangerous struggle against the Soviet Union. Finally, the Waldorf Astoria meeting tells us how MacArthur’s most famous warning—to “never fight a land war in Asia”—has come down to us, what he meant by it, and whether, in an age of American troop deployments in at least 133 countries, it retains its meaning.

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American Caesar: Dougl... William Manchester Best Price: $3.99 Buy New $8.00 (as of 07:25 EDT - Details) Kennedy’s April 1961 meeting with MacArthur surprised the president’s top aides, many of whom openly disliked the aging warrior. But Kennedy, who’d served as a patrol boat skipper in the Pacific in World War II where MacArthur had commanded, admired him. “He was Kennedy’s kind of hero: valiant, a patrician, proud of his machismo, and a lover of glory,” MacArthur biographer William Manchester wrote in American Caesar. As crucially, Kennedy was as politically embattled then as MacArthur had been 10 years earlier and was intent on getting advice from the general on the worsening international situation. Just the week before, the new president had been humiliated when a group of U.S.-supported anti-Castro Cuban exiles were defeated after invading Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy was almost chagrined when he mentioned the humiliation, and MacArthur’s response was surprisingly blunt.

The failed invasion was a problem for the young president, he said, but he didn’t think that Kennedy was solely to blame. He faulted Dwight Eisenhower for promoting the invasion and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for supporting it: they should have known better, he suggested. He added that many of them, in his view, had been promoted beyond their competence. Eisenhower and the JCS had set Kennedy up, MacArthur implied: “The chickens are coming home to roost, and you happen to have moved into the chicken house.”

Kennedy appreciated MacArthur’s soothing judgment on Cuba (and would soon change the military’s top leadership—perhaps in keeping with MacArthur’s views), but then shifted the subject to Laos and Vietnam, where communist insurgencies were gaining strength. The Congress, he added, was pressuring him to deploy U.S. troops in response. MacArthur disagreed vehemently: “Anyone wanting to commit ground troops to Asia should have his head examined,” he said. That same day, Kennedy memorialized what MacArthur told him: “MacArthur believes it would be a mistake to fight in Laos,” he wrote in a memorandum of the meeting, adding, “He thinks our line should be Japan, Formosa, and the Philippines.” MacArthur’s warning about fighting in Asia impressed Kennedy, who repeated it in the months ahead and especially whenever military leaders urged him to take action. “Well now,” the young president would say in his lilting New England twang, “you gentlemen, you go back and convince General MacArthur, then I’ll be convinced.” So it is that MacArthur’s warning (which has come down to us as “never get involved in a land war in Asia”), entered American lore as a kind of Nicene Creed of military wisdom—unquestioned, repeated, fundamental.

In the years that followed, historians concluded that MacArthur’s advice was the result of his experience in South Korea, where he’d served as U.S. commander after it was invaded by North Korea in 1950. MacArthur had performed brilliantly, but then, with victory in sight, the Chinese intervened, driving south across the Yalu River and overwhelming his forces. MacArthur was embarrassed; he didn’t believe the Chinese would intervene and was caught flat-footed when they did. Outnumbered, MacArthur proposed a menu of military responses: bombing military bases in China, using Chinese Nationalist troops based in Taiwan to help in the fight, imposing an economic and naval blockade on the Chinese mainland, and even planting nuclear waste along the North Korean/Chinese border. Each of MacArthur’s suggestions were designed to cut off North Korea’s forces from their Chinese allies—to isolate the battlefield. But President Truman and the JCS disagreed, fearing that what MacArthur proposed would widen the war.

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