Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of columns on Joe Martin, marking the 100th anniversary of the late North Attleboro congressman's entry into politics.
Joe Martin gets mentioned occasionally in history books as one of the leading opponents of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. And he gets a nod here and there as one of the Republicans who kept the GOP alive after the Great Depression.
But the late North Attleboro congressman is most often named as a key figure in a Korean War era incident involving President Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
Martin would have been the first one to say he wished he hadn't been involved.
From the time MacArthur was appointed commander of all troops during the Korean War, he and Truman were at odds. MacArthur was a favorite of conservatives, who considered the World War II hero a leading candidate to replace Truman in the White House. (Moderate Republicans and even some Democrats favored another WWII hero, Dwight Eisenhower.) Like many conservatives, MacArthur thought Truman was soft on Communism. MacArthur disagreed with the Truman administration over the policy of containment, not confronting new Communists regimes but also not allowing Communism to spread. MacArthur, focusing on Asia, wanted to go beyond containment to defeat Communism and liberate people beyond the Bamboo Curtain. But he kept those views hidden, in deference to Truman's status as commander in chief.
At first, MacArthur's troops were able to drive back Communist North Korean forces. With the help of China, however, North Korea struck back. It appeared as though a long struggle loomed. (Nearly 54,000 U.S. troops died in the Korean conflict, nearly as many as the 58,000 in Vietnam). By early 1951, Truman wanted to end the unpopular war, so he sought peace talks.
MacArthur quietly disagreed. Martin, then the House minority leader and a staunch defender of the containment policy, wrote to MacArthur, seeking his view on how the war was going and, more specifically, on Truman's handling of it.
On March 21, 1951, MacArthur wrote back with a scathing letter against Truman and American allies. The letter concluded: "If we lose the war to communism in Asia, the fall of Europe is inevitable, win it and Europe most probably would avoid war and yet preserve freedom. As you pointed out, we must win. There is no substitute for victory."
Martin felt the world should know how this leading military figure really felt about the war, but he was concerned whether to make it known to the public, whether MacArthur intended it for his eyes only. So Martin kept it to himself for a few weeks.
"That this letter would, if published, bring an outcry from the Truman administration and its sympathizers I had little doubt," Martin wrote in his 1960 autobiography "My First Fifty Years in Politics." "It was a direct contradiction of Truman's policy against (having Taiwan attack Red China, a much-discussed option). It deplored in the bluntest terms the unwillingness of the administration to marshal all available force against Communist aggressors. It was bitingly critical of the attitude of our allies in Europe. Certainly, everything about it would give provocation to the President. Still, at no time did I ever dream what a world-shaking explosion was latent in its plain prose."
In early April, a debate began in Congress over the Korean conflict, with some saying containment was working while others charging that we were on the precipice of World War III.
Martin felt he could no longer keep the letter a secret, so on April 6, 1951, he read it on the floor of Congress.
Truman was furious. "I was ready to kick (MacArthur) into the North China Sea, I was never so put out in my life," he would later say.
Six days later, Truman announced MacArthur's firing. But, unlike President Barack Obama's firing of Gen. Stanley McCrystal last year over a similar policy disagreement, Truman's actions were hardly universally accepted. MacArthur received two ticker-tape parades within four days of his return. The nation's leading red-baiter, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, called for Truman's impeachment. Another senator said Truman's peace negotiations would lead to "a Far Eastern Munich," referring to the appeasement policies employed to contain Hitler in the late 1930s. It rekindled talk about MacArthur being the GOP nominee for president in 1952.
But history has been far kinder to Truman, who avoided a major confrontation with China. More importantly, he showed that a president cannot tolerate having a military leader set foreign policy. As one senator at the time said, "God help the American people if the day ever comes when we fail to retain civilian control over the military establishment."
Martin would later say that he hoped his reading of MacArthur's letter would further the general's cause, not lead to his dismissal.
"I was appalled that I should have contributed to a chain of circumstances that had deprived the United States of the services of its greatest general," he wrote.
Martin said he and MacArthur never discussed the infamous letter, although their later conversations were "completely affable and friendly."
But MacArthur never did run for president and, like his famous quote about old soldiers, he just faded away.
MacArthur died in 1964 at the age of 84, nearly four years before Martin would pass away.
MIKE KIRBY is editor of The Sun Chronicle. He can be reached at 508-236-0344 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.