The Corner

U.S.

Did Truman Really Call MacArthur That?

President Harry S. Truman, c. 1947 (National Archives)

Whenever the relationship between the president and the military comes up, people bring up what President Harry Truman allegedly said about General Douglas MacArthur: “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a b****, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.” The veracity of this quote is sufficiently widely accepted that it appears on Wikipedia.

But did he say it?

The source is Merle Miller, who in 1973 described remarks that Truman had allegedly made to him in interviews in 1961 and 1962. In 1974, Miller came out with an “oral biography” based on the interviews.

In a 2006 book, however, historian Robert Ferrell said that he had listened to the tapes and concluded that Miller’s book was “a gross literary fraud.” Miller, Ferrell wrote, “changed Truman’s words in countless ways, sometimes improving the literary effect. Adding or subtracting words, he thoughtfully added his own opinions. He inserted his favorite cuss words. . .”

Miller presented Truman as having made very similar disparaging remarks about Tom Clark, whom Truman had appointed attorney general and later a Supreme Court justice. In 2013, Clark biographer Alex Wohl shed more light on Miller’s methods:

In 1963, Miller sent Truman a draft of an article he had sold to The Saturday Evening Post, to which the president composed a response saying “I am not in favor of such articles, especially this one which has so many misstatements of fact in it. I am sorry that that is the case and if you publish it I shall make that statement public.” The president subsequently retained a lawyer and threatened to sue, which led to the article being pulled. . . .

A former Clark law clerk who saw the two men together the same year Miller interviewed Truman recalled, “it was obvious that any disappointment the President may have had with some of Justice Clark’s earlier decisions had long since been forgotten. There was a great warmth between these two great men.”

Israel Shenker, in his 1973 New York Times report on Miller’s purported revelations, precedes the quote about MacArthur by noting, “Mr. Miller has not found this on his tapes.” NRO readers might be able to correct me if they have more information, but I bet I know why Miller didn’t find it.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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