Back in 1952 it was obvious that after twenty years the Democrats would at last lose the White House. The public wanted a change, and there were no Democratic candidates with the stature (“presidential timber” was the phrase of the time) of any of the Republicans like Thomas Dewey or Robert Taft, or Dwight Eisenhower or Douglas MacArthur. Dewey and Taft were arch-enemies. Dewey was an internationalist and Taft was more an isolationist. He wanted us out of Europe. As things went, Taft began edge past Dewey in the standings. As nominations were still primarily backroom arrangements–primaries were just beginning–such standings were difficult to glean, but the press and politicos seemed to think that things were leaning in Taft’s direction. There was a draft-Eisenhower movement in the works–he was, after all, the big American hero of WW2, the architect of victory–but he would rather not be president. He’d done his bit and wanted to retire. But he was worried about Taft’s isolationist tendencies…Ike was worried that it was basically handing over Europe to Stalin. Stalin gave him the creeps. So he told Taft that if Taft stated that he would continue the current American policies in Europe–NATO, the Marshall Plan, etc.–that he, Eisenhower, would make a Shermanesque declaration of his lack of presidential ambitions (“I will not accept if nominated and will not serve if elected.”) Taft refused. Ike jumped in. It looked neck and neck heading into the convention. So Taft decided to jump the gun on normal procedure and announced his choice of running mate before the convention. He chose Douglas MacArthur.
MacArthur was the other big American hero of WW2. He was an impressive general, usually (though his Philippine fiasco in 1942 is the worst battlefield defeat in American history), and he made sure of his hero status with a publicity machine worthy of a movie star. People loved or hated him. He had also been the big hero in the Korean War, reversing a desperate situation with a brilliant counterstroke, though a strategic blunder in the end forced his removal (our rout at the hands of the Chinese at the Yalu River might be the second worst battlefield defeat in American history, up there with Chickamauga in 1863). President Truman mistakenly claimed at the time that MacArthur advocated using nuclear weapons against the Chinese. MacArthur actually hadn’t. But the damage was done and he now had the reputation of having an itchy nuclear trigger finger. Though at the time, much of the American public liked the idea. MacArthur, though dismissed and shamed, returned from Korea a hero to Republicans, lionized with praise not even Eisenhower had received. And unlike Eisenhower, MacArthur believed every word of it. Robert Taft had gone so far as to demand the impeachment and conviction of Truman for firing MacArthur. That went nowhere, of course, but it lead to Taft choosing MacArthur as his running mate. And in the political climate of 1952, having Douglas MacArthur on the ticket virtually guaranteed a win in November.
But it wasn’t up to the voters yet–this was before the primary system–and it wasn’t good enough to beat Eisenhower at the convention. Ike was nominated and then, in November, won handily. Adlai Stevenson was no match for a genuinely great American hero in the classic mold (the likes of which we haven’t seen since.) Nor would Adlai be a match in 1956. Stevenson was the first in the proud and so far unbroken line of unabashedly liberal Democratic presidential candidates who win the nomination only to lose the election. (Even the slogans tell the tale–I Like Ike versus Madly for Adlai….) But getting back to Robert Taft, who but for Eisenhower would have been president of the United States. Taft began to complain of pain in his hips in early 1953, and after a game of golf in April with the now President Eisenhower, he checked into a hospital. He was dead of pancreatic cancer by the end of July. Had Eisenhower not decided to run for President–and it took a tremendous amount of convincing, it was not something he wanted to do–Taft would have died as president and Vice President Douglas MacArthur would have become the 35th president of the United States.
Now that is something both weird and terrifying to think about. Perhaps the fact that we are here at all is because Douglas MacArthur was never president of the United States. Then again, it might be unfair to think he’d want to use nuclear weapons more than Eisenhower. He did not even like the fact we’d dropped the bombs on Japan, and he was no bleeding heart. He just didn’t like the whole idea. But a nuclear war would not have been started by a nuclear bomb loving maniac president. Rather it would have been set off by a president who saw war with Stalin and his heirs–who were incredibly scary people, remember, these guys were not Gorbachev–as a policy option. MacArthur in 1951 had had no issue at all seeing war with Red China as an option in the Korean conflict…and he was willing to disobey direct orders from the President to wage it. Eisenhower on the other hand, never saw war with the Soviet Union as an option. It was a last resort, to be avoided at almost any cost. And unlike MacArthur, we know for a fact how much Ike hated war, and how much he mistrusted the military industrial complex. That there was no World War Three in the fifties, when it would have been militarily possible without instant mutual annihilation, is almost entirely due to Dwight Eisenhower. He sounds now almost like a pacifist. I hate war, he said, “as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity”. He even went so far as to say that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Imagine that, a president saying that the sheer existence of the military and its infrastructure and industries is an affront to true New Testament values. You cannot imagine a president saying that now. Not even Bernie Sanders. Yet Eisenhower’s letters, memoirs and speeches are full of such language. And because of his public pronouncements, the leaders in Moscow knew that Eisenhower was not likely to start a new world war no matter how tense the Cold War became. But I’m not sure what they would have thought of MacArthur. While he did not openly love war, like Patton, he certainly gloried in its drama and opportunity. There was no way to tell just how far you could push a Douglas MacArthur. You weren’t guaranteed a measured, logical response as with Eisenhower, or be assured that he did not believe a surprise attack was a possibility. Ike would never start a war. But a President and Commander-in-Chief Douglas MacArthur? The danger in a stalemate is not what you know, but what you don’t know.
Which is what made the Cuban Missile Crisis so terrifying. Khrushchev had no way of knowing how far JFK would go. Nor did we. We still don’t. That was the only time in the history of the world when a several hundred million people faced instant death, and a couple billion others would have died slowly. We came so close. I would have died for sure. We were living outside Washington D.C., in October of 1963, and I would have been incinerated in the heat flash of an exploding hydrogen bomb, one of the many targeted for the immediate area. My last experiences would have been the howling air raid siren, my family huddling together in an interior hallway, praying and crying and waiting. We might have survived the blast a second or two. Anybody alive then remembers this, thinking that this was how we would all go. That this is how the world would end.
And that end would have been brought on by one of my Irish-American heroes, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. He nearly destroyed the world, not wanting to. The irony of a zero-sum world. And what would an egomaniac former generalissimo with a Caesar complex have done? We don’t know. We’ll never know. Eisenhower decided to run for president and rendered all things MacArthur moot. The only thing left for Douglas MacArthur was writing his memoirs. Reminiscences he called them and like U.S. Grant, he wrote the last passages and quietly died. An old soldier never dies, MacArthur told Congress in 1951, he just fades away. Which he did, thankfully, instead of going out with a nuclear bang.