Article — From the May 2011 issue

Owned by the Army

Has the president lost control of his generals?

( 2 of 6 )

Since Julius Caesar and his army crossed the Rubicon, civil-military relations have determined the course of empires as well as of republics. The American founders’ designation of the president as commander in chief in Article II of the Constitution was meant as a safeguard against any would-be Caesar. In Federalist Paper No. 69, Alexander Hamilton laid out the case that the president’s military power should be limited not by any parallel military authority but by Congress.

We’ve been debating the exact nature of the civil-military divide ever since, but the few genuine challenges to civilian control have occurred in wartime, exemplified by General George McClellan’s defiance of President Abraham Lincoln’s orders to move against the Confederate Army during the second year of the Civil War. McClellan said that he needed more time to prepare for the campaign, privately likened Lincoln to “a well-meaning baboon,” and was often peremptory in his direct dealings with the president. Lincoln responded, “If General McClellan does not want to use the Army, I would like to borrow it for a time,” and eventually dismissed him. Historians have treated McClellan leniently, though, in part because it was not until the Civil War that civilian control—like many other constitutional aspirations—really took root and the military, as a result, became more thoroughly depoliticized.

Civilian control was a national issue only once in the twentieth century: when President Harry Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of command in April 1951, during the Korean War. MacArthur was imperious to begin with, and his improbably successful amphibious landing at Inchon in September 1950 and deep advance into North Korea reinforced his sense of infallibility. When the Chinese sent some 300,000 soldiers across the Yalu River into North Korea and began steadily rolling back American territorial gains, MacArthur recommended that the United States destroy bridges over the Yalu, bomb Chinese staging areas and supply lines in Manchuria, engineer the invasion of China by Chiang Kai-shek, and blockade the entire Chinese coast. Truman favored limited war, judging MacArthur’s plan politically untenable. Moreover, senior American officers—including Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff—opposed escalation.

Undaunted, MacArthur released a statement to the international press, without White House clearance, that outlined his plan to personally negotiate an end to the war, and sent a letter to House minority leader Joseph Martin that cast the Korean conflict as a war of necessity to stop the spread of Communism. Martin read the letter on the floor of the House. After first ordering a report on the Lincoln–McClellan clash, Truman decided that MacArthur had to go. The firing produced hysterical rhetoric from Truman’s political opponents and caused his popularity to plummet, but the president’s role as commander in chief was unequivocally affirmed. General Matthew B. Ridgway, MacArthur’s replacement, performed brilliantly in Korea while staying in his lane, and a Senate inquiry confirmed the constitutional propriety of Truman’s action. MacArthur later told historian Samuel Eliot Morison that a theater commander should be allowed to act autonomously, with no presidential guidance. “He never crossed the Rubicon,” wrote Morison, “but his horse’s front hoofs were in the water.”

Six years after MacArthur’s dismissal, political scientist Samuel P. Huntington wrote The Soldier and the State, which articulated what would become the consensus view of civilian-military relations. Huntington argued that American military officers had evolved into a disciplined, technically competent, and conservative group. They had become professionals, which usefully removed them from the realm of politics. He proposed a theory of “objective control”—later called the “normal theory”—which calls for military obedience to civilian leaders in areas of strategic or political discretion and civilian deference to the military on operational matters. Under Huntington’s theory, civilians devise the grand strategy and then relinquish the battlefield to the armed forces to execute it.

This division held up for decades after MacArthur, through the end of the Vietnam War. But many soldiers who served in Vietnam, including those who would lead the armed forces in the 1980s and 1990s, decided that their commanders should have dissented more vigorously from the civilian leadership. “My generation, as a result of Vietnam, did see it as their duty to make their views known,” retired Air Force general Joseph Ralston, who served two tours in Vietnam and was vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President Bill Clinton, told me. “The Vietnam experience,” added Walter Slocombe, former undersecretary of defense and an adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, “made the military excessively suspicious of civilian ‘interference.’ ” The day of reckoning, however, was delayed: in the Gulf War and in the Balkans, Norman Schwarzkopf and Wesley Clark gained national prominence, but because the operations were quick and successful, they refrained from insinuating their views about the strategic aims of the nation into policymaking. Sometime during George W. Bush’s presidency, though, the system described by the normal theory began to break down.

is a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College.

More from Jonathan Stevenson:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2014

Poison Apples

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Growing Up

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Gateway to Freedom

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Guns and Poses

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Christmas in Prison

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content