A Brief History of Presidents, Generals and Pink Slips

by Derrick G. Jeter

“Loose lips, sink ships.” This was a common warning—to servicemen and civilians alike—during World War II. Well, loose lips also bring pink slips, especially if you’re a high ranking officer in the United States military and your loose lips are critical of your boss, the president. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of all U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, just might receive a pink slip after sticking his boot in his mouth regarding comments he made about Obama, Joe Biden, and the war in Afghanistan in a Rolling Stone article. McChrystal, in route from Afghanistan to D.C., is to meet with Obama and will probably be taken to the woodshed. Will he be fired? That remains to be seen, but if he is he wouldn’t be the first general canned during a war.
Gen. George B. McClellan was a soldier’s general. Beloved by his troops, McClellan cared for them and made the Army of the Potomac a sight to see. No army could match his in drill and combat maneuvers . . . as long as no one was shooting at them. McClellan loved his army so much that he rarely took it out to do what it was designed to do: kill the enemy. At first this bewildered Abraham Lincoln, but bewilderment soon turned to frustration and then to outright anger, leading Lincoln to quip that if McClellan didn’t want to use the army, he would like to “borrow it.” McCellan had no love—and little to no respect—for President Lincoln. Writing to his wife, Ellen, on August 16, 1861, McClellan said: “The Presdt is an idiot . . . nothing more than a well meaning baboon.” [1] This and more serious slights from the General were easily overlooked by the president, but a failure to engage the enemy aggressively could not, so on November 5, 1862, Lincoln borrowed the army and gave it to Henry Halleck.
Ninety years later another general was summarily sacked in the midst of a war. This time it wasn’t incompetence, but insubordination. Douglas MacArthur was a pompous prima donna, but he wasn’t afraid to take the fight to the enemy—as long as he did it his way and without interference from the pencil pusher in the Oval Office. MacArthur’s habit, like McClellan’s, in disobeying orders didn’t sit well with President Truman and his administration. However, it was MacArthur’s big mouth that finally ended his military career.
On Thursday, April 5, 1951, House Majority Leader Joe Martin took to the floor and read a letter from MacArthur in which the general, in effect, accused President Truman of not fighting for victory in the war in Korea. “There is no substitute for victory,” MacArthur intoned. [2] This was more than the White House could stomach. Under advice from his administration, Truman was convinced that victory would have to be achieved without his peacock general, so on April 10th he plucked MacArthur’s feathers.
Abraham Lincoln didn’t win the war with Henry Halleck, but he did eventually find a general who wanted to fight, took orders, and kept his mouth shout—Ulysses S Grant. Harry Truman didn’t exactly lose the war in Korea with MacArthur, but neither did he exactly win without him. Korea was fought to a stalemate and remains divided to this day. What will happen in Afghanistan, with or without McChrystal, is anybody’s guess. We’ve been slogging it out over there for nine years and still the war continues. What remains to be seen is whether Gen. McChrystal continues to lead our forces there or whether he returns home and makes money by banging his bicuspids.
UPDATE (23 June 2010): Well, everyone now knows that Gen. McChrystal is out and Gen. Petraeus is in. This morning McChrystal resigned and Obama accepted. The question remains, however, what to do in Afghanistan? I hope Petraeus can figure out a path forward to victory. Let’s pray he does.
[1] George B. McClellan to Ellen McClellan, August 16, 1861, as quoted in Ronald C. White Jr., A. Lincoln: A Biography (New York: Random House, 2009), 447.
[2] Douglas MacArthur to Joe Martin, March 20, 1951, as quoted in David McCullough, Truman, (New York:Simon and Schuster, 1992), 838.