Truman, Eisenhower, and the Fiscal Cliff: A Political Message from Another Era

July 25, 1947 was the time. The White House was the place. Harry Truman, president of the United States, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, soon to be appointed president of Columbia University, were engaged in a remarkable conversation about General Douglas MacArthur, supreme allied commander in Japan. Both knew and distrusted MacArthur, Truman referring to his “superiority complex” and expecting him to make a “Roman triumphal return to the U.S. a short time before the Republican Convention meets in Philadelphia,” and Eisenhower describing him as “ruthless and ambitious.” Truman and Eisenhower believed at the time that MacArthur, more than anything else, wanted to be president, a prospect they both considered a “calamity” for the nation. In private notes, drafted that night in exquisite penmanship, they evoked a time in the American presidency when patriotism seemed to rise majestically over party politics and personal ambition.

Truman invited Eisenhower to the Oval Office for a private talk about James Forrestal, his first secretary of defense (interestingly, Truman spelled Forrestal with one “r” and referred to the job as “Secretary for National Defense”) and General George C. Marshall, whom he had recently appointed as his secretary of state. They also discussed the inevitable subject of national politics, and it was here that their common distaste for MacArthur bubbled easily to the surface.

They both believed that MacArthur was a roaring egotist, so driven by personal ambition that he would do anything to be president. Truman imagined that MacArthur would be drafted by the GOP convention and, as a Republican candidate bedecked by medals and honors, he would probably defeat Truman in the 1948 presidential campaign. The prospect of a MacArthur presidency seemed to frighten both Truman and Eisenhower. 

What Truman then proposed to Eisenhower is probably unprecedented in American presidential politics. Let me quote from his evening diary. “I told Ike that if he (MacArthur) did that (return to the US and get the GOP nomination) that he (Ike) should announce for the nomination for President on the Democratic ticket.” Truman then went further, breaking new ground. “I’d be glad to be in second place as Vice-President…Ike and I could be elected.” I don’t believe Truman advanced this interesting proposal so he could cling to power. He described the White House as “a great white jail.”

That evening, Ike noted in his diary that he had had “an astounding talk at the White House at 3:30 this afternoon.” He added: “I stick on my determination to have nothing to do with politics—but I can well understand the calamity that might overtake us if some utterly [here he crossed out the word “incompetent” and wrote in the words “ruthless and ambitious”] person should capture public imagination.” Obviously, in the context, he meant MacArthur. Later, with mirth, I suspect, Ike added the thought: “I wonder whether—5 years from now—H.T. will—or will want to—remember his amazing suggestion.” Five years later, in 1952, Ike, who would have “nothing to do with politics,” accepted the GOP nomination for the presidency.

Still, it is indeed amazing that a sitting president would propose that he voluntarily give up his place on the ticket to someone he believed had a better shot at defeating a political opponent, especially one named MacArthur. It is hard, if not impossible, to imagine such a scenario today, when political polarization has moved the country to the brink of economic “catastrophe,” the word used by many economists, and when personal ambition seems to ride roughshod over the national interest. If Truman could propose giving up the presidency for the good of the country, why can’t Boehner and other GOP leaders give up their opposition to a slight increase in the tax rates? They can afford it.