One of the big stories last week was President Trump revoking John Brennan’s security clearance. Let me start by admitting my ignorance, I assumed everyone lost their clearance when they left the job, and I am not sure why he still needs it. Obviously, I am wrong in my assumptions because stripping Brennan of his clearance has set off a firestorm. As always, I am not commenting on the correctness of Trump’s actions, but, historically, criticizing the president has often led to similar consequences. In fact, criticizing the president publicly has had even larger significances.
Coming out of WW II there were few men with the public stature of General Douglas MacArthur. In 1941, with tensions rising around the globe, MacArthur took command of U.S. forces in the Pacific. MacArthur built up troop strength in the Philippines in preparation for a possible Japanese attack. On December 7, 1941, the same day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they also attacked the Philippines. Not willing to lose MacArthur, Roosevelt ordered the General off the Island, leaving his men to a horrific fate. Upon his exit, MacArthur publicly vowed to return.
After two years of hard fighting in the Pacific, MacArthur, true to his word, triumphantly liberated the Philippines. Cameras captured the large-than-life general as he waded ashore with his iconic hat, sunglasses, and pipe announcing “I have returned by the grace of the Almighty Lord.”
MacArthur went on to win the war in the Pacific, become Supreme Allied Commander, and accept the surrender of the Japanese in September 1945. For the next six years, he remained in Japan overseeing military operations. He was such a large personality and so successful that his name was batted around as a possible presidential candidate.
In 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea, MacArthur took command of the U.N. forces with the intent of containing the communist threat in North Korea. Not only did the General stop the North Koreans with a stunning amphibious attack, he got behind the enemy forces and invaded the North. What he did not expect was Chinese forces entering the conflict, forcing him to retreat back across the thirty-eighth parallel.
MacArthur believed the only course the U.S. had was to take the war to China. However, President Harry Truman disagreed. Truman believed a war with China would lead to a possible WWIII not only with the Chinese but also with their ally, the Soviet Union. When MacArthur went public with his ideas and criticized the president’s policies, even having a letter read in Congress, Truman relieved him of his command. Truman later said, “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President.”
The general’s firing was incredibly unpopular. Many even questioned the constitutionality of the action. Truman’s approval rating dropped so low that it was one reason for his decision not to seek reelection (he was grandfathered in for the 22nd Amendment and so could run). Later investigations agreed that Truman had legal authority to fire the popular general and eventually public sentiment came around to his side. However, by that time the damage had already been done.
I am not saying that stripping an ex-CIA director of his security clearance is not a big deal, but when compared to removing the general in charge in the middle of a war for criticizing the president, Trump’s actions do not seem as bad. That being said, the president may want to look at the consequences of presidents like Truman or Nixon, who fired subordinates for personal slights.
Dr. James Finck is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma