Reveille

‘Commander in Chief’

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Of all the titles we have for the Top Gun of the land, none is as formidable and awe-inspiring as “Commander in Chief.” More than president, prime minister, chancellor, king, queen, czar or emperor, the title commander in chief immediately brings to mind total and absolute control over the armed might of any nation. It implies power and influence beyond that of any other individual and, particularly in times of conflict, it signifies life and death decisions that are not subject to question or debate.

The Philippines and the United States share a common presidential form of government and in both countries it is the chief executive who exercises the powers of a commander in chief.

The image of a commander in chief is often that of a ramrod-straight general with a chestful of medals riding herd over the army, navy, air forces of the land. But one of the greatest commanders in chief of the 20th century was Harry S. Truman, the 33rd president of the United States. After graduation from high school, Truman wanted to attend the United States Military Academy, but poor eyesight that required him to wear thick-rimmed lenses kept him out of West Point. Unable to pursue a military career, he would spend his early years as a farmer working for his father. But he retained a long-standing interest in biography and in military and political history, believing that “men made history or there would be no history.”

In spite of his physical limitations, it was said of him that “there was nothing passive about Harry S. Truman. He was the commander in chief in law and in fact.” People loved Truman for his candid, no-nonsense comments about the vital issues of the day. He was outspoken in his opinions and judgments of men and events and very often his audience would yell, “Give ’em hell, Harry!” When asked about this, his reply was “I never gave them hell. I just told the truth and they thought it was hell.”

The New Year is always an opportunity for changes in any administration. Getting rid of non-performing members, not just in the Cabinet but also in other vital offices of government, is one way of starting the New Year with a bang.

A simple performance audit could indicate who should stay and who should go. But there is another way of doing things, dramatic and effective in sending a message. In his book “Truman,” author David McCullough narrates how President Truman got rid of some members of his official family.

Henry Wallace was secretary of commerce under Truman. Unfortunately, he kept making foreign policy statements that often contradicted administration policy. After another speech that was critical of the government, Truman called for him to stop making policy speeches. Wallace would not listen. The next morning at 9 a.m., Truman called Wallace on the phone and fired him.

Another Cabinet member who had to be relieved was James Forrestal, the secretary of defense. Although Forrestal was a dedicated, hard-working official, Truman gradually began to lose confidence in him, particularly as regards his handling of the military services. At one point, Truman sent him a curt note saying, “This is your responsibility.” Forrestal offered to resign, but asked to stay on for four more months. Instead of waiting, Truman summoned him to the White House and accepted his resignation. A few weeks later, Forrestal would commit suicide by hanging himself in his 16th-floor room at Bethesda Naval Hospital.

The most spectacular dismissal carried out by Truman was his firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the UN commander during the Korean War, for his public pronouncements regarding the conflict. Some writers noted that Truman had little regard for generals and considered them as being limited in outlook and ability. He felt that most were dumb like “horses with blinders on,” but he was also greatly impressed by some like Omar Bradley, Matthew Ridgeway, Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall, whom it was said he revered above all men.

In his memoirs, Truman explained, “If there is one basic element in our Constitution, it is civilian control of the military.” He justified his removal of MacArthur on several grounds: (1) the general had defied presidential directives to submit public statements for clearance before issuing them; (2) he had publicly disputed the president’s foreign policy positions; and (3) he had recklessly tried to turn the limited war in Korea into a full-scale conflict with the Chinese, that could have precipitated World War III. In a more graphic description of his action on MacArthur, he said, “I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was…. I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president.”

A national poll indicated that 66 percent of Americans disapproved of MacArthur’s dismissal. But Truman remained steadfast in his belief that he did the right thing. He recalled that President Abraham Lincoln had fired Gen. George McClellan during the US Civil War for failing to follow his orders and issuing political statements. In the end, an increasing number of Americans saw MacArthur as someone advocating unrealistic and dangerous policies.

Perhaps, we could use some of the Truman method in changing government officials, particularly those seen as being incompetent or lacking in integrity. Too often, public servants, some at the bureau director’s level, are allowed to stay on long after they have outlived their usefulness.

The nation has a Commander in Chief who walks like a duck, wears glasses with thick lenses, is balding, and most likely, will not cut a striking figure in a military uniform. But like Harry Truman, there is nothing passive about him. His actions during the past year have shown that Benigno Simeon Aquino III is the Commander in Chief in law and in fact.

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A happy and prosperous New Year to all.

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