Saturday, December 10, 2005

April 30, 1951 archives: Wake Island leak

President Truman had canceled a scheduled speech so as not to "detract" from Douglas MacArthur's day. Publicly, the White House made a great show of leaving MacArthur unanswered. But privately, through the device of a leak to the New York Times, Harry Truman struck back. It seemed to be the opening of a battle in which each side would lean on documents marked "Secret" to make its case before the U.S.

After General MacArthur had made public the stand of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, New York Times Correspondent Tony Leviero shrewdly figured that the President might want to answer in kind. Leviero, who has just finished a three-year stint as White House correspondent and is a special favorite of the President's, went to work on his best Administration sources: Why not release the conference records of the Truman-MacArthur meeting on Wake Island last October? He knew that the President himself would probably have to okay his request. His hunch worked. Leviero was called to an undisclosed rendezvous and given the official Wake Island transcript. The Times had a scoop; the Administration had an audience without seeming to have said a word. Details:

MacArthur, said Leviero's story, told the President at Wake Island that he thought neither Red China nor Soviet Russia would intervene in Korea. The Chinese could get no more than 50,000 to 60,000 troops across the Yalu, MacArthur reported, and if those troops moved on to Pyongyang, they would be slaughtered.*

MacArthur expected victory over the North Koreans by Thanksgiving and planned to have the Eighth Army back in Japan by Christmas. He said that he would be able to release the seasoned 2nd Division for transfer to Europe by January.

The President and the general came to an understanding on Formosa, the issue which had caused all the fuss. The President explained that he and the general disagreed only on method—the President had no intention of letting Formosa fall into Chinese Communist hands, but he planned to achieve his objective by neutralizing the island with the Seventh Fleet, while MacArthur proposed outright occupation. MacArthur then said he understood the President's position clearly, and according to Leviero's account, apologized for the embarrassment he had caused the President with his unauthorized message to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on the subject.

Everyone at the parley agreed that the Japanese peace treaty should be concluded rapidly. MacArthur was quoted in favor of inviting both Russia and Red China to the peace treaty and proceeding without them if they refused the invitations.

Publication of Leviero's scoop brought Republican accusations that the Administration was underhandedly trying to smear MacArthur, and that it had set its Pentagon forces to studying MacArthur's 52-year military career in the hopes of finding something to tar him with.

The general himself let his chief adviser, Major General Courtney Whitney, a onetime Manila lawyer, answer the Leviero story for him. Whitney picked out only one major point, charged that it was the State Department and military intelligence in Washington who were guilty of failing to warn MacArthur about Chinese intentions. Whitney did not otherwise challenge the Leviero report, or make any point at all of a tactical error made by Harry Truman: in declassifying secret documents for the Times, he had set a precedent for declassifying documents that detail the position of the Joint Chiefs. This week the Pentagon promised to give Congress whatever records it wanted.

*The White House leak left the implication that, because of MacArthur's assurances, the Administration was completely surprised by the Chinese intervention. But 18 days before Wake Island, the Indian delegation (relying on information picked up by India's ambassador at Peking) warned the British government, which passed the warning on to the U.N. and the State Department, that the Chinese would move into Korea if the U.N. forces crossed the 38th parallel.

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