On April 28, 1961—a decade after General Douglas MacArthur was fired for defying Harry Truman on Korea—the controversial commander hosted President John F. Kennedy at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where MacArthur and his wife lived in a suite on the 37th floor. The contrast between the two could not have been more obvious: MacArthur, then in his early eighties, was mottled, frail, and walked with a slight stoop, while the newly inaugurated Kennedy was young, fit, and vibrant. The two sequestered themselves in MacArthur’s suite, then posed for photographers, the young president obviously proud to appear with the aging legend.

Fortunately for historians, Kennedy recorded notes on his Waldorf Astoria discussion, committing MacArthur’s advice to a personal memorandum that he later referred to in White House policy discussions. The meeting itself was the subject of news stories and featured on national newscasts that same day. Later, the meeting provided grist for two generations of Kennedy-besotted commenters who debated whether the young president, had he not been assassinated in Dallas, might have recoiled from committing tens of thousands of U.S. troops to a winless war in Southeast Asia—a course of action taken by Lyndon Johnson, his successor.

It turns out that Kennedy’s memo of the Waldorf Astoria meeting (now at Boston’s John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum) is crucial for historians for a number of other reasons. It offers not only a glimpse of how the young president intended to navigate the treacherous waters of the Cold War, but suggests how one of America’s most celebrated military officers viewed what might be called the grand strategy of the American Republic: that is, whether and how the U.S. might win its dangerous struggle against the Soviet Union. Finally, the Waldorf Astoria meeting tells us how MacArthur’s most famous warning—to “never fight a land war in Asia”—has come down to us, what he meant by it, and whether, in an age of American troop deployments in at least 133 countries, it retains its meaning.

♦♦♦

Kennedy’s April 1961 meeting with MacArthur surprised the president’s top aides, many of whom openly disliked the aging warrior. But Kennedy, who’d served as a patrol boat skipper in the Pacific in World War II where MacArthur had commanded, admired him. “He was Kennedy’s kind of hero: valiant, a patrician, proud of his machismo, and a lover of glory,” MacArthur biographer William Manchester wrote in American Caesar. As crucially, Kennedy was as politically embattled then as MacArthur had been 10 years earlier and was intent on getting advice from the general on the worsening international situation. Just the week before, the new president had been humiliated when a group of U.S.-supported anti-Castro Cuban exiles were defeated after invading Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. Kennedy was almost chagrined when he mentioned the humiliation, and MacArthur’s response was surprisingly blunt.

The failed invasion was a problem for the young president, he said, but he didn’t think that Kennedy was solely to blame. He faulted Dwight Eisenhower for promoting the invasion and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for supporting it: they should have known better, he suggested. He added that many of them, in his view, had been promoted beyond their competence. Eisenhower and the JCS had set Kennedy up, MacArthur implied: “The chickens are coming home to roost, and you happen to have moved into the chicken house.”

Kennedy appreciated MacArthur’s soothing judgment on Cuba (and would soon change the military’s top leadership—perhaps in keeping with MacArthur’s views), but then shifted the subject to Laos and Vietnam, where communist insurgencies were gaining strength. The Congress, he added, was pressuring him to deploy U.S. troops in response. MacArthur disagreed vehemently: “Anyone wanting to commit ground troops to Asia should have his head examined,” he said. That same day, Kennedy memorialized what MacArthur told him: “MacArthur believes it would be a mistake to fight in Laos,” he wrote in a memorandum of the meeting, adding, “He thinks our line should be Japan, Formosa, and the Philippines.” MacArthur’s warning about fighting in Asia impressed Kennedy, who repeated it in the months ahead and especially whenever military leaders urged him to take action. “Well now,” the young president would say in his lilting New England twang, “you gentlemen, you go back and convince General MacArthur, then I’ll be convinced.” So it is that MacArthur’s warning (which has come down to us as “never get involved in a land war in Asia”), entered American lore as a kind of Nicene Creed of military wisdom—unquestioned, repeated, fundamental.  

In the years that followed, historians concluded that MacArthur’s advice was the result of his experience in South Korea, where he’d served as U.S. commander after it was invaded by North Korea in 1950. MacArthur had performed brilliantly, but then, with victory in sight, the Chinese intervened, driving south across the Yalu River and overwhelming his forces. MacArthur was embarrassed; he didn’t believe the Chinese would intervene and was caught flat-footed when they did. Outnumbered, MacArthur proposed a menu of military responses: bombing military bases in China, using Chinese Nationalist troops based in Taiwan to help in the fight, imposing an economic and naval blockade on the Chinese mainland, and even planting nuclear waste along the North Korean/Chinese border. Each of MacArthur’s suggestions were designed to cut off North Korea’s forces from their Chinese allies—to isolate the battlefield. But President Truman and the JCS disagreed, fearing that what MacArthur proposed would widen the war.

When MacArthur’s recommendations were made public, he was labeled a warmonger, the primary reason (it is widely believed) that Truman dismissed him. In fact, what actually got MacArthur in trouble was the publication of letters to Massachusetts Republican Congressman Joseph W. Martin, Jr. calling into question Truman’s leadership, an action that was as close to insubordination as any officer can get. Despite these legendary missteps, a number of historians subsequently believed that while MacArthur was wrong to question Truman, his military thinking was sound: the U.S. failure to isolate the Korean battlefield spelled the difference between an American victory and a bloody stalemate.  

In fact, however, the lesson that MacArthur had learned about fighting a land war in Asia wasn’t the result of his experience in Korea, but of his experience fighting the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II. “You can certainly make that argument,” historian and author Rana Mitter told this writer in a wide-ranging telephone interview, “because at the time the Japanese were fighting the Americans in the Pacific, they were also fighting the Chinese on the Asian mainland. The U.S. was desperate to keep China in the fight because their armies were tying down hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops who might have been used against the Americans.”

Mitter, the author of the aptly named Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945, is among a new class of historians (a list that includes Deng Xiaoping biographer Ezra Vogel, Richard Bernstein, Frank Dikotter, John Pomfret, and Jay Taylor—who penned a brilliant treatment of Chiang Kai-shek) who focus on what is now called the Second Sino-Japanese War, which killed upwards of four million Chinese soldiers and 11 million Chinese civilians. It’s a staggering number, particularly when compared to America’s military losses in the Pacific—some 65,000 soldiers, sailors, and Marines. What Mitter and his colleagues have emphasized is that Japan, like the Germans in Europe, was fighting a two-front war, which made an Allied victory a near certainty. Mitter points out that while the Japanese won battle after battle in China, they were never able to match China’s numbers—a preview of what MacArthur faced in Korea.

The new thinking on China by these historians is seminal: Mitter argues that it is time to view America’s war with Japan as a kind of mirror of the U.S. war in Europe—and thus acknowledge that China’s fight against Japan on the Chinese mainland made a U.S. victory in the vast reaches of the Pacific possible. “The Japanese believed that at some point the Chinese would surrender,” Mitter says, “but they never did. They just kept coming.” It was this, Japan’s struggle to overcome the terrible arithmetic of battle in China, that MacArthur told Kennedy the U.S. faced in Southeast Asia. The U.S., he implied, could never match the number of soldiers China or Russia could put on the ground and the U.S. could never eliminate the sanctuaries where men and supplies could be husbanded to fight relentless, bloody, and endless conflicts.

Never get involved in a land war in Asia, MacArthur had told Kennedy, because if you do, you will be repeating the same mistake the Japanese made in World War II—deploying millions of soldiers in a futile attempt to win a conflict that cannot be won.

♦♦♦

The success of the Waldorf Astoria meeting sealed Kennedy’s relationship with MacArthur. “I could not drag them apart,” White House aide Kenneth O’Donnell said. But there was a note of chagrin in his voice, for O’Donnell was among those Kennedy partisans who disliked the general, believing him to be an ultra-conservative. Despite this, Kennedy insisted that, in the wake of their Waldorf Astoria meeting, MacArthur be invited to the White House. And so it was that on July 20, 1961, just four months after Kennedy’s meeting him in New York, MacArthur showed up for a lunch with the president and a gathering of high-powered guests. Among the attendees were Lyndon Johnson, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Senators Leverett Saltonstall and John Stennis, and Congressmen Walter Judd. The military was represented by General Clyde D. Eddleman, the vice chief of staff of the Army. After the lunch, Kennedy and MacArthur met in the Oval Office for what turned into a three-hour marathon discussion which, as O’Donnell tells us, wreaked havoc on the president’s schedule.

In the meeting’s wake, O’Donnell says, Kennedy “regaled” his staff with MacArthur stories and MacArthur advice, which included yet another admonition that Kennedy not send troops to Vietnam, as the U.S. would be “outnumbered on every side.” Domestic problems, MacArthur advised Kennedy, should be a higher priority. “MacArthur implored the President to avoid a U.S. military build-up in Vietnam, or any other part of the Asian mainland,” O’Donnell later wrote, “because he felt that the domino theory was ridiculous in a nuclear age.” When MacArthur exited the White House, he was met by a gaggle of reporters, and so, since he rarely missed such an opportunity, he gave an impromptu press conference. MacArthur had high praise for Kennedy, betraying an unusual sense of humor: “He seemed to be in excellent health and excellent spirits,” he said, “and has changed little since he was one of my PT boat commanders in the Pacific War—and he was a good one too, a brave and resourceful young naval officer. Judging from the luncheon served me today, he’s living higher now.”

So historians are left to speculate on the details of what Kennedy and MacArthur talked of on that steamy July day, or how the two were expanding on the views they had first broached at the Waldorf Astoria. For that, historians must turn to a third (and final) meeting between Kennedy and MacArthur on August 16, 1962—more than one year after the White House luncheon. This one was unplanned; MacArthur was in Washington at the invitation of members of Congress, but since he was available, Kennedy invited him to the Oval Office for a talk. Much had changed in the previous year: the Laos mini-crisis had been resolved, with the U.S. and Soviet Union agreeing to the seating of a coalition government there. But the situation in South Vietnam had gotten worse—with mounting pressures on the Saigon government from a well-armed rural-based insurgency. Faced with the burgeoning crisis, Kennedy was once again under pressure to increase U.S. troop commitments.  

♦♦♦

 

This third Kennedy-MacArthur talk was wide-ranging, off-the-cuff, and personable. But unlike the previous two meetings, it was recorded by a recently installed White House taping system, which provided a treasure trove of first-person information for later historians. From the perspective of 2018, the Kennedy-MacArthur discussion is crucial to understanding how these two men viewed American power. In a sense, their exchange laid out a framework for a U.S. grand strategy based on air and sea power, derived from their personal experiences—and from their understanding of the costs of war.

MacArthur could be pompous, egocentric, and narrow-minded, but he could also be winsome, warm, and sympathetic, taking the measure of his audience and calculating how best to win them over. So it was when he met with Kennedy in the Oval Office on the morning of August 16. He opened the discussion by deriding the press, a sure winner with the young president, whose leadership had been the subject of hair-singeing opinion pieces in the nation’s most widely read newspapers. “Don’t worry about these smart alec columnists, they’re the biggest bunch of prima donnas the world has ever seen,” MacArthur told Kennedy as the two took their seats—and Kennedy agreed. “Second guessers,” he said. The two then engaged in an animated conversation about the 1964 election, which MacArthur predicted would result in Kennedy’s reelection—“by an avalanche.” Inevitably, their discussion turned to the worrisome situation in Southeast Asia.

“Your business, since I talked with you on the Far East, you’ve done well,” MacArthur said, citing Kennedy’s successful effort to negotiate a coalition government for Laos. “You’ve fenced and you’ve parried and haven’t brought on any conflagration. You’ve held your own.” But MacArthur then critiqued the administration’s international strategy as lacking vision. “I’d say the initiative that we should apply strategically and militarily,” he allowed, “is lacking in at least one way…it lacks a mission and allows the enemy to concentrate where he wishes.” What MacArthur was talking about was shaping what military analysts call a national grand strategy, leveraging the country’s most important assets against an array of enemies. Here, for one of the few times in our nation’s history, was a senior military leader talking about the causes, conduct, and consequences of war; not, that is, about the movements of troops or the deployment of military assets, but the conditions under which the American Republic would defend itself—and how.  

At the heart of the August 16 discussion is MacArthur’s view that America’s greatest asset is its economy. America’s adversaries, on the other hand, had always struggled (and failed) to match its economic output, and particularly its agricultural output. “The Achilles heel of the Russians and Chinese,” he said, “is food.” In this sense, MacArthur is a stand-in for nearly every senior officer of his generation who looked on America’s industrial and agricultural assets as its strength. Nothing else mattered. Put another way, while Russia’s “strategic depth” is its geography and China’s strategic depth is its mass of people, America’s strategic depth is its economy. To destroy America, you must destroy its economy. No one ever had. For MacArthur this was Japan’s fatal mistake: the Japanese military believed that in attacking Pearl Harbor, they had knocked out American naval capabilities. In fact, the Japanese bombed the wrong place—to destroy America’s naval capacity, the Japanese would have needed to destroy the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Put another way, MacArthur’s bedrock belief was that the turning point in the Pacific was Japan’s decision to go to war in the first place. After Pearl Harbor, Japan couldn’t win.  

All of this, and more, is packed into MacArthur’s short, staccato sentences to Kennedy. We do not know if the young president thought his mentor was right in his judgments, but it’s hard to imagine he would have disagreed. Having laid the groundwork, MacArthur then shifted gears, focusing on America’s strength at sea, a surprising viewpoint from one of the most celebrated Army officers in the service’s history. MacArthur was an Army partisan, and always had been (he had fought the Navy’s leadership in the Pacific War with nearly the same intensity as he had the Japanese), but the August meeting shows he was thoughtful when it came to how America should face its enemies. “The greatest weapon of war is the blockade,” he told Kennedy. “If war comes, that is the weapon we should use.”

MacArthur then added that, while the Russians and Chinese could always outnumber the Americans on the ground and even in the air, easily deploying more troops and aircraft in any stand-off, that wasn’t true when it came to the world’s oceans. “The sea, beyond question, is ours,” he said, “and that’s the key to the blockade. Missiles and air will neutralize each other. In the last analysis, the difference will be the Navy.” After a moment’s hesitation, MacArthur capped his views by citing his own experience against the Japanese in the Pacific and against the Chinese on the Korean peninsula. “I had command of the sea and air,” he said, “but on the ground I was hopelessly outnumbered.” Kennedy remained silent, but it is clear from the resulting conversation that he not only understood MacArthur’s points, he embraced them. We know that to be true because two months after speaking with MacArthur, Kennedy faced down the Soviet Union when they deployed nuclear missiles to Cuba. Pushed by his military commanders to bomb Cuban missile sites, to gather military units for an invasion—to even contemplate the use of nuclear weapons—Kennedy decided otherwise. He chose instead a naval blockade. It was a brilliant choice, though not simply because it worked: the Russians couldn’t match the U.S. Navy, not anywhere, and particularly not in the Caribbean.

♦♦♦

What is surprising about the MacArthur-Kennedy discussions is not that they actually took place, but that they have been so long ignored. The reason for that might seem obvious: the two are poorly matched. MacArthur was a Midwesterner and a Protestant, with a family history of military service, while Kennedy was a New Englander, born a Roman Catholic in a family of enormous affluence. But while the two came from different backgrounds and had different political tendencies (MacArthur was a conservative and a Republican—Kennedy, manifestly, was not), they had the same war in common, which made all the difference.

Which is what made their three discussions, ranging over two years, so critical. In effect, what MacArthur and Kennedy detailed in their three talks was a grand strategy of the American Republic—a way of understanding not simply how the U.S. should fight, but when and where. So it is that “never get involved in a land war in Asia” is as indelibly tied to MacArthur as the term “military-industrial complex” is to Eisenhower. Ironically (for MacArthur disliked Eisenhower intensely), both MacArthur and Eisenhower believed that the U.S. could maintain its military dominance, but not at the cost of weakening its economy. For both men, stripping America’s economic strength to the point of financial insolvency was a sure guarantee of military defeat.

Of course, senior military officers regularly (though privately) scorn the idea of shaping (much less detailing) a grand strategy. Their intuitions reflect American military history. George Washington’s grand strategy was simply to ensure that the Continental Army survived. So long as it did, the Revolution remained alive. Ulysses S. Grant’s grand strategy during the Civil War was as straightforward, if only slightly grander: destroy Lee’s army and you destroy the rebellion, he told Lincoln. The war under his command would be bloody and relentless—a 24-hour affair without pause or let-up. But it was General William Tecumseh Sherman who put his finger on it, issuing a warning to the South that would, in time, become the foundation for an American grand strategy. Who won the war, he suggested, would have nothing to do with fighting prowess, but with resources. “The North can make a steam engine, locomotive, or railway car,” he told Southerners, “hardly a yard of cloth or pair of shoes can you make.”

It was only after World War I that military thinking about what constituted a grand strategy began to emerge—and it reflected the insight of Sherman. The introduction of America’s doughboys on the side of the Entente in 1917 changed the calculus on the Western Front, but it wouldn’t have mattered at all had they been unable to get there. Just as crucially, the arrival of American divisions was accompanied by shiploads of more and better weapons, as America started to shift towards what it would become in World War II: an arsenal of democracy. The marriage of these two ideas, of overwhelming and relentless force (the crueler war is, Sherman said, the sooner it will be over) with overwhelming industrial production (the U.S. produced 4,000 long-range bombers in World War II—the Germans and Japanese together produced zero), became the foundation for America’s grand strategy, even as that strategy remained unstated.

The lesson thus learned is obvious for anyone debating the rationale for increased American deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—where America’s industrial might is checked by the sheer enormity of the geography and overwhelming numbers and munitions have little effect on the enemy. Indeed, MacArthur, Kennedy, and Eisenhower, the acknowledged leaders of “the greatest generation,” would look skeptically on a foreign policy that features endless and costly wars in faraway lands. It is not simply that if these men were alive today they would withdraw America’s military from the Middle East; had they been alive and in a position to do so, they would not have deployed them to begin with. But even if they had—to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, for example—the deployment would have been Shermanesque: short, but overwhelmingly violent.

Dwight Eisenhower’s military mentor, World War I General Fox Conner, put it best when tutoring Ike in the early 1920s, authoring a tryptic of lessons that have stood the test of time. The U.S., he said, should never fight unless it absolutely had to, should never fight alone, and, most importantly, should never fight for long. To these lessons we can add a fourth, which Eisenhower would have endorsed: never fight a land war in Asia.

Mark Perry is the author of The Most Dangerous Man in America and The Pentagon’s Wars. Follow him on Twitter @markperrydc.