When Two Great Egos Collide: Lessons from the Truman-MacArthur Meeting

By David T. Jones on June 9, 2018

Washington, DC - The “on again/off again” Summit between President Donald Trump and Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong-un, has been media played more as farce (and Trump incompetence) than serious examination of the circumstances in play.

Clearly irritated by Trump’s “break the box” maneuvers to address the existential threat of North Korean nuclear weapons, the “professionals” (having been cut out of the planning) found ways to denounce it—and predict failure.  Thus, Trump’s decision to cancel the Summit was vindication of the “I told you so” nature by these axiomatic nay-sayers.  And, consequently, they are disconcerted by the intensive efforts to “retrack” the Summit and, if anything, have redoubled their demurs over any Summit prospects.

However, Trump’s decision to cancel the Singapore meeting with Kim was smart diplo-politics.  This encounter is not being played by the accepted rules of diplomatic protocol and practice.  Trump is running on his gut and his ego – and so is Kim.

Now that we have defined playground/sandbox rules, Trump was adroit to bail first.  The Kims have a multigenerational reputation for vituperative insult.  For example, the treatment of Vice President Pence started with Kim’s sister “throwing shade” in Pence’s direction at the Olympics.

One can pontificate that others consider Trump rude and abusive, but it is feckless to go deeper with that appraisal.

In gamesmanship terms, when Trump cancelled, Pyongyang seemed to back off a bit and that was enough for Trump to rebait prospects for a meeting.  Now White House advance teams are in Singapore and the DMZ, and a senior NK official is in NYC for USG meetings.

A basic point, however, is that two huge egos are verging on collision should there be a Singapore Summit.

Major leaders have met previously, resulting in unscripted dramatic proposals (Reagan-Gorbachev at Reykjavik prompting Reagan’s desire to eliminate all nuclear weapons). 

But for Trump-Kim, there may be another interesting analogy:  The encounter between President Harry Truman and iconic U.S. Pacific Commander/Japan Proconsul General Douglas MacArthur on Wake Island.

This encounter also seemed to run more to theatrics than prepared substance; consequently, it might be useful for the US preparation team to review the legend and the reality of this meeting.

The legend has MacArthur disrespecting Truman regarding who emerged from their plane first (with Truman allegedly furious over MacArthur’s lack of manners).  The reality was considerably different.  MacArthur arrived first and greeted Truman as he deplaned.  They met one-on-one (no notetakers) for 30 minutes, and then had a desultory group session for about 90 minutes with no official notetaker.

MacArthur immediately returned to Tokyo, not staying for lunch--decision based on safety issues (better for his plane to return to Tokyo in daylight).

Their relationship remained professional until Truman fired MacArthur in 1951.

The current emerging urban legend places Trump in the Truman role and Kim feeling his oats like a MacArthur character.

Thus, despite what “protocol” scripts for the Trump-Kim meeting, Kim may take a few tips from his sister, arrive late, leave early, and attempt to control media flow and coverage. 

Trump needs counter ripostes.

Good White House staffing is essential but has been notable for its absence.

-There needs to be a leaked plan to divert Air Force One at any point on the journey to Singapore.  Where are potential refueling points to make this an easy decision if Kim decides to cancel while Trump is en route?  They must be ready.

 -If there is a Kim-orchestrated “transportation delay,” staff must have backup stopover and consultation plans. 

-The easy option would be to meet President Moon in Seoul; Moon just had a second meeting with Kim in the DMZ that seemed to go smoothly and now, apparently, expects to be in Singapore as well.

 -An intermediate plan would be to fly to Tokyo for a session with Prime Minister Abe. The optics of meeting with the Japanese are fraught, but Abe may have useful insights on dealing with Korea and the Kims.

 -A real wild card would be a snap Vladivostok meeting with Putin.  That would give Trump cards up his sleeve when walking into a poker match in Singapore.

- Finally, in Singapore, have a fully equipped holding area for the U.S. delegation.  Do not have our team in place waiting for Kim and his entourage’s arrival.  Walk in as they walk in.  

And keep expectations low; the Nobel Peace prize (jointly with Kim) doesn’t need massive accomplishment (see Barak Obama for illustration).


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