Truman’s Firing of General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War

 

Amy Patterson, Wynell Schamel, and Lee Ann Potter

Although it has received so little public attention that it is referred to as the “forgotten” war, the Korean conflict had a profound and lasting effect on America’s domestic and foreign affairs. While the National Archives holds thousands of documents related to the Korean War, some of the most interesting pertain to the controversial dismissal of the Commander in Chief of the UN Forces in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur. As one of the great military commanders of the twentieth century, and one of the most arrogant, MacArthur enjoyed tremendous public popularity. Coming only nine months after he assumed command of the UN forces in Korea, MacArthur’s firing provoked intense political and public criticism of the Truman administration. Truman’s decision to fire MacArthur came out of his firm belief that the general had overstepped his authority and had become both an embarrassment to the administration and a hindrance to Truman’s war aims.

The featured document, located at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, is a draft of the statement relieving MacArthur of his command. It reveals much about Truman’s feelings concerning his own role as Commander in Chief, as well as his sense about how such a statement would be received by the public. Truman felt compelled to praise MacArthur’s “distinguished and exceptional service” even as he insisted that “military commanders must be governed by the policies and directives issued to them” by their superiors—especially the president. MacArthur had precipitated his own firing both by overstepping the bounds of his authority in the field and by taking his views to the public.

MacArthur’s dismissal highlights many of the critical issues relating to the Korean War in particular and twentieth-century warfare in general. These include the question of civilian versus military control of the armed forces, the emerging role of the United Nations as an international military force, and the waging of “limited war.”

The Korean conflict began as a civil war. In 1950, the Korean Peninsula was divided between a Soviet-backed government in the north and an American-backed government in the south, a division that had solidified at the end of World War II. Japan had taken control of the Korean peninsula after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and Korea remained under the control of the Japanese up to and during World War II. In an agreement during the last weeks of the war, a demarcation line along the 38th parallel was established to facilitate the surrender of Japanese troops to Allied forces. The Japanese subsequently surrendered to the Russians in the north and to the Americans in the south.

In an effort to avoid a long-term decision regarding Korea’s future, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to divide Korea temporarily along the 38th parallel, a latitudinal line that bisected the country just north of Seoul. This line became more rigid after October 1945, when the Soviets stopped interzonal travel and began fortifying the 38th parallel, and in 1946, when Kim Il Sung organized a communist government in the north. Shortly afterwards, nationalist exile Syngman Rhee returned to Korea with General MacArthur’s assistance, and set up a rival government in the south. Both governments hoped to reunify the country under their own rule.

With South Korean independence in place, U.S. occupation formally ended, and U.S. troops began withdrawing from the peninsula. The last U.S. unit departed in June 1949, leaving only a small group of military advisors in South Korea. Russia followed suit, simultaneously withdrawing the Red Army from the north.

On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) invaded South Korea. NKPA troops launched a coordinated attack at several strategic points along the 38th parallel and headed south toward Seoul. In the absence of the Soviet representative, who had walked out of the United Nations Security Council earlier in the year, the Council condemned the invasion and called for UN member nations to assist South Korea. Fearing that Communist China, and possibly the Soviet Union, had encouraged the attack (Kim had, in fact, persuaded both Stalin and Mao Zedong to support the invasion), President Harry S. Truman quickly committed American forces to the combined United Nations effort and named General Douglas MacArthur to be Commander in Chief of UN Forces. Although fifteen other UN nations contributed to the war effort, the United States took the lead both in strategy and firepower.

MacArthur came to his Korean post a popular war hero. During World War II, he had been Commander of the Southwest Pacific Theater, driving Japanese forces from New Guinea and the Philippines. He was promoted to General of the Army (Five-Star General) and chosen to command the proposed amphibious invasion of Japan, an invasion made unnecessary by the atomic bomb. After the war, MacArthur became Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan and Commander in Chief of American naval, air, and ground forces in the Far East. He oversaw the occupation of Japan as proconsul, behaving much like a head of state. One biographer, William Manchester, described him as follows:

flamboyant, imperious, and apocalyptic, he carried the plumage of a flamingo, could not acknowledge errors, and tried to cover up his mistakes with sly, childish tricks. Yet he was also endowed with great personal charm, a will of iron, and a soaring intellect.

MacArthur had presidential ambitions and had indicated his interest in the 1948 Republican presidential nomination, although he did not officially declare his candidacy. A poor showing in early primaries prompted him to abort the campaign. In any case, MacArthur enjoyed being in Asia. In fact, he had not been in the United States since 1937.

As in World War II, the general proved to be an effective commander in Korea. Although the North Koreans advanced as far as Seoul and beyond to Osan and Taejon during the summer of 1950, MacArthur’s UN troops held the southeast corner of the Korean peninsula as American pilots attacked North Korean supply lines. In September, a UN counteroffensive began with an amphibious assault on the coastal city of Inchon, and continued with the retaking of Seoul, prompting the retreat of NKPA troops threatening Pusan. By October 1, UN forces had advanced to the 38th parallel and regained control of South Korea.

Then, in a controversial move, UN troops advanced north of the 38th parallel and approached the Yalu River, the border between China and the Korean peninsula. Buoyed by the success of the Inchon operation, Truman and his advisors decided that the unification of Korea under Syngman Rhee was possible, and perhaps necessary to end the war. Unification would also inflict a symbolic victory over communism. MacArthur shared and encouraged such views. However, Truman’s desire to unify Korea was predicated on the assumption that neither China nor the Soviet Union would enter the war. MacArthur not only did not worry about such intervention, he assured Truman that it would not happen. When, to the contrary, intelligence reports indicated that communist Chinese forces had already infiltrated North Korea, MacArthur refused to believe them.

In their first face-to-face meeting on Wake Island in the Pacific in October 1950, MacArthur assured Truman that the UN advance north of the 38th parallel would not provoke Chinese intervention and that the war would soon be over. MacArthur was wrong on both counts. In late November 1950, Chinese troops launched a major attack, causing numerous casualties. Chinese troops soon drove MacArthur’s forces back across the 38th parallel and seemed on the verge of driving the UN troops out of Korea entirely. MacArthur, suddenly pessimistic, sent repeated messages to Washington claiming that UN forces could not hold out very long and that nuclear weapons should be employed against China. At this point, the Truman administration dropped the idea of unifying Korea and sought instead to maintain the anticommunist government in the South. MacArthur, however, would not accept this change in strategy.

Ultimately, MacArthur’s intransigence on this issue would cost him his job. The general became increasingly belligerent toward Truman as he sought to overturn the President’s limited war aims. In fact, MacArthur’s conflicts with Truman had begun early in his command. He had criticized Truman’s policy toward Formosa (Nationalist China, now Taiwan) in a well-publicized letter to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in August 1950. His alliance with the Republican Party also did not endear the general to the President. Nor did his personality. Imperious and self-righteous, MacArthur showed little respect for Truman’s ability to wage war effectively. Yet his initial successes in Korea had been greeted with public praise from the administration. The Inchon landing earned him a Distinguished Service Medal, presented to him during the Wake Island meeting by Truman, who cited the general for his “indomitable will and unshakable faith” and his “shining example of gallantry and tenacity in defense and of audacity in attack.”

However, after China’s attack, MacArthur began to challenge openly the administration’s authority over the waging of the war. He exceeded the authority vested in him by Truman by giving orders without clearing them with Washington. He ordered the Air Force to bomb the Chinese border and to “drive forward with all speed and with full utilization” of all forces—actions not authorized by the President. MacArthur explained in communiqués to Washington that he intended to secure all of North Korea, arguing that to do less would be a “psychologica#148; disaster for the troops.

At the heart of MacArthur’s strategy was the idea that total victory in North Korea was the only acceptable response to China’s invasion. Truman’s more limited objective of preserving ROK independence would not suffice. MacArthur’s statements were an explicit rebuke to the concept of limited war.

Although America’s European allies were alarmed at the prospect of MacArthur’s initiating a wider war in Asia, the President allowed MacArthur to retain his command. Truman later admitted that this was a mistake. MacArthur’s attempt to unify Korea failed, but rather than modify his position, he made even more vociferous demands for an expansion of the war, blaming the administration and its European allies for being shortsighted. MacArthur wanted to blockade the Chinese coast, destroy China’s industry with air power, and employ Taiwanese nationalist forces against the Chinese mainland. Moreover, he sent cables to various news organizations informing them of his views. Truman considered firing MacArthur, but held off, hoping to avoid a major political controversy in the midst of a military conflict.

Although Truman issued a directive in December 1950 forbidding direct statements to the press by military commanders on issues of strategy, MacArthur kept making public statements. In early March 1951, he wrote the following:

 

Assuming no diminution of the enemy’s flow of ground forces and materiel to the Korean battle area, a continuation of the existing limitations upon our freedom of counter-offensive action, and no major additions to our organizational strength, the battle lines cannot fail in time to reach a point of theoretical military stalemate…

As the media seized upon MacArthur’s statements, particularly the mention of a stalemate, public opinion polls showed decreasing support for the war and for the Truman administration.

Truman found himself in a bind. Unwilling to risk all-out war with China, which he believed would draw in the Soviet Union as well, Truman had to take the brunt of public and political criticism for keeping the war in Korea limited. As the President saw it, total war in Korea could mean war with the Soviet Union. But limited war aims left him open to the charge that he was “soft on communism,” despite the successes of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan in containing Soviet expansion in Europe. In this situation, Truman’s ratings in opinion polls took a nosedive.

However reluctant Truman was to fire him, MacArthur finally went too far. Hearing of a proposal drafted by Truman for a cease-fire agreement in Korea, MacArthur declared publicly on the morning of March 24, 1951, that if the United States would only choose to expand the war, it “would doom Red China to the risk of imminent military collapse.” On April 5, Republican House Minority Leader Joe Martin read a letter from MacArthur in the House chamber declaring, “There is no substitute for victory.” This letter intentionally torpedoed Truman’s cease-fire proposal, and the president was furious. As Truman later recalled the event, MacArthur had “prevented a cease-fire proposition right there. I was ready to kick him into the North China Sea at that time. I was never so put out in my life.”

Truman gave the order to replace MacArthur with the head of the Eighth Army, Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, on April 11, 1951. “With deep regret,” he announced, “I have concluded that General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is unable to give his wholehearted support to the policies of the United States Government and of the United Nations in matters pertaining to his official duties.”

At first, the firing of MacArthur looked like a political disaster for Truman. The general returned to a hero’s welcome in the United States, including a ticker-tape parade in New York City larger than that given for Charles Lindbergh after he made the first solo transatlantic flight in 1927. Soon after he arrived home, MacArthur addressed a joint session of Congress, reminding his audience of the saying, “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” But MacArthur was not ready to fade away just yet.

The genera#146;s continuing criticism of Truman did much harm to the President’s popularity and to public support for the war. Truman received angry telegrams and letters criticizing the firing. Across the country, the president was burned in effigy, and state legislatures passed resolutions condemning his action. Some congressional Republicans, including Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, even called for his impeachment. However, when a series of congressional hearings into MacArthur’s recall ended without proving that he had been wronged, public support for the general waned. MacArthur’s return from Korea proved to be his last hurrah.

In Korea, a bloody stalemate set in, and truce talks that finally began in July 1951 were not resolved until an armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. It left the Korean peninsula divided close to the 38th parallel. But while little changed in terms of territory, the human consequences of the war were substantial; more than thirty-six thousand Americans lost their lives, and some historians estimate that over four million people died as a result of the conflict.

Among the war’s lasting effects on U.S. domestic and foreign affairs were significant increases in military budgets, a continued military commitment to South Korea (including several thousand U.S. troops in South Korea today), future support for French anti-communist efforts in Indochina that culminated in the Vietnam War, and Truman’s decision not to run for reelection in 1952. Yet Truman’s firing of MacArthur reaffirmed the constitutional principle that civilian, and not military, commanders wield ultimate power over war policy in the United States. As Truman later recalled the firing, MacArthur had “asked for it and I had to give it to him.”

 

References

Blair, Clay. The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950-1953. New York: Times Books, 1987.

Manchester, William. American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur: 1880-1964. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1982.

McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992.

Ridgway, Matthew B. The Korean War. New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1967.

Schaller, Michael. Douglas MacArthur: The Far Eastern General. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Weintraub, Stanley. MacArthur’s War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero. New York: Free Press, 2000.

 

Wynell Schamel and Lee Ann Potter are education specialists and Amy Patterson is an archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC. Schamel serves as editor for “Teaching With Documents,” a regular department of Social Education.

 

You may reproduce the documents shown here in any quantity. For more information, write, call, or e-mail the Education Staff at NARA, NWE, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740; 301-713-6274; education@arch1.nara.gov.

Teaching Activities 

Introducing the Document

 

1. Remind students that Article II, section 2, of the U. S. Constitution defines one of the roles of the President as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces. Discuss the meaning of this role with students.

 

2. Assign students to read, or share with them the background information in, this article. Then distribute copies of the document contained in the article. Tell them the date of the document (April 11, 1951), and ask them the following questions:

 

 

Analyzing the Document

3. Ask students to look closely at the language in this document as they answer these questions:

 

 

 

 

Writing an Editorial

 

4. Direct students to write a one-page editorial expressing their opinion of Truman’s decision to fire MacArthur. Ask two or three volunteers to read their editorials aloud and invite students to respond to their arguments. List opposing arguments on the blackboard. Ask the class to indicate by raising their hands whether or not they would have supported the president’s decision. Provide students with information about how the American public actually reacted.

 

Listening to a Speech

 

5. Inform students that after his dismissal, MacArthur was invited to speak to a joint session of Congress. Locate a copy of his speech and ask a volunteer to read it. Or, students could listen to the speech: about five minutes of it are available online from the History Channe#146;s website at www.historytv.com/speeches. Ask students to describe the mood of the speech, to locate significant or memorable phrases in the speech, and to share their reactions to the speech. Ask them how they think members of Congress, the American public, and President Truman might have reacted to it.

 

Researching Related Topics

 

6. For further study, assign students to research and present reports on the following topics:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LINK

You and your students might visit the National Archives Digital Classroom and Project Whistlestop website at www.nara.gov/education for more documents related to the Korean War.