In Plain Speaking, an oral biography of former President Harry S. Truman written by Merle Miller, the former President described the actual firing of General Douglas MacArhur, the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Far East, during the Korean War .
MacArthur had been defying Truman, his commander-in-chief, publicly for eight months. The general had announced his own foreign policy objectives, which ran counter to Truman’s wish to avoid World War III by keeping the conflict limited to the Korean policy. He had also gone public in urging a vote for the Republican Party in the November 1950 elections, as the GOP supported his aim to broaden the war into mainland China, which went communist the year before.
As the overall commander of U.S. and United Nations troops in Korea, MacArthur had masterminded the brilliant landing at Inchon in September 1950. The U.N. forces and the Army of the Republic of Korea (South Korea, or ROK) rolled up the North Korean invasders, pushing them out of the South during 1950 and back across the 38th parallel, the demarcation line of the two Koreas.
MacArthur met with Truman at Wake Island on October 15th, at which he showed disrespect by landing his plane 45 minutes after the President. Truman dressed him down, telling him he might not respect Harry Truman, but he had to respect his command-in-chief. MacArthur then engaged in “ass kissing” that disgusted Truman, who gave the egotistical commander a Silver Star medal to flatter him, much as Franklin Roosevelt had given him a Medal of Honor after losing the Philippines.
At the meeting, MacArthur assured Truman that the “Red Chinese” forces would not invade to help the North Koreans. Ten days later, the Chinese crossed the border and intervened with a force of 300,000-400,000 troops, which devastated the U.S. Eighth Army and ROK troops. The Communist Chinese troops turned the tide of the war, and the U.N. troops were pushed back across the 38th parallel into South Korea.
MacArthur wanted to attack China, but Truman was determined that there would not be another world war six years after the end of the last one. Both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were nuclear powers, but Truman did not believe atomic weapons would be decisive in Korea.
MacArthur kept issuing press communiques into 1950 announcing his own policies that ran counter to Truman’s. He thwarted Truman’s plans to ask the Chinese for a cease-fire by demanding that they surrender to him personally.
MacArthur is Fired
General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, a hero of two world wars, publicly defied President Harry S Truman, as he had vetoed MacArthur’s desire to use atomic weapons and attack China. MacArthur actually sent a letter to U.S. Rep. Joseph Martin of Massachusetts, the former Republican Speaker of the House, criticizing President Truman’s policies.
Truman’s aim was to keep the Korean War limited to the Korean peninsula and avoid triggering World War III. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, like MacArthur, favored nuking the Red Chinese troops of Mao Zedong. MacArthur’s letter seemed to call for fighting the Soviet Union in Europe.
Martin actually read the letter criticizing the Administration’s war policy on the floor of the House, and copies were distributed to the press. (The Republicans would win back the House in the 1952 elections, making Martin the Speaker once more.)
As a result of MacArthur’s interference in the political process, in April 1951 Truman removed him from his posts as Supreme Commander of the U.S. & United Nations military forces in the Far East. Truman consulted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, eventually making a horse trade with them, which was not revealed publicly for many years.. In exchange for giving them some control over atomic weapons, with the President relinquishing his monopoly on the U.S. atomic arsenal, the Joint Chiefs publicly backed his firing of MacArthur. The Joint Chiefs, however, would not agree that MacArthur’s actions were actually insubordination.
Relieved of his command but not reprimanded, MacArthur returned home a darling of the GOP and conservatives, particularly the anti-commnuist crowd who whose power was at full tide. He received a ticker-tape parade in New York City and addressed a joint session of Congress. Some politicians wanted to give him a sixth star.
Truman thad had enough. He old Miller about the actual firing.
“And so we went right ahead, and we did it. There were a good many details to be worked out. I asked General Bradley [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] to be sure we had the full agreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which he got; they were all unanimous in saying he should be fired. And we had to arrange to turn the command over to General Ridgway.
“And then of course, we wanted to be sure that MacArthur got the news through official channels. We didn’t want it to get into the newspapers first. I signed all the papers and went over to Blair House to have dinner. Some of the others stayed behind at the White House to decide on exactly how to get the word to Frank Pace [secretary of the army, then in Korea]. Pace was supposed to notify the general.
“While I was still at Blair House, Joe Short [press secretary] came in to where the others were, and he said he had heard that the Chicago Tribune had the whole story and was going to print it the next morning.
“So General Bradley came over to Blair House and told me what was up, and he says if MacArthur hears he’s going to be fired before he officially is fired, before he’s notified, he’d probably up and resign on me. And I told Bradley, Bradley, ‘The son of a bitch isn’t going to resign on me, I want him fired.'”
“Dugout Doug” MacArthur, so called unfairly by U.S. Marines during World War II who complained that he stayed behind the lines as Commander of the Pacific Forces, returned to America after being sacked. It was his first trip to the U.S. since the mid-1930s.
He was given a hero’s welcome, including a ticker-tape parade in New York City. MacArthur also was invited to address a joint session of Congress.
The old general, who said famously “Old soldiers don’t die, they just fade away,” had designs on the 1952 Republican Presidential nomination, but another General of the Army, Dwight David Eisenhower, snagged the GOP nod. Ike went on to serve two terms as one of the most popular Presidents in U.S. history.
MacArthur’s political ambitions did fade away, but not his reputation as one of the greatest strategic and tactical military commanders in U.S. history. The 84-year-old retired General of the Army, who had cautioned President John F. Kennedy about committing U.S ground forces to Vietnam, died on April 5, 1964.
Harry Truman’s popualrity took a hit after sacking the popular general — he left office with the lowest public approval rating in history — but his reptuation, as judged by history, was burnished by the sands of time. His standing up for the principle of civilian rule over the military is part of the legend of “Give Them Hell Harry.”
Truman died on Dec. 26, 1972 at the age of 88. The New York Times obituary was entitled: Harry S Truman: Decisive President.
U.S. News & World Report, Truman Firing of MacArthur Hurt Approval Rating but Saved War With Red China