Truman vs. MacArthur

On June 25, 1950, the North Korean army streamed across the 38th parallel attacking the poorly equipped Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers, driving them southward.  With the backing of the United Nations Security Council, President Harry S. Truman ordered General Douglas MacArthur to send  members of the 8th United States army, then on occupation duty in Japan,  to reinforce the South Korean troops in their fight against the Communists.

Truman was Franklin Roosevelt’s choice  to run with him as the Vice Presidential candidate in 1944.  At that time Truman was a senator representing Missouri, chairing a committee looking into waste in the war effort.  He served in World War I with the Missouri national guard.  After the war Truman was a businessman and a machine politician before being elected to the United States Senate in 1935. Roosevelt and Truman won the election, but Truman was only vice president for 81 days, when FDR had a stroke and died on April 12 1945.

Douglas MacArthur’s father  had served in the United States Army in the Civil War.   MacArthur  won an appointment to West Point.   After graduation, he was posted to the Philippines, where he won a Medal of Honor.  Before his service in World War II, he served in Europe in the Great War, he was superintendent of West Point, and  in 1930, he became Chief of Staff of the United States Army.  While he was in Washington, President Hoover assigned him to drive the Bonus Marchers out of Washington, D. C. in 1932.   MacArthur retired from the United States Army in 1937 and he was appointed military advisor to the Philippines’ Army.   After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, MacArthur was recalled to active duty and by the end of World War II, he had earned his fifth star.  When the United States occupied Japan at the end of the war, MacArthur was put in charge of the country.  He was still in that position when North Koreans invaded the south on June 24, 1950.

Because MacArthur was known as a loose cannon to politicians, it was suggested to the President he be specific in any orders he gave the general.   Truman already had  issues with the general, particularly when he entered the Republican Presidential primary in 1948 without resigning his commission. (1)  On the other hand, MacArthur had little respect for President Truman, whose only wartime experience was in World War I.   Also, MacArthur was virtually running occupied Japan without bothering to pass his actions through the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which were above him on the chain of command.

When fighting started on the Korean Peninsula in June 1950 and MacArthur was put in charge of American forces, it did take not long for the general to come into conflict with the JCS and civilians in the Defense and State Department, as well as the President, who was  the Commander in Chief.   The North Korean Army pushed ROK troops and elements of the 8th American army into a perimeter around Pusan in southeast Korea.   MacArthur suggested UN forces attack the Communists behind their lines with an amphibious landing at the west coast port city of Inchon.   Despite fears Inchon would be a failure, it was a success and UN forces counterattacked  from the Pusan perimeter and drove the Communists north toward the 38th Parallel.

Crossing that line was a political decision as well as military one.  On September 21, President Truman, in response to a reporter’s question, stated the decision as to whether or not to cross the 38th parallel was in the hands of the UN. (2)  Before the end of the month, the Chinese Communist government  warned that if the ROK and UN allies went north of  the 38th Parallel, the Chinese would enter the war.

Truman and the general had never met, so the president and his advisors thought it might be a good idea to have MacArthur brief Truman in person in either Hawaii or Wake Island.  The meeting took place on the seabound atoll in the middle of the Pacific  Ocean on October 15,  1950, with the general making no bones about being beckoned by Truman to a political conference when he had more important things to do. In the course of the meeting, Truman asked MacArthur whether or not he thought the Chinese would join the fight in Korea.  MacArthur downplayed this by saying he planned to withdraw American forces from Korea by Christmas.  A few weeks later, the Chinese joined the fray and ruined the general’s plan. (3)

The basic difference was between the president’s containment policy in Korea and MacArthur’s plans to expand the war (police action).  In December, the Joint Chiefs  sent a order to MacArthur reminding him that the security of the Eighth Army was paramount, because it was the only defense Japan had, and, if necessary it should  be withdrawn from Korea. Furious, the general made his feeling known:  He suggested blockading China, using naval bombardment to diminish the Chinese capacity to wage war, and to use the Chinese nationalist army in Korea.  Before the end of the year the President ordered MacArthur to pass any statements, speeches, etc. through the JCS for approval.

Throughout the winter and the early spring of 1951, MacArthur, ignoring Truman’s order, made statements either to the press, political leaders, or to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that made clear he wasn’t agreeing with his superiors as to policy on the Korean peninsula.  By April President Truman had had it with MacArthur’s efforts to join with Republican politicians and newspapers that opposed him. The last straw, according to Truman, was when the House Minority Leader, Joseph Martin of Massachusetts, read a letter  into the record from MacArthur in which he suggested turning the Chinese Nationalists loose on their rivals on the Chinese mainland.

After consulting with his advisers, Truman asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their opinions about MacArthur and what to do about him. The chairman, General Omar Bradley, determined that MacArthur was opposed to the policy Truman had set out, and as Commander in Chief, he had the right to relieve a general in whom he no longer had faith.  The other members of the JCS agreed with Bradley, MacArthur must go. (4)  The president’s  decision  was announced at a one AM news conference on April 11, 1951.  MacArthur was ordered to turn his commands over to General Matthew B. Ridgway.

The general and his family landed in the United States a few days after his firing.  He received a ticker tape parade in New York and addressed a joint session of Congress, where he finished his speech by quoting the old barrack room ballad, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”   A shortly after his appearance before the joint session, MacArthur spent three days testifying before a combined session of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees.  After MacArthur, the committees heard from Secretary of Defense Marshall, Secretary of State Acheson, and Chairman of Joint Chiefs Omar Bradley.   Marshall and Bradley’s testimony, some of it behind closed doors, painted a different picture to the Senators than MacArthur’s vis a vis the state of American armed forces and the Russians and Chinese. (5)

1952 was a presidential election – Republican Dwight Eisenhower beat Democrat Adlai Stevenson – Truman retired to Missouri and MacArthur faded away.

(1) Actually, MacArthur later denied he was an open candidate, but rather supporters in Wisconsin got themselves on the state’s ballots.  It turned out  after all Harold Stassen was the state’s real favorite son, because the general only received 11 votes on the first ballot at the Republican convention and 7 on the second to Stassen’s 157 and 149.  William Manchester,  American Caesar, p. 620.

(2) Transcription of HST Press Conference, 9/21/1950

(3) Manchester suggests  having two elderly men meet  for the first time at an atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, when both were travel weary (Truman was seven time zones away from Washington, MacArthur was three from Tokyo), was ludicrous.  American Caesar, p. 708.

(4) Brands, The General vs. the President, pp. 297-98.

(5) Brands, The General vs. the President, pp. 331-369.  These pages contain an excellent summary of the committees’ hearing.

For further reading:

Clay Blair.  The Forgotten War: American in Korea, 1950-1953.

H. W. Brands.  The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War.

David Halberstam.  The Coldest Winter:  America and the Korean War.

William Manchester.  American Caesar:  Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964.

David McCullough.  Truman.

On Line:

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950, Volume 7, Korea

Foreign Relations of the United States, 1951, Volume 7, Prt. 1, China and Korea 

Truman Press Conferences, 1950-1951 

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