On April 11, 1951, President Harry S Truman released a statement which shocked the American public:
With deep regret 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. In view of the specific responsibilities imposed upon me by the Constitution of the United States and the added responsibility which has been entrusted to me by the United Nations, I have decided that I must make a change of command in the Far East. I have, therefore, relieved General MacArthur of his commands and have designated Lt. Gen. Matthew B Ridgeway as his successor.The origins of this controversial action go back many years. The 71-year old MacArthur had a long and distinguished career also marked by a large ego and imperious behavior which put him in constant conflict with his peers and superiors.
Full and vigorous debate on matters of national policy is a vital element in the constitutional system of our free democracy. It is fundamental, however, that military commanders must be governed by the policies and directives issued to them in the manner provided by our laws and Constitution. In time of crisis, this consideration is particularly compelling.
General MacArthur's place in history as one of our greatest commanders is fully established. The Nation owes him a debt of gratitude for the distinguished and exceptional service which he has rendered his country in posts of great responsibility. For that reason I repeat my regret at the necessity for the action I feel compelled to take in his case.
Douglas MacArthur graduated at the top of his West Point class in 1903 and became a brigadier general while serving with the Army in France during World War I and receiving the Silver Star for bravery in action. After the war he became Superintendent of West Point and by 1925 was the youngest major general in the US Army. Promoted to Army Chief of Staff in 1930, he gained notoriety by forcibly expelling the Bonus Army protesters from the Washington Mall in 1932. A vocal Republican, though he supported the initial aspects of the New Deal, his further promotion was stymied by President Franklin D Roosevelt, one of the few men capable of intimidating MacArthur, and who, quite rightly, viewed him as a potential political opponent in a future presidential election.
In 1937 he resigned from the Army to become Military Advisor to the Commonwealth Government of the Philippines where he was responsible for building and training an Philippine Army (of which he became the Field Marshal) in anticipation of the island nation attaining its promised independence in 1945. It also allowed him to indulge his taste for luxurious living and being deferred to as a major personage.
With the threat of Japanese expansion growing, on July 26, 1941, FDR federalized the Philippine Army and recalled MacArthur to active duty as Commander, US Army Forces in the Far East. The President and the US Chiefs of Staff of the Army and Navy knew that in the event of a Japanese attack, the Philippines would fall but MacArthur never really accepted this.
On December 8, 1941, a Japanese air strike destroyed most of the American air force in the Philippines on the ground, despite MacArthur having warning of the attack on Pearl Harbor nine hours earlier and being urged to get his planes into the air in anticipation of an attack. It was his worst mistake as a commander until nine years later.
After the American and Filipino forces retreated to the Bataan peninsula later the month, MacArthur was ordered by FDR to leave his command and go to Australia to organize Allied resistance in the region.
In late 1942, Allied forces under MacArthur's command began a campaign in New Guinea that would eventually take them back to the Philippines in late 1944. Though initially opposing the island-hopping strategy, once embraced he executed it with great skill. From a strategic perspective he always insisted on a dual path approach to defeating Japan in which he would lead a thrust towards the Philippines while Admiral Nimitz led a parallel approach through the Central Pacific. He also felt it essential to redeem his personal pledge to return to liberate the Filipinos. There is still a debate among military historians as to whether the invasion of the Philippines was necessary and how much of MacArthur's insistence on it was due to his vanity, and his staff's focus on publicly promoting their boss by the media was a constant irritant to other military leaders like Marshall, Eisenhower and Bradley. Throughout the war, FDR, conscious of the political implications, went out of his way to keep MacArthur on board with the overall war strategy and avoid his resignation and possible entry into politics.
(MacArthur in the Philippines from history.com)
At war's end, MacArthur was to command the invasion of Japan, scheduled for November 1, 1945 (for more on the what-ifs surrounding the invasion read Downfall). With Japan's surrender, he was appointed Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan, where he functioned for the next four years as the virtual ruler of the defeated nation. Operating in the mode of a Roman proconsul assigned to a distant province, MacArthur, with little interference from the Truman administration, set the course for modern Japan. His staff drafted a new constitution, which still governs the country, renouncing war, enfranchising women, abolishing racial discrimination, weakening the Emperor and strengthening the Parliament. He also enacted a sweeping land reform under which 38% of the nation's cultivated land was purchased from landlords and redistributed to tenant farmers. It was an accomplishment for which he received much well-deserved praise. In 1949, when the US returned control to a civilian government, MacArthur remained in Japan in his military command.
(MacArthur & Emperor Hirohito)
On June 25, 1950, North Korea, with the approval of Joseph Stalin and the new Chinese communist government, invaded the Republic of South Korea. The United Nations Security Council (the Soviet Union had been boycotting the Council for some time and was unable to veto the resolution) quickly authorized a UN military response with an American commander and MacArthur was immediately named to the post.
The North Korean's surprise onslaught achieved initial success. Seoul quickly fell and by the end of July the American dominated UN force along with the remnants of the South Korean army was confined to a small perimeter around the southeast Korea port of Pusan. While the front stabilized in August, MacArthur came up with plans for a daring, and very risky, counterstroke. His plan called for an amphibious attack on the heavily fortified port (abetted by tricky and fall rising and falling tides) of Inchon, near Seoul, far behind the enemy lines. Overcoming doubts from other military leaders, MacArthur's plan was approved and the landings took place on September 15. It proved to be his greatest military triumph, one for which he deserves full credit.
After a few days of fierce resistance the North Korean army collapsed everywhere and Seoul was soon reoccupied and the UN forces advanced beyond the 38th parallel, the previous dividing line between the two Koreas. And it was at this point that the controversy begins and we enter the world of geopolitics.
Harry Truman came to the presidency with FDR's sudden death on April 12, 1945. A senator from Missouri, he'd only been Vice-President for one month and was ill-prepared for the top office as FDR had not involved him in any strategy discussions about the war or his plans for the post-war world. In contrast to MacArthur, Truman had been a lowly captain of an artillery battery in World War One.
Truman faced huge challenges in those years; the final decisions on how to end the war with Japan, including the decision to use the atomic bomb, America's return to a peacetime economy with fears of a return to the Depression of the pre-war years and, looming above all, the newly powerful and expansive communist regime of the Soviet Union under Stalin. In the three years prior to the Korean War, Truman had decided that the US needed to take the lead in European reconstruction in order to counter communist inroads by launching the Marshall plan, announced the Truman Doctrine in which the US would undertake global commitments that the UK could no longer shoulder, confronted Stalin directly, defeating his effort to force the withdrawal of the Western powers from Berlin (an event that took place during the 1948 election campaign in which the Progressive Party candidate, Henry Wallace, FDR's former vice-president, called for our withdrawal) and finally created NATO in 1949.
(American plane landing in Berlin during the Soviet blockade)
While some degree of stability had been reached in Europe, the news was grim in Asia, where the Chinese communists took power in October 1949 (only five weeks after the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, breaking the American monopoly) and the US anticipated that the fall of Tawian would shortly follow. This was the situation when the North Korean attack occurred.
Another element played into what happened after Inchon - poor communications between Truman and MacArthur. How, and in what form, MacArthur's advance beyond the 38th parallel was approved is still in dispute, though there is no doubt an approval in some form occurred. Although a UN document recommended a policy that as the UN forces neared North Korea's border with China that only South Korean troops be deployed, MacArthur rejected the advice, while at the same time Truman was telling reporters that only Korean, and not American, forces woud occupy the border area.
Looming behind this was the threat of Chinese, and possibly Soviet intervention. As the North Korean army crumbled and MacArthur's forces advanced further towards the Yalu River border, the Chinese were very vocal about threatening to intervene if the UN advance was not halted. MacArthur discounted the likelihood of the Chinese intervening and believed it would be ineffective even if it happened. When asked by the President whether we was concerned about intervention during their meeting at Wake Island on October 15, MacArthur responded:
Very little. Had they interfered in the first or second months it would have been decisive. We are no longer fearful of their intervention. We no longer stand hat in hand. The Chinese have 300,000 men in Manchuria. Of these probably not more than 100–115,000 are distributed along the Yalu River. Only 50–60,000 could be gotten across the Yalu River. They have no Air Force. Now that we have bases for our Air Force in Korea if the Chinese tried to get down to Pyongyang [North Korean capital] there would be the greatest slaughter.
In late October, the first clashes occurred between Chinese and Americans, but then the Chinese cut off further contact for three weeks. It appears the initial Chinese attack was meant as a warning not to advance further towards the border. The warning was ignored and the advance continued with American and South Korean forces becoming increasingly isolated from their ability to support each other in the heavily mountainous terrain. It was to be MacArthur's worst military mistake and only two months after his greatest moment.
On November 24, MacArthur launched the Home by Christmas offensive to close out the war. The next day, the Chinese began a massive counterattack. Disaster followed. Despite MacArthur's confidence the Chinese had been able to move large numbers of troops into Korea without Allied detection. All across the peninsula, the UN troops were overwhelmed. In the northwest, Pyongyang quickly fell to the communists, while in the northeast the Marines were only able to narrowly escape total destruction around the Chosin Reservoir through heroic efforts under harrowing arctic conditions.
By mid-December, the UN forces were back at the 38th parallel and a month later Seoul fell again, this time to the Chinese and there was talk of an evacuation of American forces from the entire peninsula. The American 8th Army was now under the command of General Matthew Ridgeway, who increasingly took the lead in battlefield initiatives. After stabilizing the front, the Americans began to counterattack, retaking Seoul in March, 1951. It was shortly after this that the final events took place leading to MacArthur's firing.
The tension between MacArthur and Truman went back to August 1950 when the general sent a statement to be read aloud at a Veteran of Foreign Wars convention in Chicago, in which he denounced "appeasement and defeatism" in the Pacific which Truman saw as a direct attack on his policies in the region and with "appeasement" being a particularly toxic term in the light of Munich and World War Two. This was compounded by the poor communication and confusion over US policy north of the 38th parallel as well as by MacArthur's dismissal of warnings about Chinese intevention and the vulnerable placement of his forces when that event transpired. Throughout this period, MacArthur was also making statements to the press without complying with White House directives to clear them with the State Department, statements that sometimes directly contradicted those of the administration.
Matters came to a head in late March. McArthur was increasingly becoming vocal that the U.S. needed to militarily confront Red China everywhere, not just in Korea, while Truman, and other senior military leaders, had no interest in a broader conflict. As the Americans were able to stabilize and then begin advancing again, the President began seeking a way to achieve a ceasefire. MacArthur was opposed and on March 23 issued a communique that, after deprecating China's military capabilities, went on to say:
These military weaknesses have been clearly and definitely revealed since Red China entered upon its undeclared war in Korea. Even under the inhibitions which now restrict the activity of the United Nations forces and the corresponding military advantages which accrue to Red China, it has been shown its complete inability to accomplish by force of arms the conquest of Korea. The enemy, therefore must by now be painfully aware that a decision of the United Nations to depart from its tolerant effort to contain the war to the area of Korea, through an expansion of our military operations to its coastal areas and interior bases, would doom Red China to the risk of imminent military collapse. These basic facts being established, there should be no insuperable difficulty in arriving at decisions on the Korean problem if the issues are resolved on their own merits, without being burdened by extraneous matters not directly related to Korea, such as Formosa or China's seat in the United Nations.Truman later wrote of this statement:
This was a most extraordinary statement for a military commander of the United Nations to issue on his own responsibility. It was an act totally disregarding all directives to abstain from any declarations on foreign policy. It was in open defiance of my orders as President and as Commander-in-Chief. This was a challenge to the authority of the President under the Constitution. It also flouted the policy of the United Nations. By this act MacArthur left me no choice - I could no longer tolerate his insubordination.On top of that, at the same time, Truman became aware through US espionage intercepts of conversations MacArthur had with Spanish and Portugese diplomats in Tokyo in which he expressed confidence that he would succeed in expanding the war to directly involve China.
The final straw came on April 5, when the Republican Minority Leader in the House, Joseph Martin, read on the floor a letter sent to him by MacArthur which included these words:
It seems strangely difficult for some to realize that here in Asia is where the Communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest, and that we have joined the issue thus raised on the battlefield; that here we fight Europe’s war with arms while the diplomatic there still fight it with words; that if we lose the war to communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable; win it and Europe most probably would avoid war and yet preserve freedom. As you pointed out, we must win. There is no substitute for victory.Truman finally made the decision to relieve MacArthur. After initial opposition, both Secretary of Defense George Marshall and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Omar Bradley concurred with the proposed action. The resulting uproar left MacArthur more popular with the public than ever, particularly after his speech to a joint session of Congress just eight days after he was relieved, an address he ended with these poignant words:
The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barracks ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that old soldiers never die; they just fade away.(MacArthur addresses Congress)
And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty. Good-by.
Faced with a stalemate and continuing war in Korea that lasted through the rest of his presidency, Truman became ever more unpopular, leaving office with the lowest favorability rating of any 20th century president.
Since then Truman's reputation has improved and he is now widely considered one of the best American presidents of the century. While his own communication errors and indecision contributed to the MacArthur crisis, he was correct in the final analysis in asserting his authority to make the country's foreign policy.
MacArthur made great contributions to America but was in the wrong in this squabble. From late 1942 when he began his counterattack in the South Pacific, through his administration of Japan after the war to his decision to undertake the Inchon invasion, General MacArthur had seen all of his judgements proven correct. Perhaps that streak of success contributed to his overconfidence in predicting the reaction of China as he advanced north and to his continued and public provocations to the nation's civilian leadership.