“It is right for us to be in Korea… (it) would be wrong—tragically wrong—for us to take the initiative in extending the war… Our aim is to avoid the spread of the conflict…I believe that we must try to limit the war to Korea for these vital reasons: To make sure that the precious lives of our fighting men are not wasted; to see that the security of our country and the free world is not needlessly jeopardized; and to prevent a third world war.” (General MacArthur was being relieved) “so that there would be no doubt or confusion as to the real purpose and aim of our policy.”
President Harry S. Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his command of U.S. forces in Korea on today’s date, April 11 in 1951. The General had been butting heads with the president for some time over how far the war in Korea was going to be taken, and this lead the president to decide that it was time for Big Mac to go. This raised a storm of controversy, but Truman in addressing the situation described it as quoted above.
Truman, MacArthur, and the Korean War
The Korean War had broken out when forces of Communist North Korea invaded the Republic of South Korea on June 25, 1950. Truman immediately put U.S. forces into the fray to stave off this naked communist aggression. The U.S. forces backing the South Koreans were under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. Mac Arthur had been the military leader who had lead the U.S. in our victory over Japan during World War II and was
considered a military genius. The North Koreans had pushed far south enough that they very nearly had taken the entire peninsula. But with MacArthur’s brilliant landings at Inchon (Sept. 14 – 19, 1950) the invaders had been pushed way back into their own territory, and by 1951, they had been pushed to the very border of communist China. Truman was concerned about the Chinese getting into the war. But even after MacArthur met with him on Wake Island (Oct. 15, 1950) and assured him that this would not happen – it did happen with hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops attacking in November and December of 1950 (above).
Truman and Mac Disagree
There were real differences between MacArthur and the Truman administration over policy. One was that MacArthur thought that North Korea was not totally a satellite of Russia, but a country with it’s own policies and that therefore expanding the war with China would not mean starting up World War III with the Russians. There was also MacArthur’s insistence on using Nationalist Chinese troops from Taiwan in the fight, and MacArthur’s desire to bomb the Chinese inside China itself. These were both points on which Truman firmly refused to agree, as he was trying to contain the war in Korea itself. On March 20 a letter from MacArthur to a congressman which was critical of Truman was made public. In it the general said; “…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.”
The Decision is Made
Clearly and now quite publicly Truman and MacArthur were not on the same page. So on April 6, Truman began meeting with his top advisers on what to do about the situation. On April 8 the Joint Chiefs of staff met with George Marshall and expressed concern: “if MacArthur were not relieved, a large segment of our people would charge that civil authorities no longer controlled the military.” The Joint Chiefs all agreed that MacArthur had to be relieved (although they later told congress that they had not specifically recommended it). And on this date in 1951, Truman issued the following order to MacArthur (above):
“I deeply regret that it becomes my duty as President and Commander-in-Chief of the United States military forces to replace you as Supreme Commander, Allied Powers; Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command; Commander-in-Chief, Far East; and Commanding General, U.S. Army, Far East.”
Truman took tremendous political heat for this decision. Americans were quite stunned by this decision to cashier the great victorious general from World War II. But Truman withstood the firestorm of criticism. He no longer had any public disagreements within his administration about his Korea policy. He was much later quoted as having said in the early 1960’s:
” I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”