Five years after the end of World War II, the United States became involved in yet another armed conflict. In 1950, the United States, as part of a United Nations force, sent troops to aide South Korea in countering the threat of communist North Korea. In 1951 it seemed as though there may have been an end in sight for the conflict in Korea and there were rumors of a truce, however the Commander-in-Chief of the United Nation’s Command (UNCOM), General Douglas MacArthur, was threatening this tentative peace with his unauthorized action.
When the United States first became involved in Korea in 1950, Douglas MacArthur, a well-respected World War II general whose leadership was celebrated internationally in the Pacific Theatre, was named commander of the troops in Korea.
MacArthur believed that his mission as commander was to defeat North Korea no matter the cost. WashingtonD.C. believed that it was important to defeat North Korea as well, however 400,000 Chinese troops entered the picture and MacArthur saw their involvement as a communist attack against the West in the Far East and believed that all the resources the United States had to offer should be sent to the Far East to counter this threat. Truman and his advisors did not share this view. Several of Truman’s advisors believed Korea might have simply been a secondary effort for communist China and Truman’s advisors were thus reluctant to expend significant amounts of military resources in Asia in case there was later a need to for these resources elsewhere (Eastern Europe for example). At this juncture, the conflicts between MacArthur and the rest of the United States government were not irreconcilable; however future actions on MacArthur’s part caused the differences to grow and to eventually become so unresolvable that MacArthur could not remain in his position as commander of the troops in Korea.
MacArthur future actions only served to further infuriated Truman and other high ranking officials in Washington. One of these actions was a secret meeting with Chiang Kai-shek, a Chinese general.
Additionally, MacArthur gave a speech where he claimed to have superior knowledge of the “Oriental mentality” and indirectly referred to the leadership of the United States as “timid and vacillating” in regards to the action (or lack of action) in Korea relevant to the communist Chinese. Truman rightly saw this speech as a direct blow to his foreign policy and demanded MacArthur retract his statements. MacArthur eventually did, however the damage was already done. MacArthur’s statements directly contradicted Truman who was not only his boss, but the President of the United States of America and the face of democracy. This situation demonstrated weakness and it demonstrated lack of unity to the rest of the world. These statements and actions made it even more necessary that Truman remove MacArthur to save the United States’ reputation and to prevent future global conflicts. Furthermore, the general feeling in Washington was that MacArthur was incorrect and that committing to a war with China would have disastrous results and would undoubtedly lead to future armed global conflict.
By this point Omar Bradley (chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Dean Acheson (the Sectary of the State) believed that the United States would not be able to defeat China while still militarily involved in Korea and they believed that few things would make the Kremlin happier than an all-out war between the United States and China.
If MacArthur did not contain his gusto in the Far East, then there was a very really possibility that there would be an even larger war that could potentially turn into a global conflict between communism and democracy. It was in the United States best interest to ensure that the current conflict in Korea did not escalate into anything greater. To do this, MacArthur would have to be removed as he had consistently disobeyed orders and requests to conform with the United States’ foreign policy program it did not seem likely that he would change he views and he had already gone against the wishes of the government too many times before to be completely trustworthy.
When the United States began to think about drafting a truce to end the conflict in Korea, MacArthur issued a contradictory ultimatum to China which resulted in MacArthur being told not to make any more statements unless they were first approved by the government. Truman waited for MacArthur to give him just cause to relieve him and he was trying to garner support for removing MacArthur (who was a very popular public figure). Truman knew that he must prevent another world war from occurring and he also knew that to do that he would have to fire General Douglas MacArthur. To fire MacArthur Truman would have to use a lot of tact and finesse.
One of the largest obstacles blocking Truman from achieving his goal of preventing global conflict was General Douglas MacArthur. MacArthur’s actions and his lack of response to orders made him a very dangerous person to have so close to the conflict in Korea. Truman knew that MacArthur would have to eventually be removed; the only problems were the when and the how. Truman knew that the repercussions of firing MacArthur would be great. In fact Dean Acheson (Truman’s Secretary of State) warned Truman that firing MacArthur would likely be the biggest fight of Truman’s entire administration. However, Truman decided that if future global conflict was to be prevented (and because MacArthur had so obviously disobeyed orders), MacArthur would have to be removed from power in the United States military.
Once Truman decided to fire MacArthur, he had to contend with all of the obstacles that may prevent or hinder him from doing so. One very large obstacle was public opinion. The public was enamored with MacArthur, largely due to his performance in World War II and his larger than life personality. Truman was well aware that if he fired MacArthur, he would lose the favor of the public. This caused him to delay firing MacArthur for some time while he waited for the right moment to act. Truman thought long and hard about the consequences before finally deciding to fire MacArthur. He was well aware that the action would lead to public outcry and possibly even to Congressional hearings or impeachment (Ryan). Despite these seemingly inevitable consequences and arduous obstacles, Truman decided that he would still need to remove MacArthur if he wished to prevent a third world war.
Truman first decided who to replace MacArthur with (General Ridgeway) for removing MacArthur without a suitable replacement in mind would be just as disastrous as leaving MacArthur in place. Then Truman had to decide how he would inform MacArthur. One of Truman’s greatest fears was that MacArthur would find out about Truman’s plans to fire him and then announce that he was resigning before Truman had the chance to fire him. This would be devastating to the country. A top general resigning would reflect very poorly on the Truman administration. Thus Truman decided against using military channels to fire MacArthur (Maihefer). Although these channels were theoretically confidential, MacArthur would probably find out about these plans due to his vast network of military acquaintances who had a deep respect for MacArthur and who would be likely to inform MacArthur of Truman’s plans before the message had officially reached him. Truman decided to use a little know diplomat (Frank Pace JR) instead. However there were delays in Pace receiving instructions and the White House thought that news may have been leaked to the public. Truman, wary of the political implications of MacArthur resigning, before he could be properly fired reportedly said “That SOB isn’t going to resign on me, I want him fired”.
This fear led to Truman using another power of the presidency- the power to make speeches and to address the public. So a one o’clock am on April 11th 1951, Truman held a press conference where he explained to the public that he was firing MacArthur because “ General Douglas MacArthur in unable to give his whole hearted support to the policies of the United States government and the United Nations in matters pertaining to his official duties…”. This speech made it impossible for MacArthur to resign his post because the entire American public knew that he had been fired. By using this tool of the presidency, Truman averted the disaster that would have occurred had MacArthur been able to resign before Truman was able to make his decision to fire MacArthur public. However, Truman’s spur of the moment speech also meant that MacArthur had yet to receive new of his removal. MacArthur’s aid, Sid Huff, heard the speech on the radio and then delivered the news to MacArthur, after the news had been received by the public.
When MacArthur returned home, he was honored with one of the largest ticker-tape parades New York City had ever seen. This demonstrates the public’s support of MacArthur even after President Truman stripped him of his power. Even once MacArthur’s dismissal was official, Truman continued to face obstacles in the form of public opinion. In the time following MacArthur’s dismissal, the White House received 3,427 letters pertaining to Truman’s decision. 7% (2,301) of these letters were against his decision, while 32% (1,126) of the letter were for it (Ryan). Truman did not make the decision to fire MacArthur lightly. “He had thought for a long time and very heavily on the consequences of the action and determined that it was a necessary and proper action and that he couldn’t avoid it….” (Ryan). Truman knew that public criticism would be inevitable and that it would be a huge obstacle to overcome, yet he chose to fire MacArthur anyways because he knew that, in order to prevent an armed global conflict from occurring, MacArthur had to go.
Truman’s decision to fire MacArthur has been called “a courageous act of political suicide” (Guttman). Truman’s objective was to prevent a new world war and he decided that to prevent that from occurring, he needed to remove General Douglas MacArthur from power. Doing so resulted in public outrage, yet Truman managed to prevent the Korean conflict from escalating into something much larger. Truman was able to accomplish his objectives (despite the costs) and he was able to keep the United States from becoming entangled in a much larger conflict, yet he lost a great deal of public support.
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Donaldson, Gary A. “Douglas MacArthur.” The Korean War: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland Pub., 1995. Print.
Guttman, Jon. “President Harry Truman’s Decision to Fire Douglas MacArthur was a Courageous Act of Political Suicide.” Military History 18.1 (2006): 6. Academic Sear Premier.
Maihafer, Harry J. “Message to MacArthur. (Cover Story)”. American History 31.2 (1996): 28. Academic Search Premier. Web. 20 March 2013.
Ryan, Halford R. “Harry S Truman: A Misdirected Defense for MacArthur’s Dismissal.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 11.4 (1981): 576-82. Print.