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This week in history: President Truman fires General MacArthur

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President Truman pins the Distinguished Service Medal on the shirt of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in this Oct. 14, 1950, file photo.

President Truman pins the Distinguished Service Medal on the shirt of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in this Oct. 14, 1950, file photo.

Associated Press

On April 11, 1951, Harry Truman, the president of the United States, fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur from his post as commander of the U.N. forces in South Korea at the height of the Korean War. Truman relieved MacArthur for repeated conflicts over the conduct of the war, and critical remarks he had made against the administration.

MacArthur had been the principal U.S. Army commander in the Pacific theater during World War II and had overseen the occupation of Japan after the war. When communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, the United Nations passed Resolution 82, which created a U.N. force to check North Korean aggression. Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended MacArthur be placed in command of the U.N. force and Truman made the appointment.

The beginning of the war saw U.N. forces pushed down into a tiny corner of the peninsula, surrounding the city of Pusan. Initially, the U.N. strategy called for military units to be sent directly into the Pusan perimeter to hold the line, though MacArthur believed a different strategy was in order. The general developed a plan to make an amphibious landing at Inchon, the port city that serviced the South Korean capital of Seoul, both of which had been overrun by the North Koreans. The landing so far behind North Korean lines, MacArthur believed, would force a general retreat for the North Koreans lest they become cut off from their supply lines and face destruction from their rear.

In his biography “Old Soldiers Never Die: The Life of Douglas MacArthur,” Geoffrey Perret wrote, “There was one day in MacArthur's life when he was a military genius: September 15, 1950. … In the life of every great Commander there is one battle that stands out above all the rest, the supreme test of generalship that places him among the other military immortals. For MacArthur that battle was Inchon.”

The landing worked just as MacArthur predicted and the North Korean army began a frantic retreat northward. After this initial success, however, MacArthur made a series of strategic errors. First of all, MacArthur insisted on concentrating his forces to conquer Seoul, rather than cutting across the peninsula in an attempt to trap the fleeing North Korean army. Second, after taking U.N. forces into North Korea, MacArthur pushed north to the Chinese border after repeated warnings from Washington that such a move could bring the newly created communist People's Republic of China into the conflict.

MacArthur insisted that the Chinese would never enter the war because they feared the American atomic bomb. Within a few months the Chinese had entered the war, and together with the North Korean army began pushing south. November and December saw significant U.N. defeats, and MacArthur was quick to deflect criticism.

MacArthur began pressing Truman to use atomic bombs against the Chinese, urging the president to use roughly 50 atomic bombs in Manchuria and other major population centers. This suggestion had some support from the Joint Chiefs, though Truman, who understood the implications of dropping atomic bombs better than any man before or since, refused.

In his book, “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War,” historian David Halberstam wrote, “On March 7 (1951) … MacArthur started out a press conference in Korea by tweaking President Truman, with references to what he called the serious, indeed abnormal inhibitions placed on him, the lack of additional forces given him and other restraints imposed from Washington. Then, at a moment when Washington was just beginning to contemplate trying to move Beijing to the peace table, he mocked the Chinese for their failures and their own limitations — virtually taunting a proud enemy that had just defeated him. That in itself greatly angered the president because MacArthur had just made it a great deal harder to negotiate with China.”

MacArthur's vocal criticism of Truman, his nakedly political remarks and his occasional outright disobedience to Washington's directives soon had the president contemplating the general's removal. One of the problems, however, was MacArthur's continued popularity with the American people. Truman's secretary of state, Dean Acheson, said to his boss, “If you relieve MacArthur you will have the biggest fight of your administration.”

In his biography of Truman, historian David McCullough wrote, “To a great part of the country MacArthur was a glorious figure; a real-life proven American hero, the brilliant, handsome general who had led American forces to stunning triumph in the greatest of all wars wherein there had never been any objective but complete and total victory. 'Douglas MacArthur was the personification of the big man ... Harry Truman was almost a professional little man,' wrote Time (magazine) in a considerably less than unbiased attempt to appraise the national mood, but one that nonetheless applied to a large part of the populace.”

For Truman, however, there was a larger issue than mere popularity. MacArthur's actions were inconsistent with America's time-honored belief in civilian control over the military. If a general could so easily and openly show contempt for the president without consequence, then the very foundations of constitutional government were threatened. Left unchecked, behavior like MacArthur's could eventually lead to military domination of the government and an end to the republic.

Halberstam wrote, “Truman also believed that there was a curious historical precedent for what was happening. If MacArthur saw himself as someone descended lineally from Washington and Lincoln, Harry Truman saw him less flatteringly, as the modern reincarnation of George McClellan. McClellan was the general who, in Truman's view, not only served Lincoln poorly in the field (during the Civil War), but had treated him with open contempt, often deliberately keeping him waiting before their scheduled meetings ... McClellan's ego was enormous, greatly exceeding his talents ... (Truman) understood that history in this case was going to be his ally, that he was not the first president to have trouble with a general with a superiority complex.”

On April 11, 1951, Truman issued the order that formally relieved MacArthur: “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 ... You will turn over your commands, effective at once, to Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway. You are authorized to have issued such orders as are necessary to complete desired travel to such place as you select ....”

Years later, Truman would state his reasons for firing MacArthur: “I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb (expletive), 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.”

Though outrage against Truman did indeed follow, it soon subsided. A congressional investigation later found that Truman had acted constitutionally, though the matter could have been handled better.

This was not the last time a sitting president has had to deal with insubordinate remarks from a serving general. In 2010, Gen. Stanley McChrystal made comments critical of the Obama administration in Rolling Stone magazine while serving as the commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Like McClellan and MacArthur before him, McChrystal's command soon came to an end.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com