The Dismissal of MacArthur: Civilian Control Vindicated

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The Cold War between the Communist and Western Worlds turned hot on June 25, 1950 when North Korean forces invaded South Korea. An accident of history, the Soviet Unions boycott of the United Nations, enabled the world body to swiftly call upon its members to take military actioon to halt the aggression by the Communist satellite. The United States, as the UNs leading non-Communist power, was given the authority to direct the defense of South Korea.

Truman and MacArthur Respond

Within two days of the invasion, President Harry Truman had instructed General Douglas MacArthur, then Supreme commander of the Allied occupation of Japan, to take control of the UN forces. At the time, they consisted of a sizeable but ill-equipped South Korean (Republic of Korea) Army and several U.S. units there since the division of previously Japanese-occupied Korea in 1945.

Although forced to retreat before overwhelming numbers through the summer, MacArthur was strong enough by September to begin a rout of the invaders which ultimately carried his troops well into North Korea and close to its border with Communist China. By this time, the UN forces were bolstered by contingents from the British Commonwealth, France, Greece, Turkey, and other countries. In late November, massive Chinese forces entered the war and drove the UN forces back into South Korea.

Under this new and unexpected pressure, MacArthur began urging his superiors in Washington to authorize the bombing of Chinese supply routes and military installations. The authorization was not forthcoming, as the Truman Administration sought to limit the hostilities to the Korean Peninsula without extending action to China and risking a nuclear confrontation with its then ally, the Soviet Union.

MacArthurs statements criticizing the limitations, first confined to military channels, eventually went public contrary to a directive from the President. The climax came with a publicly released message from MacArthur to the Chinese in February, 1951 proposing a meeting of commanders to discuss ending the fighting, with a threat that China would be attacked otherwise.

Truman Acts and Congress Reviews

On April 11, Truman relieved MacArthur of all his commands, citing the Generals inability to support the policies determined Constitutionally by the President. MacArthur, who had not been in the continental United States since his victory in the Pacific in World War II, now returned to a heros welcome, including a ticker tape parade in New York city and his famous “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away” address to a joint session of Congress.

While no one questioned the Presidents right to fire a general, many in Congress attacked the decsion both as shabby treatment of a hero and as weakness in the face of the Communist threat. The Senate, then controlled by the Presidents Democratic Party, decided to hold hearings on the dismissal.

From May to August of that year, the highly respected Senator Richard Russell of Georgia chaired joint hearings of the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees. MacArthur testified himself, as did Administration and ranking military officials. While the Committees ultimately took no position on the wisdom of the dismissal, they did find that MacArthurs public statements on war policy did violate a Presidential directive to refrain from them and provided grounds for a Presidential action under his Constitutional powers as commander in chief.

MacArthur remained a venerated military figure, but an attempt to make him the Republican nominee for President in 1952 never got off the ground.