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Truman Fires General Douglas MacArthur

Written by: Stephen Tootle, College of the Sequoias

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain the continuities and changes in Cold War policies from 1945 to 1980

Suggested Sequencing

Use this decision point with The Korean War and the Battle of Chosin Reservoir Narrative, the Truman Intervenes in Korea Decision Point, and the Harry S. Truman, “Truman Doctrine” Address, March 1947 Primary Source to have students analyze the United States’ involvement in the conflict.

President Harry S. Truman and General Douglas MacArthur shared little in common. Truman became commander-in-chief of the armed forces when he became president upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt on April 12, 1945. MacArthur was one of the most popular, powerful, decorated, and prominent military figures in the United States at the time. Their paths collided over the direction of the Cold War, the war in Korea, political ambitions, ego, and civilian control of the military in the United States.

Truman had risen through the ranks in politics with the help of friends, bosses, and voters, along with skill, luck, and hard work. His friends and his enemies all acknowledged his humility, work ethic, honesty, and loyalty. But he had no grandeur about him; he was physically small and could be petty and impulsive. He suffered by comparison with his predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt, who had a resonant voice, a long history in the public eye, four national election victories, and an aristocratic pedigree. Truman was the last president who did not graduate from college and the last one to frequently curse during press conferences. His “give ’em hell” campaign slogan seems plucky and energetic in retrospect, but to many people at the time, Truman was undignified and too small for the office he held.

Douglas MacArthur had followed a different path. After finishing first in the class of 1903 at West Point, he was nominated for the Medal of Honor for his bravery and skill during both the Veracruz expedition in Mexico and World War I. By the end of the war, MacArthur was a brigadier general and was made superintendent at West Point in the early 1920s. After becoming the youngest major general up to that time, MacArthur rose to become chief of staff of the U.S. Army in 1930. His career took a major step outside the mainstream of military life when he became a field marshal of the Philippine Army in the mid-1930s. It was during this era that MacArthur’s already outsized ego took flight. Called back into service by the United States in 1941, he won the Medal of Honor and became yet again a national hero for his defense of the Philippines, during which he pledged, “I shall return.” By the end of World War II, MacArthur was a five-star general and a legend in the popular imagination of the American people. After the war, he commanded the armed forces in Asia and oversaw the rebuilding of Japan. He was also considered arrogant and obsessed with his own image.

MacArthur’s years in in the Philippines had seemed to amplify his worst character traits. Truman called him “Mr. Prima Donna,” a “Brass Hat,” a “play actor and a bunco man.” Dwight Eisenhower, who had served under him twice, said, “I studied dramatics under him for five years in Washington and four in the Philippines.”

MacArthur had command of the U.S. forces in Asia at the time of the North Korean invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950. The first six weeks of the Korean War went terribly for the United States and its United Nations allies. Reversal followed reversal, and retreats often turned to routs. By the end of the summer, North Korea controlled the entire peninsula except for the city of Pusan and the defensive perimeter around it. MacArthur devised a bold plan for an amphibious invasion to land in the western port city of Inchon, near the South Korean capital city of Seoul, timed to coincide with a breakout from the city of Pusan. The defenders of Inchon could always tell when a possible attack was coming because, due to the tides, the harbor was navigable for only a few hours on one day every month. MacArthur’s was a daring scheme, and initially the Joint Chiefs balked at supporting it.

The U.S. attack took place on September 15 and was a tremendous success. More than 13,000 marines with heavy air support took Inchon in one day with only 21 casualties. By September 27, the U.N. forces under MacArthur had recaptured the capital city of Seoul and trapped half the North Korean military. U.N. forces (mostly South Korean and U.S. Army troops) began moving north and crossed into North Korea, while in Washington, DC, the Truman administration basked in the grand victory.

To capitalize politically on American military victories, the Truman administration requested a conference with MacArthur. The two men met on Wake Island on October 15. Ostensibly they were discussing strategy, but both men understood that the event was really a publicity stunt. With less than one month to go before the 1950 midterm elections, Truman wanted to share in the glory of the recent military victories. The meeting went better than either man expected, but the consequences of that short meeting were far-reaching.

President Truman and General MacArthur shake hands.

President Truman (left) and General MacArthur (right) are pictured together at Wake Island on October 15, 1950.

The accounts of what was said publicly and privately do not differ. In his diary, Truman recalled MacArthur privately reassuring him that he had no political ambitions and that the Republicans had made a “chump” of him by floating his name as a presidential nominee in the past. The formal meeting that followed was short and productive. Truman asked directly: “What are the chances for Chinese or Soviet interference?” MacArthur’s reply was: “Very little.” If the Soviets or the Chinese interfered, he said, they would face “the greatest slaughter.” The meeting was moving along so quickly that an aide slipped Truman a note telling him to slow down. Truman replied, “Hell, no! I want to get out of here before we get into trouble.”

At 9:12 a.m., the brief meeting was over. MacArthur asked to be excused to attend a luncheon and return to Japan. Truman praised MacArthur in a speech in San Francisco. He reassured the American people that he and MacArthur were in complete agreement on policy and strategy. In a press conference the following day, Truman told reporters that MacArthur is “loyal to the President in his foreign policy.” But the meeting had not changed the underlying reality of their relationship: MacArthur resented Truman and the meeting; Truman resented MacArthur.

On the ground in North Korea, the combined South Korean, American, and allied U.N. forces charged north. MacArthur’s ego swelled and his popularity soared as the remains of the North Korean army retreated toward the border with China at the Yalu River. The Truman administration desperately wanted a big win in a major theater of the Cold War on the eve of the midterm elections and brushed aside new Chinese warnings about intervention. Even Stalin seemed willing to accept an American victory in Korea, stating privately, “So what[.] Let it be. Let the Americans be our neighbors.” The Chinese had other plans.

The first warnings were vague. In late October, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) estimates began reporting that first 15,000, then 20,000 Chinese soldiers were streaming into North Korea. Within a week, that number was revised upward to 30,000–40,000. The war had changed, and now MacArthur was outnumbered, desperate, and facing defeat. Only two days before the midterm elections he made a public statement: “A new and fresh army now faces us.” In stark and dramatic terms, he asked Truman for permission to bomb the bridges over the Yalu River (separating North Korea and China) and stated that any delay would be “paid for dearly . . . in blood.” Truman granted it. Soon MacArthur reported that his army was facing 250,000 Chinese soldiers. He now regretted his earlier predictions that American soldiers would be “home for Christmas.”

Reeling from military setbacks, Truman and MacArthur were also offending one another. MacArthur falsely told the New York Times that the Joint Chiefs had never warned him to be cautious as he approached the Yalu River. He demanded the freedom and resources to attack China by bombing industrial areas, setting up blockades, and coordinating with Chinese Nationalist forces on the island of Formosa (now Taiwan). President Truman had to respond but settled for a mild rebuke in a letter, stating that the decisions in Korea had to be made in the context of the wider Soviet threat and thanking MacArthur for his “splendid leadership.”

President Truman did not cover himself in glory during the dark months in the winter of 1950–1951. In a press conference at the end of November, he hinted about the use of nuclear weapons in Korea, setting off an international crisis. He was also too sensitive to personal criticism. After a Washington Post music critic wrote a harsh review of Truman’s daughter Margaret’s singing recital, the President dashed off an angry letter to the critic stating, “Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens, you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below.” When the letter became public, Truman faced a torrent of outrage. One family sent him their son’s Purple Heart medal with the note, “As you have been directly responsible for the loss of our son’s life, you might as well keep this emblem on display in your trophy room, as a memory of your historic deeds. One major regret at this time is that your daughter was not there to receive the same treatment as our son received in Korea.” Truman kept the letter in his desk drawer for years.

Cartoon Truman wears General MacArthur’s military hat, which is too big for him.

This 1950 political cartoon shows President Truman wearing MacArthur’s oversized military cap, suggesting he was not qualified to be the commander-in-chief.

Meanwhile, after the accidental death of General Walton Walker, Matthew Ridgway took command of the Eighth Army, rallied U.N. forces, and stabilized the front. By the end of 1950, the Truman administration was not interested in either expanding the war or withdrawing U.N. forces. Now it was looking for a way to end the war. President Truman directed Secretary of State Dean Acheson to begin negotiating a cease-fire. In January, MacArthur was told to prepare for these talks by holding on to territory and making only small advances to improve the negotiating position of the United Nations. On March 20, the Joint Chiefs notified him that in preparation for peace negotiations, the president would be announcing that South Korea had been cleared of aggressors.

Four days later, MacArthur tried to sabotage the foreign policy of the Truman administration. In a public statement, he offered to meet with the Chinese himself, and if they refused a settlement, he said, his forces might invade China. It was a stunning turn of events. Truman told one Democratic Senator, “I’ll show that son of a bitch who’s boss. Who does he think he is—God?” Instead Truman sent MacArthur a mild reprimand, but another bombshell was forthcoming.

House Republican leader Joseph Martin had given a speech stating that the Truman administration “should be indicted for the murder of American boys.” Martin sent MacArthur the speech. MacArthur then wrote back enthusiastically stating his general agreement and writing: “There is no substitute for victory.” It was an implicit attack on the Truman administration for not pursuing victory in the Cold War.

When MacArthur placed no restrictions on the publication of the letter, it sealed his doom. Martin read it on the floor of the House on April 5. This time, Truman knew he had to act. After the Joint Chiefs, the vice president, his cabinet, the speaker of the House, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court all told him he had no choice, Truman decided to fire MacArthur. A threatened leak pushed forward the timeline of the announcement, and six days after Martin read the letter, at 1:00 a.m. on the morning of April 11, the Truman administration announced the firing.

President Truman’s diary entry that night contained only two lines: “Quite an explosion. Was expected but I had to act. Telegrams and letters of abuse by the dozens.”

When MacArthur got the news, he privately fumed and believed Truman was mentally unstable. In an angrier moment, he told Matthew Ridgway he was going move to New York, make speeches, and “raise hell.” Truman was sure he had done the right thing even though he knew the move would be unpopular. He even understood that once home, MacArthur would be warmly greeted by the American people. He told General Bradley, “General MacArthur has not been home since World War II. He has not received the hero’s welcome to which he is entitled and which the American people will want to give him.” When his press secretary brought in piles of angry letters and telegrams, Truman told him, “See that fireplace over there? Go put them in the fireplace and set a match to them. The American people will come to understand that what I did had to be done.”

MacArthur was cheered by thousands in parades across the United States, including a ticker-tape parade in New York City with an estimated 7.5 million people. Congress invited him to address a joint session. There, his dramatic and masterful speech held the nation spellbound as he gave a 34-minute oration in which he was interrupted by applause 30 times. Taken from a song, his final line, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away,” brought the audience to tears.

MacArthur delivers a speech behind a podium.

MacArthur gave a speech to an audience of 50,000 at Soldier’s Field in Chicago in April 1951, his first time back in the United States in 14 years.

After being inundated with mail and telegrams from the public, Congress held hearings to investigate MacArthur’s firing. These cooled some of the angry public sentiment. The Joint Chiefs supported the president and pointed out their disagreements with MacArthur. General Omar Bradley delivered the most effective line of the proceedings when he said MacArthur’s policies “would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” Eventually, Americans came to understand the importance of the principles of civilian control of the military and the danger of insubordination in a world with nuclear weapons. President Truman left office in 1953 as one of the most unpopular presidents in American history, but he is now regarded by most historians as a great or near-great president, in large part because of his resolute decision-making.

Review Questions

1. Which of the following best explains the risk in the United States–led invasion at Inchon?

  1. The garrisoned North Korean soldiers stationed at Inchon were elite forces.
  2. The Soviets threatened retaliation with nuclear weapons.
  3. There was a growing belief that MacArthur was hiding an alcohol problem.
  4. The tides made it hard for an invading force to land.

2. Which of the following best states President Truman’s reason for firing General MacArthur?

  1. Truman believed MacArthur was planning to run for president against him.
  2. MacArthur was publicly insubordinate to the president.
  3. Truman worried that MacArthur’s soldiers would mutiny.
  4. MacArthur threatened to pass secrets to Chinese nationalists if Truman did not use atomic weapons against the Communists.

3. When American troops reached the Yalu River in October 1950, the Soviets

  1. prepared for a joint invasion of Korea with the Chinese
  2. sent a peace delegation to Formosa
  3. were willing to accept American control of Korea
  4. warned the United States that nuclear war was possible

4. The main reason the United Nations approved the June 1950 resolution regarding Korea was to

  1. eradicate communism on the Korean peninsula
  2. place troops near China after the Communists’ success in their civil war
  3. push invading communist troops out of a sovereign nation
  4. make sure Japan could not re-occupy the Korean Peninsula

5. Once at the Yalu River, General Douglas MacArthur wanted to

  1. call for an end to fighting and establish the Republic of Korea on the entire peninsula
  2. push into China to prevent it from invading Korea
  3. allow the Koreans to establish their own government
  4. return Korea to the Japanese as a province

6. All the following occurred after President Truman’s firing of General MacArthur except

  1. American public opinion toward President Truman grew hostile
  2. the Joint Chiefs of Staff understood the president’s position
  3. Congress invited General MacArthur to address a joint session
  4. General MacArthur ran for president as a third-party candidate

Free Response Questions

  1. Describe America’s military entry into the war in Korea.
  2. Describe the change in public sentiment regarding President Truman’s firing of General MacArthur.

AP Practice Questions

“But Truman did fire MacArthur, whose complaints against the commander in chief had grown louder and more public. MacArthur wanted to expand the war against China, which had entered the Korean fighting in late 1950. MacArthur complained that the president was tying his hands by forbidding the bombing of China, thereby sacrificing American lives and endangering American freedom.

Truman suffered the complaints for a time, out of respect for MacArthur and wariness of MacArthur’s allies in Congress. But the complaints began to confuse America’s allies and enemies as to what American policy was and who made it. The last thing Truman wanted was a wider war in Asia, which would weaken the American position in Europe. And Europe, not Asia, was where the Cold War would be won or lost, Truman judged.

Truman’s top advisers agreed. The MacArthur firing prompted the Democratic-led Congress to invite the general to address a joint session, which MacArthur moved to applause and tears when he declared that ‘old soldiers never die; they just fade away.’ Among Republicans, there were murmurs of support for a MacArthur candidacy for president. The Senate’s Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees held joint hearings, at which MacArthur detailed his disagreement with the president and claimed the backing of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for his position.”

H. W. Brands, “The Redacted Testimony That Fully Explains Why General MacArthur Was Fired,” Smithsonian, September 28, 2016

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. Which was the main reason for the events described in the excerpt?

  1. President Truman ignored General MacArthur’s advice about events in Korea.
  2. General MacArthur realized he was losing the war in Korea.
  3. The United Nations wanted more control over the events in Korea.
  4. General MacArthur criticized the policy of his commander-in-chief.

2. The context surrounding the events depicted in the excerpt was

  1. the Cold War
  2. unfinished events after World War II
  3. the end of colonialism
  4. civil war in Asia

3. Which of the following American presidents faced similar circumstances during wartime?

  1. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
  2. Woodrow Wilson
  3. William McKinley
  4. Abraham Lincoln

Primary Sources

Digital archives of The MacArthur Memorial:

MacArthur, Douglas, Vorin E. Whan; U.S. Military Academy. A Soldier Speaks; Public Papers and Speeches of General of the Army, Douglas MacArthur.

Online collections of the Truman Library:

“Shortly After Firing General MacArthur, President Truman Writes of His ’Trials and Tribulations.’”

Suggested Resources

Brands, H. W. The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War. New York: Doubleday, 2016.

Ferrell, Robert H. Harry S. Truman: A Life. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1994.

Hamby, Alonzo L. Liberalism and Its Challengers: From F.D.R. to Bush. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Hamby, Alonzo L. Man of the People: A Life of Harry S. Truman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Herman, Arthur. Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior. New York: Random House, 2016.

Kaufman, Burton I. The Korean War: Challenges in Crisis, Credibility, and Command. New York: McGraw Hill, 1986.

Lee, Steven Hugh. The Korean War. London: Pearson Education, 2001.

Pogue, Forrest C. George C. Marshall: Statesman, 1945–1959. New York: Viking, 1987.

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