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The President Trumans Decision For Dismissing General Macarthur History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

In June 1950, after North Korea invaded South Korea, General Douglas MacArthur was appointed commander of the United Nations forces defending South Korea. In the beginning, MacArthur was hailed as a hero after he executed a legendary amphibious assault at Inchon on September 1950. But seven months later on April 11, 1951, President Harry Truman relieved him from duty for making public statements that contradicted the official policies of the United States Government, especially with regards to Truman’s order to restrict military interaction with the media. MacArthur’s dismissal remains a controversial topic in the field of civil-military relations.

Research question

The dismissal of General MacArthur was a decision that was harsh to make especially taking to consideration the tremendous contribution he had made in WWII and the Korean War. I will explore, analyze and give my opinions in this paper with regards to the several factors that led to this decision and the consequences that followed.

MacArthur and Truman

“It is very simple and we all know it. We just need 5 Atom Bombs and we drop it in the 5 main Chinese Cities. And if we do that then the Russians know that we mean business and that we will do it in Russian if necessary and that will end the war.” This wild statement made by MacArthur to a French journalist clearly showed the length MacArthur would gladly go to in order to end this war. Despite his statue and achievements, MacArthur’s attitude towards the Korean War was clearly merciless, egoistic, provoking, arrogant and over-confident. The success at Inchon which happened to be one of the most incredible battle strategies devised in modern history was a significant contributor to this attitude (Pearlman, 2008). He was then beginning to be a political liability of the U.S. government especially regarding its foreign policy.

Truman on the other hand having made the decision of dropping the two Atomic Bombs in Japan was ever reluctant to use such technology especially when it meant that it would have been at least the 3rd time an Atomic Bomb was used in Asian soil in a space of 7 years (Rovere & Schlesinger, 1992). Having the burden of leading the democratic and free world, his attitude towards the Korean War had to be politically correct and acceptable for all other nations especially to the newly independent ones so as to prevent communist influence or empowerment in those countries.

It was clear that the profession of these two great men conflicted. MacArthur who was a military commander and a war strategist objective was simple: win all the battles which will lead to complete victory in the war. In this profession, one can be expected to be merciless which completely contradicts to the values of the profession that Truman had to represent, as President of The United States of America. Being president of America meant not only leading the world by example, but also making utilitarian decisions which he would be held responsible for. MacArthur need not take the burden of handling the political consequences after victory which is why he is willing to win the war by all means necessary (Wainstock, 1999).

Defining Political and Military Policy

Containment policy initiated by the Truman administration meant using military, economic, and diplomatic strategies to stall the spread of communism, enhance America’s security and influence abroad, and prevent a “domino effect” which meant that if one land in a region came under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would follow in a domino effect.

This policy however was later to be proven impossible to be followed word for word without tremendous cost involved and Truman was the first president to understand its complexity. MacArthur however clearly had his own interpretation of this policy. He viewed Truman’s approach towards this policy as weak, cowardly and contradicting especially regarding the way the President decided to respond after Chinese intervention in the war (Rovere & Schlesinger, 1992). MacArthur who was then deeply affected by the defeat wanted a swift approach towards communism where he strongly insisted in bringing the war in mainland China but Truman on the other hand was pleaded British Prime Minister Attlee not to intervene in China as it might most likely precipitate WW3.

MacArthur tried to influence the policies of his government by force in misinterpreting and violating specific directives from his superiors. Truman’s order issued 26 June 1950 to refrain from attacking North Korean positions beyond the 38th parallel was broadly interpreted by MacArthur and perceived as not a direct prohibition to move beyond the 38th (Pearlman, 2008). To him, the field commander should have the power to determine the immediate combat situation and react accordingly, despite the political repercussions. In MacArthur’s mind, the Truman administration clearly did not understand the situation on the battlefield.

In each case of these two leaders, both powers were limited but in Truman’s case, it was more of a choice which his conscience gladly accepted. It was from here the relationship between MacArthur and Truman deteriorated quickly where MacArthur began to be direct to the media about his disgust towards the Truman administration’s decisions. MacArthur’s insubordination display in the media then introduced a new military policy enforced by President Truman that all military personnel (especially MacArthur’s) interactions with the media to be restricted.

MacArthur’s Dismissal

By this time MacArthur was really getting into Truman’s nerves. MacArthur’s attitude towards the already troubled situation in the war and his constant disrespect to the President’s decision made him a liability. Truman had to remove the troublesome general, so in the press release President Truman said the following: “I had thought long and hard of this question of extending this war in Asia….. I believe that in all my heart that the course we are following is the best course… In a number of events had made it evident that General MacArthur does not agree with the policy, I have therefore consider it essential to relieve General MacArthur so that there will be no doubt or confusion to real purpose and aim of our policy.”

The fact that MacArthur disagreed with the Truman Administration’s foreign policy caused him to disobey his orders and try to seek a change over to his own policies. In disobeying his orders, MacArthur violated the first duty of a military man: to obey the orders of his superiors (Wainstock, 1999). A soldier can disagree with policy within the command structure on a private basis but not publicly. In the event that a soldier cannot carry out his orders, he is duty-bound to resign (Wainstock, 1999).

Truman did not remove MacArthur simply because of his repeated insubordination. He removed him to enforce his policies of Containment and most importantly the means of which America will keep up to this policy, in the most humanely way possible, a way which would inspire other allies of the democratic world and win the hearts of the people ruled by communism. Truman’s stand in regard to Korean Communist aggression is everything but aggressive and provocative. It displays complete humility of most powerful man in the world and also a huge desire for sincere peace among all nations. Mr. Truman patiently and successfully directed the United States in its new foreign policy of Western unity. I think President Truman played a great role in promoting cooperation among nations and presenting measures that lead to peace.

However, many South Koreans who lived through the Korean War regret MacArthur’s dismissal because the division of their nation was prolonged indefinitely (Rovere & Schlesinger, 1992). Without a figure to firmly stand up against Korean and Chinese communist, unity is no longer achievable. MacArthur’s dismissal meant no complete victory against communism which in later decades led to constant and endless confrontations between the two divided states.


When MacArthur returned to the US after being fired, he was greeted by extravagant celebrations and parades in San Francisco and New York. MacArthur returned to Washington where he was invited to address a joint session of Congress. After being interrupted by 30 standing ovations, he concluded his speech by musing, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” His subsequent visit to New York was highlighted by the largest ticker-tape parade then seen.

Many American could not see Truman’s rationale of relieving MacArthur. To them MacArthur was a heroic patriotic general who had devoted all his life to the country where he fought for freedom. MacArthur’s supporters had good reason to be upset at his dismissal. MacArthur was undoubtedly a great military mind and an American hero; he had been a crucial leader in the World War II Pacific campaign, and had devised the brilliant landing at Inchon that turned the Korean War around.

On the one hand he was a military genius who served America brilliantly; on the other hand he was an egomaniac who refused to follow orders and got America involved in battles to serve his own personal and political ends (Rovere & Schlesinger, 1992). Truman was not unaware of the great risks involved in firing MacArthur. This awareness of risks delayed his final decision to the detriment of his credibility at home and abroad. But these are decisions, risks and consequences that must be borne by Truman.

The major consequences were loss of prestige for the office of the President and the fall of the confidence of the American people towards the administration. Despite the unfavorable decision, it is essential that when the military situation outruns the political objectives, the military situation must be realigned with the political considerations (Rovere & Schlesinger, 1992). In firing MacArthur on 10 April 1951, Truman began the long haul in trying to get the military situation back on track with his foreign policy and reinstate his credibility with U.S. Allies.


The controversy between Truman and MacArthur centered not on military issues but on the right of a President to demand obedience to his policies as Command-in-Chief of the armed forces. These were not personal issues or petty disagreements between a commander and his subordinate. Truman was backed by the Constitution of the United States (Rovere & Schlesinger, 1992).

There is no doubt that MacArthur was a knowledgeable and experienced commander. However, for not recognizing Truman’s policy of containment that did not prioritize Asia but Western Europe where the threat of Soviet domination was already widespread, MacArthur’s role was to carry out U.S. policy in Korea and not to entangle himself in questioning what that policy was. Traditionally, a military man is above politics or at least not involved publicly, and certainly not in public conflict with superiors (Wainstock, 1999). Truman rose above the conflict to preserve the right of the President to formulate foreign policy as he sees fit in consultation with his advisors.

But the Korean War was not a total war, and a complete victory was not its goal (Wainstock, 1999). Korea was fought as a political war for political goals. It was a limited goal and clearly within the framework of Truman’s overall foreign-policy strategy (Rovere & Schlesinger, 1992). Korea was not the only factor Truman had to consider as his first priorities lay in Europe where the principle enemy was the Soviet Union and not Korea or China. He was much more concerned with building up the defenses in Western Europe and maintaining a cohesive NATO alliance.

President Truman’s decision to dismiss MacArthur was not appreciated until the later years. But till today Truman was nobly recognized for his decision of especially not intervening in China even though communist threat was alarming and eminent at that time. He stood his ground of enforcing his policy and also led a good example for his successors in the later years to follow about the means in which the policies should be enforced that were deemed acceptable to the American people and people from the free world. I would like to end my paper with the following memo from the previous first lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in 1953: “Mr. Truman has performed a great service in preserving peace by a continuing and closely integrated policy of building the economic, political and spiritual strength of the Western World to meet, contain, and eventually to overcome the threat to Western independence, and to Western religion and culture, from Soviet imperialism…. his stand in regard to Korean Communist aggression are all things that need no elaboration by me. Mr. Truman patiently and successfully directed the United States in its new foreign policy of Western unity. I think President Truman played a great role in promoting cooperation among nations and presenting measures that lead to peace.”

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