This study examines the relationship between declining public opinion towards the Truman administration during the Korean War ultimately leading to the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur. In hopes of succeeding in Korea, President Truman appointed General Douglas MacArthur as commander of the United Nations forces and both anticipated a short military ordeal. Research findings discuss the tendency for a decline in public support as a conflict lasts longer than anticipated. Although The Korean War experienced an initial backing by the American public, surveys taken after the start of Chinese involvement display a gradual decline in support for the Truman administration. Public opinion polls are used to determine the nation’s stance on a given issue. As the war continued, with no end in sight, approval ratings dropped and President Truman faced increasing criticisms. Truman had to make a decision to continue military efforts under the guidance of General MacArthur and hope not antagonize the American Public or to dismiss the hero of the Republican Party in an attempt to save the remainder of his presidency. Ultimately Truman decides to dismiss MacArthur on April 11, 1951 and experiences a backlash; public opinion for the president continues to decline due to the dissatisfaction from MacArthur supporters.
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Individual actors play a key role in the establishment and implementation of foreign policy. Disagreements between these actors can result in conflicts and difficulty in making decisions. Throughout the Korean War President Truman and General Douglas C. MacArthur experienced such a situation. At the start of the Korean War the American public had gone through numerous hardships. The nation was still healing from two world wars and the great depression. These difficult times had unified the country like never before. When President Truman came into office his transition from Vice President to President proved to be challenging. At the time vice presidents had minimal impact in policies implemented in the United States let alone foreign policy. Truman stepped into office in a time of global turmoil. Communism was a key issue for American foreign policy.
When North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25th, 1950 the Truman administration felt that it was necessary to become involved. The United States had to make a statement; communism anywhere in the world would not be tolerated. The same factors that created a cohesive group of American citizens allowed for the public to rally behind the government. American’s would not tolerate any country’s attempt to oppress freedom. Research shows that shorter wars receive higher approval ratings. Initially the Truman administration along with General MacArthur reassured the public that military efforts in the east would be short and victorious. 
As the war continued weak media censorship educated the American public as to what was occurring on the warfront. The nation began to criticize and question if the Korean War would truly be a victorious anti-communist campaign. Public opinion continued to decline after China’s decision to take part in the war in November, 1950. American citizens had already experienced two world wars in a short period of time and found themselves fearing a third.
The following year only lead to greater concern and less support towards the Truman administration. Increased spending in hopes of rearming the United States military required the use of money that could have been allocated towards domestic programs and policies. Democrats and republicans alike began to strongly oppose the Korean War.
The Truman administration became aware of their declining approval ratings. In an attempt to regain support the government attempted to inform the nation as to why the war was necessary. When these attempts failed Truman realized that the Korean war had no end in sight and felt that the United States should take on less aggressive tactics. General MacArthur disagreed with the president and was ultimately dismissed leading to more disapproval.
By comparing public opinion trends, errors and commonalities to the Korean war and the government this paper will attempt to analyze the factors leading to a consensus of overall disapproval in the Truman administration. In doing so it becomes evident that regardless of what the government attempted to regain public support the nation could not be convinced. The following sections will discuss how times of war greatly impact public opinion and how the conflicts between President Truman and General MacArthur lead to increased criticism of the Korean War.
Literature Review: Public Opinion Polls
According to Marshall Gordon’s Dictionary of Sociology public opinion polls can be looked at as the “measurement of opinions on specific issues through interviews with a representative sample of a group whose views are to be described.” Polls can vary in the material in which they cover; however, the most common types of opinion polls focus on voting intentions, political party support, views on the government of the day and its policies and views on major current public issues. This information can be crucial in understanding how much support a political group is receiving especially throughout war times or conflict.
The results of public opinion polls have proven to be important in assessing the nation’s perception and understanding of a given theme. Because of its significance, one must take into account the problems and errors present within the polling process. A large percentage of inaccuracies or misrepresentations of the data occur at the survey taking stage and can lead an invalid data set.
Richard G. Hall, among others discusses the increasing use of public opinion polls over recent years. Media outlets place emphasis on results to give a sense of the American public’s stance on a given issue. However, one must take into account that one opinion poll on a specific issue may influence future polling relating to the same issue. This could create an inaccurate representation of the population as a whole, favoring the dominant group from the previous opinion poll, thus raising the question “do opinion polls merely analyze or do they also help create the opinions?”
Research shows that the majority opinion on a topic can be looked upon as the societal norm. By having a “norm” established, a type of precedent may occur, causing those who may be polled on the issue in the future to change their previous stance to match up with societal norms. This leads to a skewed interpretation of the general population, which in turn makes the opinion poll fairly unreliable.
The polling process is comprised of numerous individuals being asked questions privately; however, a collective behavior amongst the masses has posed problems for public opinion data. Mass behavior and crowd action are two distinct types of collective behavior that fundamentally impact public opinion results. Mass behavior is defined as “collective behavior of an aggregate of individuals giving an appearance of unity of attitude, feeling, and motivation.” If mass behavior is to take place during the polling process, the results from one individual to the next would appear very similar, resulting in an overwhelming majority on the issue. Crowd behavior focuses on the influence a whole or group can have on the individuals within it. While in a crowd, a single individual may feel less responsibility and make decisions solely based on the whole, thus relinquishing prior opinions and beliefs for those of the crowd. The concept of crowd behavior would impact public opinion astronomically; if the data gathered and the opinions expressed are not the beliefs truly held by those surveyed, their polls may as well be considered null and void.
Public opinion polls serve a simple purpose, to identify the wants and needs of citizens. A common complaint concerning polls is that of knowledge. Higher educated individuals have been quoted as feeling a lack of confidence towards the outcome of polls based on the answers given by less educated and less informed individuals. Similarly, American citizens are not made aware of every minuet detail of a political issue. Therefore, their perceptions and interpretations of the given issue may be skewed and bias, causing public opinion to simply reflect the misunderstanding plaguing society as a whole
The notion of public opinion polls allows United States citizens to feel involved in the democratic process. Elections from the local level to the presidential emphasize a government run by the people; public opinion polls reaffirm this idea. Citizens are given the opportunity to assess the status of the country in times of tranquility but also in times of struggle. However, as stated previously, if a majority of individuals surveyed are ill-informed or simply following societal norms, the outcome may not be relevant enough to base a governmental decision.
In addition to the problems with the polling process listed above, another type of error causes a great deal of confusion and inaccurate results. Similar to sampling errors in the electoral process, citizens may frequently change their opinions on a given issue. Late swing and disproportionate refusals, although commonly used in electoral errors, can formulate bias in the polling system. An individual who votes one way while surveyed but feels another way may causes representational errors; changes in opinion can be legitimate or dishonest. Another form or error can come from disproportionate results, meaning that the individual taking the poll or casting their vote may refuse to be interviewed and discuss their position before hand.
Public opinion polls do not always adequately portray the thoughts and concerns of a nation, but the data is still taken into consideration and ultimately may have some say as to how the president makes a decision. President Truman realized that by early 1951, American Citizens had grown tired and weary of the Korean War. This coincided with Truman’s desire to end the war and bring troops home. Although it was in Truman’s nature to pay little attention to public opinion polls, his own wants aligned with those of the general public in terms of ending the war. The increased amount of aggression and force General MacArthur used towards the Republic of China not only went against Truman’s wishes, but also the wishes of a vast percentage of the population. Truman had to not only evaluate his own wants but also that of his country in deciding whether or not to dismiss MacArthur.
The Feuds between President Truman and General MacArthur portray two distinct public opinions. Those who felt that the war should be over soon and feared what any more involvement would cause sided with the president. MacArthur did not lack support from the entire country; there were still individuals who considered the general to be the hero of the Republican Party. He was viewed as someone who bravely led the United States. After MacArthur’s dismissal, he was still thought of as a hero and was welcomed back with praises and gratitude by many.
The conflict between President Truman and General MacArthur may have impacted approval ratings by splitting the country through party affiliations. However, one must not look at the issues between them as the principal reason for a decline in public support. During times of war numerous factors are introduced to the American public. Citizens find themselves living their lives differently, missing loved ones, experiencing economic difficulties and coping with death. These factors alongside others play a large role in declining opinions.
Scott Sigmund Gartner and Gary M. Segura discuss correlations between overall public opinion and the introduction of stressors brought on by conflict. When analyzing public opinion data in relation to casualties it seems that “the public is sensitive to relatively small loses at the start of the war and only to large ones towards the end.” On the surface it may seem as though increased causalities would be the sole factor in determining how the public views the situation. However it takes various factors to influence public opinion, this may include; mounting economic costs, impact of a soldiers absence from home, anxiety as a result of being involved in a war in addition to the overall number of deaths.
The longer a war lasts the greater chances there are for a decline in overall public support. The initial stages of a conflict have a tendency establishing a “rally-around-the-flag” mentality. In which citizens experience a sense of unification and support the decision to go to war in hopes of solving the problem. However as the war drags on initial approval ratings begin to decrease and a new sense of opposition forms. Because of this shorter wars typically have higher approval ratings, while longer wars face immense amounts of criticism.
General Douglas MacArthur had originally predicted that the Korean War would be a short campaign for the United States. American troops took part in the Korean conflict in large part as a stand against communism. The anti-communism movement and hope that the war would end quickly established a “rally-around-the-flag” mentality of the American people. Due to collective experiences such as World War I, the great depression and World War II American established a sense of commonality. This unified front and desire to end oppression resulted in support. However, as the war waged on citizens began to openly criticize the Truman administration and disapprove of any involvement in Korea.
This study examines how declines in public support of the Truman administration lead to the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur. To better understand the lack of support experienced by the government public opinion polls from the 1950s had to be analyzed. Online data bases were used to research public opinion polls in the broader sense. Articles from archival data bases clearly explained the importance of public opinion, what influences opinions, how they impact governmental processes and lastly the errors relating to them. This allowed for a comprehensive foundation for the study.
Once the introductory research was conducted a relationship was formulated between public opinion throughout the war and the Truman administration. To gather pertinent information news paper articles, magazine stories (primarily from Life Magazine) and scholarly articles pertaining to the Truman administration were used. These resources were chosen because of data availability, at the time newspapers and magazines were the most popular forms of media outlets. Life magazine proved to be an intriguing and informative reference. The magazine began extensive coverage of the Korean War from the start and released weekly articles. The Stories covered all aspects of the war, from life in Korea to how the war had impacted the lives of a soldier’s family. Archived articles from Life Magazine allowed for an interesting perspective of public opinion. The stories brought insight into how the American public felt about the war as things began to change. An issue released on July 10, 1950 titled “Sycamore Backs the President” discussed support of the Truman administration and their decision to enter Korea. Then after the Chinese invasion an article released on December 25, 1950 titled “Sycamore Revisited” interviewed the same individuals form the July 10th article to see where they stood. Those interviewed no longer approved of the Korean War.
Scholarly works such as journal articles and books allowed for an understanding of the chronological events taking place throughout the war. The conflict between Truman and MacArthur was made evident. By correlating public opinion trends to actual events one could begin to develop an idea as to why Truman dismissed MacArthur when he did. This allowed for a deeper comprehension of the stresses faced by the Truman administration and the factors leading to declining support.
Findings: Factors Resulting in a Decline of Public Support
President Harry S. Truman was supported by the American public when the decision was made to enter the Korean conflict. After North Korea’s attack on South Korea on June 25th 1950, Truman’s administration decided to take immediate action to repress any communist hostility. The decision to “fight back” was not solely based on the actions of North Korea; Truman feared a grand communist movement thus beginning a period of military reform. Truman’s reform efforts allowed for a rearming of the military for immediate use in the Korean conflict and also for the long term application against communism.
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The Truman administration began to implement new domestic reforms alongside the changes being made to the military. The “fair deal” built on Roosevelt’s New Deal and aimed to guarantee economic and social stability to the American public. The Korean conflict ultimately led to the demise of the fair deal. Increased spending on a permanent defense economy resulted in less funding available for domestic programs. The United States spent a substantial amount of money during the course of the Korean War. By war’s end the defense budget rose from $13.5 billion to approximately $50 billion. The massive budgetary increase caused inflation. To handle inflation Americans entered a period of government control on wages, the price of goods and raw materials, raised corporate taxes and tightened credit. By implementing government controls the Truman administration was able to maintain support from the American public, both democrats and republicans seemed to trust the administration.
Along with military reforms President Truman appointed General Douglas C. MacArthur as the Commander of the United Nations forces during the first phases of the Korean War. General MacArthur gained recognition as a commander for the allies in the Southwest Pacific during World War II and was ordered to oversee the post-war occupation of Japan. At the start of the war it seemed as though the relationship between Truman and MacArthur would greatly benefit the United States, however, the opposite occurred. Truman and MacArthur frequently clashed on how to handle the war. As the administration began to be criticized and the overall consensus of the American public was that of leaving the war, Truman was forced to reevaluate the United States participation in the war.
The United States was able to successfully avoid mass economic havoc until China entered Korea in November 1950. Not only did the invasion cause a substantial amount of military stress but also economic struggles. The introduction of China as a player in the Korean War brought on the fear of a third world war. To counteract this fear the Truman administration began to speed up their military rearmament efforts, this resulted in increased inflation. November 1950 plays a pivotal point for Truman, at this time republicans and even democrats began to disapprove of the administration.
Criticism of the Truman administration and the war as a whole continued to rise as the end of the year approached. Life Magazine, which began publishing stories about the Korean War a week after its start, steadfastly discussed the issues facing the United States due to China’s involvement in the Far East. An article titled “Once More, ‘We Got a Hell of a Beating’ published on December 11, 1950 stated that China’s participation in the war “changed everything” and that Korea is an “entirely new war” as stated by MacArthur. United States troops had to mobilize quickly to suppress the Chinese; however according to the article mobilization was slow moving and consisted of weak man power. As the American public gained knowledge of the war through media outlets such as Life Magazine overall faith in the Truman administration began to deteriorate. Democrats and Republicans alike who had originally supported American involvement in the war found themselves questioning whether or not it was worth it.
In January of 1951 the People’s Republic of China attempted to reach a peace agreement by asking for a 7-power conference to discuss the fate of Korea and China’s position in the United Nations. President Truman along with the American government decided that it would not be beneficial to give China a seat in the United Nations; instead they censured the republic for aggression. Although China had been excluded from the United Nations MacArthur continued to torment the Chinese. In March he engaged in an ultimatum with the People’s Republic of China. General MacArthur insisted that the Chinese remove troops from Korea. MacArthur then added that if China’s troops were not removed they would face dire consequences. Truman was enraged with MacArthur’s actions; President Truman did not appreciate how severely a single individual could impact foreign policy. The President realized that something must be done.
A few months after MacArthur’s increased aggression towards China the general leaked news that he planned to use Chinese nationalist’s forces from Formosa in the Korean War. This plan of action was a complete contradiction to Truman’s diplomatic policies leading to MacArthur’s dismissal. Although Truman succeeded in firing General MacArthur the process was a difficult one. MacArthur had acquired a great deal of support and a substantial following from the Republican Party. Public opinion polls showed that MacArthur was incredibly popular in the eyes of the American Public. Because of this President Truman could not simply fire MacArthur without a valid reason and a warranted explanation.
Truman’s decision to dismiss General MacArthur has been referred to as one of the major setbacks during the Korean War. After MacArthur’s dismissal on April 11, 1951 media outlets released story after story on the conflict between Truman and MacArthur. Life magazine published an article on April 17th titled “The Role of MacArthur” an editorial piece chronicling his role in the Korean War. A later article released on May 7th titled “Mac Rolls On” focused on MacArthur as the hero of the Republican Party and embraced the general. Those who supported General MacArthur did not approve of Truman’s decision to dismiss him resulting in declining public support.
General MacArthur’s dismissal became a popular news story. Another topic gaining momentum was that of the Korean War leading to World War III. American citizens’ fear of this only increased after Chinese Involvement. The Public went from being told that the war would be a stand against communism to a long term global war. American citizens were still healing from World War II and lived with a constant fear of taking part in a similar conflict. The atomic bomb created an entirely new threat, one of complete and total annihilation. The impact of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima was catastrophic on the Japanese. The nuclear strength of the atomic bomb surpassed any bomb created before it. The American Association of the Advancement of Science discussed the use of the atomic bomb by the United States and described its power as follows:
“Sixteen hours ago an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima, an important Japanese army base. The bomb had more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. It had more than 2,000 times the blast of the British ‘Grand Slam,’ which is the largest bomb ever used in the history of warfare.”
After the creation and use of the atomic bomb the world’s superpowers became increasingly eager to develop nuclear weapons to ensure a defense against one another. As stated above the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a deadly device. When World War II ended the atomic bomb’s strength had been compared to “harnessing the basic power of the universe.” The American public was made aware of the force and destructive ability of the atomic bomb thus understanding the consequences of its use. A life magazine article titled “How U.S. Cities can prepare for Atomic War” discussed the public’s fear of the Korean War ultimately resulting in a third World War. This led American citizens to create protocols and guidelines in case of nuclear warfare. By engaging in atomic bomb “drills” citizens dealt with a constant fear of being attacked, therefore, to reduce the chances of world war three the United States should end its involvement in the Korean War. 
In an attempt to avoid a major world war President Truman deployed troops to Europe and provided aid and increased military assistance to members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). This decision faced a great deal of criticism, primarily from republicans and conservatives. Throughout the Korean War and at the start of Cold War struggles emphasis was placed on communism. Republicans and conservatives desired minimal government intervention in the lives of American citizens. Around this time the idea of McCarthyism began to take hold. Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin accused 205 members of government to being part of the American Communist Party. The stigma which coincided with being “anti-American” or “anti-freedom” caused a great deal of controversy. Senator McCarthy’s primary targets were democrats; he even stated that President Truman was “soft on communism” resulting in a decline of public support towards the Truman administration.
The Truman administration made several attempts to regain the support of American citizens. Although the Korean War did not end while Truman was president he still made an attempt to change his public image. Research shows that Truman did not typically give thought to overall public opinion; it was not in his character. However, the administration did make an attempt to gain support in hopes of having the American Public go along with numerous budgetary changes.
The Truman Administration’s Attempt to Regain American Support
In the spring of 1950 the Truman administration began discussing an increase in defense spending. Government officials realized that public support typically declines during war times and felt that support would be needed when the budgetary changes took place. The administration created an approach to change the nation’s perspective of the consequences resulting from the war. The approach consisted of a “simplistic and exaggerated information campaign, employing arguments that were clearer than truth.” This campaign hoped to convince the public that the war a necessary evil. The administration realized that scare tactics would only work for so long; a new approach had to be introduced. Anti-communist rhetoric was constantly in the press. By frequently referring to the communist threat the government believed that the public would pay less attention to increased spending.
In the early stages of the Korean War media censorship was very limited. News papers and magazines were able receive information from the front lines and release them to the masses. President Truman was a complete contradiction to the transparent exchange of information from Korea and the United States. He attempted to avoid press conferences and discussions with the press. Truman even disapproved of other members of his administration conversations with the press. 
Worries of overall public opinion became less of a focus for the administration after the Chinese invasion in late November, 1950. The Chinese posed a serious threat to the United States and their involvement in the Korean War. As a result the government made no deliberate attempt to mask or censor information from the American public. The opposite occurred; the public was then made aware of increased military spending. On December 15, 1950 Truman publically called for an “immediate expansion of the armed forces to 3.5 million” and declared a state of emergency in hopes of forcing the American public into accepting military rearmament and budgetary increases. The following is an excerpt from Truman’s address to the public;
“In June, the forces of communist imperialism broke out into open warfare in Korea. The United Nations moved to put down this act of aggression, and by October, had all but succeeded. Then in November, the communists threw their Chinese armies into the battle against the free nations. By this act they have shown that they are now willing to push the war to the brink of general war to get what they want. This is the real meaning of the events that have been taking place in Korea. That is why we are in such grave danger.”
The Truman administration was facing a dire situation. The American public had been under the impression that the Korean War would be a short term ordeal. However as Truman stated in his address to the nation the Korean war had been “pushed to the brink of general war” by Chinese involvement. The public was becoming aware of how complex and drawn out the war was becoming. In an attempt to calm the public members of the state department began holding a series of “off the record” meetings with reporters, news correspondents and columnists to keep the American public informed of the situation on the war front.
Discussion and Personal Opinions
The Korean War proved to be devastating for the Truman administration. The American public had experienced turbulent times including the great depression and two world wars before the government’s decision to take part in the Korean conflict in 1950. One can only imagine how horrifying and stressful involvement in the war would have been to the citizens of the United States. This study focused on the factors resulting in a decline of public support. At the start of the war president Truman was successful in having the American people rally behind the anti-communist cause. It appeared as though the war would eradicate communism from every inch of the globe. The United States, which stood for freedom would not tolerate communist expansion and mobilization.
As a current citizen of the United States one can relate to the notion of protecting the rights and privileges of living in a democratic society. Civilians are given the opportunity to take part in governmental procedures by voting and evaluating the status of the nation through public opinion polls and surveys. Unlike a communist regime the American government does place emphasis on the wants and needs of the masses. This had to be protected any way possible. The Korean War therefore could not be avoided and the Truman administration was eager to send troops over.
Before the Chinese invasion military efforts seemed to be successful. The United Nation forces under the leadership of General Douglas MacArthur appeared to be making progress. As stated previously the overall consensus of the public was to “rally-around-the-flag.” With an increasing threat of a communist uprising the government and the general public felt that it was the perfect time to end communism once and for all. Propaganda campaigns constantly labeled citizens as communists. McCarthyism took a strong hold and spread like wild fire. People from all walks of life found themselves being accused of supporting the American Communist party, even President Truman and democrats alike were said to be “soft towards communism” or in other words more accepting of it.
One can understand how the threat of communism could have unified the nation in support for the Korean war. Media outlets repeatedly reported on the approval the public had on the war. At the time the public had been promised a short term military effort. The war seemed to be something that would end rather soon and achieve a highly desirable outcome. By “winning” in Korea the United States would have (1) repressed a communist expansion and (2) made a statement to the rest of the world. A victory in Korea would tell all other nations attempti
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