Share This Article


In the history of American arms, few personal showdowns have been quite so freighted with consequence as the confrontation between Harry S. Truman and Douglas MacArthur. How often do two such major figures find themselves on a collision course, from which neither is willing to veer? On the one hand, there was Truman, the artillery captain of World War I, the accidental president, the surprise election victor of 1948, whose decisions at the start of the Cold War would define the West’s diplomatic and military policies for for years. On the other, there was MacArthur, a Medal of Honor recipient, the supreme commander of Allied forces in the southwest Pacific during World War II, the sometimes brilliant strategist turned benevolent autocrat who had presided over the reconstruction—and democratization—of Japan. This American Kitchener was a genuine hero; but then (although people did not recognize it at the time), so was Truman. The two men distrusted each other at long distance—they would meet only once. “Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat, Five Star MacArthur,” Truman had once noted in his diary. “Don’t see how a country can produce such men as Robert E. Lee, John J. Pershing, Eisenhower, and Bradley and at the same time produce Custers, Pattons, and MacArthurs.” The feeling was mutual.

It was the crisis of the Korean War that brought on the confrontation. On June 24, 1950, North Korean tanks had crossed the 38th parallel into the Republic of South Korea, in a blitzkrieg-like attack. The United States had persuaded the United Nations to intervene, and MacArthur was given overall command. Meanwhile, the outnumbered and outgunned South Korean forces, along with contingents of American troops airlifted from Japan, tried vainly to delay the onslaught of the North Korean “People’s Army.” In the next months, as disaster changed to triumph and then disaster again, and a third world war loomed, Truman would come to one of the most difficult decisions of his presidency. What follows is excerpted from a book that is already being recognized as one of the signal American biographies of recent years, David McCullough’s Truman, published by Simon & Schuster.

A Commander Goes too Far

It was, in many respect, one of the darkest chapters in American military history. But MacArthur, now in overall command of the U.N. forces, was trading space for time—time to pour in men and supplies at the port of Pusan—and the wonder was the North Koreans had been kept from overrunning South Korea straightaway. Despite their suffering and humiliation, the brutal odds against them, the American and Republic of Korea units had done what they were supposed to, almost miraculously. They had held back the landslide, said Truman, who would rightly call it one of the most heroic rearguard actions on record.

In the first week of July, MacArthur requested 30,000 American ground troops, to bring the four divisions of his Eighth Army to full strength. Just days later, on July 9, the situation had become so “critical” that he called for a doubling of his forces. Four more divisions were urgently needed, he said in a cable that jolted Washington.

The hard reality was that the army had only 10 divisions. In Western Europe there was but one, and as former British prime minister Winston Churchill noted in a speech in London, the full allied force of 12 divisions in Western Europe faced a Soviet threat of eighty divisions. The NATO allies were exceedingly concerned lest the United States become too involved in distant Korea. Years of slashing defense expenditures, as a means to balance the budget, had taken a heavy toll. For all its vaunted nuclear supremacy, the nation was quite unprepared for war. But now, in these “weeks of slaughter and heartbreak,” that was to change dramatically and with immense, far-reaching consequences.

On Wednesday, July 19, first in a special message to Congress, then in an address to the nation, Truman said the attack on Korea demanded that the United States send more men, equipment, and supplies. Beyond that, the realities of the “world situation” required still greater American military strength. He called for an emergency appropriation of $10 billion—the final sum submitted would be $11.6 billion, or nearly as much as the entire $13 billion military budget originally planned for the fiscal year—and announced he was both stepping up the draft and calling up certain National Guard units.

“Korea is a small country thousands of miles away, but what is happening there is important to every American,” he told the nation, standing stone-faced in the heat of the television lights, a tangle of wires and cables at his feet. By their “act of raw aggression…I repeat, it was raw aggression,” the North Koreans had violated the U.N. Charter, and though American forces were making the “principal effort” to save the Republic of South Korea, they were fighting under a U.N. command and a U.N. flag, and this was a “landmark in mankind’s long search for a rule of law among nations.”

As a call to arms, it was not especially inspirational. Nor did he once use the word war to describe what was happening in Korea. But then neither was there any question about his sincerity, nor was he the least evasive about what would be asked of the country. The “job” was long and difficult. It meant increased taxes, rationing if necessary, “stern days ahead.” In another televised address at summer’s end, he would announce plans to double the armed forces to nearly 3 million men. Congress appropriated the money—$48.2 billion for military spending in fiscal 1950—51, then $60 billion for fiscal 1951—52.

Was he considering use of the atomic bomb in Korea, Truman was asked at a press conference the last week of July. No, he said. Did he plan to get out of Washington anytime soon? No. He would stay on the job.

Truman’s Disdain Begins to Show

That Truman was less than fond or admiring of his Far Eastern commander, Douglas MacArthur, was well known to his staff and a cause of concern at the Pentagon. Truman’s opinion in 1950 seems to have been no different from what it had been in 1945, at the peak of MacArthur’s renown, when, in his journal, Truman had described the general as “Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat,” a “play actor and bunco man.” The president, noted his press aide Eben Ayers, expressed “little regard or respect” for MacArthur, calling him a “supreme egotist” who thought himself “something of a god.” But working with people whom one did not like or admire was part of life—particularly the politician’s life. Firing the five-star Far Eastern commander would have been very nearly unthinkable. John Foster Dulles told Truman confidentially that MacArthur should be dispensed with as soon as possible. Dulles, the most prominent Republican spokesman on foreign policy and a special adviser to the State Department, had returned from a series of meetings with MacArthur in Tokyo convinced the 70-year-old general was well past his prime and a potential liability. Dulles advised Truman to bring MacArthur home and retire him before he caused trouble. But that, replied Truman, was easier said than done. He reminded Dulles of the reaction there would be in the country, so great was MacArthur’s “heroic standing.” Nonetheless, at this stage Truman expressed no doubt about MacArthur’s ability. If anything, he seems to have been banking on it.

By the first week in August, American and ROK forces, dug in behind the Naktong River, had set up the final defense line to be known as the Pusan Perimeter, a thinly held front forming an arc of 130 miles around the port of Pusan. On the map it looked like a bare toehold on the peninsula. On the ground the fighting went on as savagely as before. But the retreat was over. At his briefing for the president on Saturday, August 12, in his customary, dry, cautious way, Omar Bradley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described the situation, for the first time, as “fluid but improving.” Truman’s special assistant Averell Harriman, meanwhile, had returned from a hurried mission to Tokyo, bringing the details of a daring new MacArthur plan. Harriman had been dispatched to tell the general of Truman’s determination to see that he had everything he needed, but also to impress upon him Truman’s urgent desire to avoid any move that might provoke a third world war. This was Truman’s uppermost concern, and there must be no misunderstanding. In particular, MacArthur was to “stay clear” of Chiang Kai-shek. Truman had instructed Harriman to tell MacArthur that the Chinese Nationalist leader, now on Formosa, must not become the catalyst for a war with the Chinese Communists.

MacArthur had no reservations about the decision to fight in Korea. “Absolutely none,” Harriman reported to Truman at Blair House. MacArthur was certain neither the Chinese Communists nor the Soviets would intervene. MacArthur had assured Harriman that of course, as a soldier, he would do as the president ordered concerning Chiang Kai-shek, though something about his tone as he said this had left Harriman wondering.

Of greater urgency and importance was what Harriman had to report of a plan to win the war with one bold stroke. For weeks there had been talk at the Pentagon of a MacArthur strategy to outflank the enemy, to hit from behind, by amphibious landing on the western shore of Korea at the port of Inchon, 200 miles northwest of Pusan. Inchon had tremendous tides— 30 feet or more—and no beaches on which to land, only seawalls. Thus an assault would have to strike directly into the city itself, and only a full tide would carry the landing craft clear to the seawall. In two hours after high tide, the landing craft would be stuck in the mud.

To Bradley it was the riskiest military proposal he had ever heard. But as MacArthur stressed, the Japanese had landed successfully at Inchon in 1904 and the very “impracticabilities” would help ensure the all-important element of surprise. As Wolfe had astonished and defeated Montcalm at Quebec in 1759 by scaling the impossible cliffs near the Plains of Abraham, so, MacArthur said, he would astonish and defeat the North Koreans by landing at the impossible port of Inchon. But there was little time. The attack had to come before the onset of the Korean winter exacted more casualties than the battlefield. The tides at Inchon would be right on September 15. Truman made no commitment one way or the other, but Harriman left Blair House convinced that Truman approved the plan.

Hatching “the wildest kind” of plan in Korea

BY EARLY AUGUST, GENERAL BRADLEY could tell the president that American strength at Pusan was up to 50,000, which, with another 45,000 ROKs and small contingents of U.N. allies, made a total U.N. ground force of nearly 100,000. Still, the prospect of diverting additional American forces for MacArthur’s Inchon scheme did not please the Joint Chiefs at all. Bradley continued to view it as “the wildest kind” of plan.

Then, on Saturday, August 26, the Associated Press broke a statement from MacArthur to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, in which he strongly defended Chiang Kai-shek and the importance of Chiang’s control of Formosa: “Nothing could be more fallacious than the threadbare argument by those who advocate appeasement and defeatism in the Pacific that if we defend Formosa we alienate continental Asia.” It was exactly the sort of dabbling in policy that MacArthur had assured Harriman he would, as a good soldier, refrain from.

Truman was livid. He would later say he considered but rejected the idea of relieving MacArthur of field command then and there and replacing him with Bradley. “It would have been difficult to avoid the appearance of demotion, and I had no desire to hurt General MacArthur personally.”

But whatever his anger at MacArthur, to whatever degree the incident had increased his dislike—or distrust—of the general, Truman decided to give MacArthur his backing. “The JCS inclined toward postponing Inchon until such time that we were certain Pusan could hold,” remembered Bradley. “But Truman was now committed.” On August 28, the Joint Chiefs sent MacArthur their tentative approval.

In time to come, little would be said or written about Truman’s part in the matter—that as commander in chief he, and he alone, was the one with the final say on Inchon. He could have said no, and certainly the weight of opinion among his military advisers would have been on his side. But he did not. He took the chance, made the decision for which he was neither to ask nor to receive anything like the credit he deserved.

In the early hours of September 15—it was afternoon in Washington, September 14—the amphibious landing at Inchon began. As promised by MacArthur, the attack took the enemy by total surprise; and as also promised by MacArthur, the operation was an overwhelming success that completely turned the tables on the enemy.

The invasion force numbered 262 ships and 70,000 men of the X Corps, with the 1st Marine Division leading the assault. Inchon fell in little more than a day. In 11 days Seoul was retaken. Meantime, as planned, General Walton Walker’s Eighth Army broke out of the Pusan Perimeter and started north. Seldom in military history had there been such a dramatic turn in fortune. By September 27 more than half the North Korean army had been trapped in a huge pincer movement. By October 1, U.N. forces were at the 38th parallel and South Korea was under U.N. control. In two weeks it had become an entirely different war.

In Washington the news was almost unbelievable, far more than anyone had dared hope for. The country was exultant. It was a “military miracle.” A jubilant Truman cabled MacArthur: “I salute you all, and say to all of you from all of us at home, ‘Well and nobly done.'”

For nearly three months, since the war began, the question had been whether U.N. forces could possibly hang on and survive in Korea. Now, suddenly, the question was whether to carry the war across the 38th parallel and destroy the Communist army and the Communist regime of the north and thereby unify the country. MacArthur favored “hot pursuit” of the enemy. So did the Joint Chiefs, the press, politicians in both parties, and the great majority of the American people. And understandably. It was a heady time; the excitement of victory was in the air. Virtually no one was urging a halt at the 38th parallel. “Troops could not be expected…to march up to a surveyor’s line and stop,” said Secretary of State Dean Acheson.

Truman appears to have been as caught up in the spirit of the moment as anyone. To pursue and destroy the enemy’s army was basic military doctrine. If he hesitated or agonized over the decision—one of the most fateful of his presidency—there is no record of it.

The decision was made on Wednesday, September 27. MacArthur’s military objective now was “the destruction of the North Korean Armed Forces”—a very different objective from before. He was authorized to cross the 38th parallel, providing there was no sign of major intervention in North Korea by Soviet or Chinese forces. Also, he was not to carry the fight beyond the Chinese or Soviet borders of North Korea. Overall, he was free to do what had to be done to wind up the war as swiftly as possible. George Marshall, now secretary of defense, told him to “feel unhampered tactically and strategically,” and when MacArthur cabled, “I regard all of Korea open for military operations,” no one objected. Carrying the war north involved two enormous risks—intervention by the Chinese, and winter. But MacArthur was ready to move, and after Inchon, MacArthur was regarded with “almost superstitious awe.”

At the end of the first week of October, at Lake Success, New York, the United Nations recommended that all “appropriate steps be taken to ensure conditions of stability throughout Korea,” which meant U.N. approval for proceeding with the war. On October 9, MacArthur sent the Eighth Army across the 38th parallel near Kaesong, and on the following day, Truman made a surprise announcement: He was flying to an unspecified point in the Pacific to confer with General MacArthur on “the final phase” in Korea.

The Old Soldier and Politician meet

It was the kind of grand, high level theater irresistible to the press and the American public. Truman and MacArthur were to rendezvous, as was said, like the sovereign rulers of separate realms journeying to a neutral field attended by their various retainers. The two men had never met. MacArthur had been out of the country since 1937. Truman had never been closer to the Far East than San Francisco.

The meeting place was a pinpoint in the Pacific—Wake Island, a minuscule coral way station beyond the international date line. The presidential expedition was made up of three planes: the Independence with Truman and his staff, physician, and Secret Service detail; an Air Force Constellation carrying Harriman, Dean Rusk, and Philip Jessup from the State Department, Army Secretary Frank Pace, Jr., and General Bradley, plus all their aides and secretaries, as well as Admiral Arthur Radford, commander of the Pacific Fleet, who came on board at Honolulu; and a Pan American Stratocruiser with thirty-five correspondents and photographers. General MacArthur flew with several of his staff, a physician, and John Muccio, the American ambassador to South Korea.

As a courtesy, Truman had let MacArthur choose the place for the meeting, and for the president, Wake Island meant a flight across seven time zones—a full round trip from Washington of 14,425 miles—while MacArthur had only to travel 4,000 miles from Tokyo and back. Events were moving rapidly in Korea, Truman would explain, “and I did not feel that he [MacArthur] should be away from his post too long.”

To many the whole affair looked like a political grandstand play to capitalize on the sudden, unexpected success of the war and share in MacArthur’s Inchon glory on the eve of the off-year elections in November. The president had been out of the headlines for some time, it was noted. Now he was back, and for those Democrats in Congress who were up for reelection, it was “the perfect answer to prayer and fasting.” MacArthur himself, en route to Wake Island, appeared disgusted that he had been “summoned for political reasons.” In fact, the idea for the meeting had originated with the White House staff as “good election year stuff,” Charlie Murphy remembered, and at first Truman had rejected it for that very reason, for being “too political, too much showmanship.” Apparently it was only after being reminded that Franklin Roosevelt had made just such a trip to meet with MacArthur at Hawaii in 1944 that Truman changed his mind. He appears to have had second thoughts, even as he flew the Pacific. “I’ve a whale of a job before me,” he wrote on the plane. “Have to talk to God’s right-hand man tomorrow.”

The importance of the occasion, like its drama, centered on the human equation, the vital factor of personality. For the first time the two upon whom so much depended, and who were so strikingly different in nature, would be able to appraise one another not at vast distance, or through official communiqué or the views of advisers only, but by looking each other over. As Admiral Radford commented at the time, “two men can sometimes learn more of each other’s minds in two hours, face to face, than in years of correct correspondence.” Truman, after returning, would remark simply, “I don’t care what they say. I wanted to see General MacArthur, so I went to see him.”

Also what would be largely forgotten, or misrepresented by both sides in time to come, after things turned sour, was how the meetings at Wake Island actually went, and what the president and the general actually concluded then, once having met.

Truman’s plane put down at 6:30 A.M. on Sunday, October 15, just as the sun rose from the sea with spectacular brilliance, backlighting ranks of towering clouds. The single airstrip stretched the length of the island.

MacArthur was there waiting. Later, MacArthur would be pictured deliberately trying to upstage Truman by circling the airstrip, waiting for Truman to land first, thus putting the president in the position of having to wait for the general. But it did not happen that way. MacArthur was not only on the ground, he had arrived the night before and was at the field half an hour early.

As Truman stepped from the plane and came down the ramp, MacArthur stood waiting at the bottom, with “every appearance of warmth and friendliness.” And while onlookers noted also that the general failed to salute the president, and though Truman seems to have been somewhat put out by MacArthur’s attire—his open-neck shirt and “greasy ham and eggs cap” (MacArthur’s famed, gold-braided World War II garrison cap)— the greeting between them was extremely cordial.

MacArthur held out his hand. “Mr. President,” he said, seizing Truman’s right arm while pumping his hand, which experienced MacArthur watchers knew to be the number one treatment.

“I’ve been waiting a long time meeting you, General,” Truman said with a broad smile.

“I hope it won’t be so long next time, Mr. President,” MacArthur said warmly.

Truman was dressed in a dark blue, double-breasted suit and gray Stetson. In Honolulu, he had outfitted his whole staff in Hawaiian shirts, but now he looked conspicuously formal, entirely presidential, and well rested, having slept during most of the last leg of the flight.

For the benefit of the photographers, he and MacArthur shook hands several times again, as a small crowd applauded. Then the two men climbed into the back seat of a well-worn black two-door Chevrolet, the best car available on the island, and drove a short distance to a Quonset hut by the ocean, where, alone, they talked for half an hour.

According to Secret Service Agent Henry Nicholson, who rode in the front seat beside Floyd Boring, the driver, Truman began talking almost immediately about his concern over possible Chinese intervention in Korea. Nicholson would distinctly recall Truman saying, “I have been worried about that.”

At the Quonset hut, according to Truman’s own account in his Memoirs, MacArthur assured him that victory was won in Korea and that the Chinese Communists would not attack. When MacArthur apologized for what he had said in his Veterans of Foreign Wars statement, Truman told him to think no more of it, he considered the matter closed—a gesture that so impressed MacArthur that he later made a point of telling Harriman. What more was said in the Quonset hut is not known, since no notes were taken and no one else was present. But clearly the time served to put both men at ease. Each, to judge by his later comments, concluded that the other was not as he had supposed.

About 7:30 they reemerged in the brilliant morning sunshine and again drove off, now to a flat-roofed, one-story, pink cinderblock shack, a Civil Aeronautics administration building close to the beach where the Japanese had stormed ashore in 1941. Beyond the beach, blue Pacific rollers crashed over the dark hulks of two Japanese landing boats.

Some 17 advisers and aides were waiting in a large, plain room. Truman, setting a tone of informality, said it was no weather for coats, they should all get comfortable. He sat in his shirtsleeves at the head of a long pine table, MacArthur on his right, Harriman on the left, the rest finding places down the table or against the walls. MacArthur, taking out a briar pipe, asked if the president minded if he smoked. Everyone laughed. No, Truman said, he supposed he had had more smoke blown his way than any man alive.

The meeting proceeded without formal agenda, and MacArthur later wrote, no new policies or war strategies were proposed or discussed. But the discussion was broad-ranging, with MacArthur doing most of the talking, as Truman, referring only to a few handwritten notes, asked questions. As so often before, MacArthur’s performance was masterful. He seemed in full command of every detail and absolutely confident. The time moved swiftly.

MacArthur had only good news to report. The situation in Korea was under control. The war, “the formal resistance,” would end by Thanksgiving. The North Korean capital, Pyongyang, would fall in a week. By Christmas he would have the Eighth Army back in Japan. By the first of the year, the United Nations would be holding elections, he expected, and American troops could be withdrawn entirely very soon afterward. “Nothing is gained by military occupation. All occupations are failures,” MacArthur declared, to which Truman nodded in agreement.

Truman’s first concern was keeping it a “limited” war. What were the chances of Chinese or Soviet intervention, he asked. “Very little,” MacArthur said. Had they interfered in the first or second months it would have been decisive.

We are no longer fearful of their intervention…The Chinese have 300,000 men in Manchuria. Of these probably not more than 100,000 to 125,000 are distributed along the Yalu River. They have no Air Force. Now that we have bases for our Air Force in Korea, if the Chinese tried to get down to Pyongyang there would be the greatest slaughter.

The Russians, MacArthur continued, were a different matter. The Russians had an air force in Siberia and could put a thousand planes in action. A combination of Chinese ground troops and Russian air power could pose a problem, he implied. But coordination of air support with operations on the ground was extremely difficult and he doubted they could manage it.

The support he had been given from Washington was surpassing, MacArthur stressed. “No commander in the history of war,” he said, looking around the table, “has ever had more complete and adequate support from all agencies in Washington than I have.” How soon could he release a division for duty in Europe, Bradley wished to know. By January, MacArthur assured him.

Dean Rusk, concerned that the discussion was moving too fast, passed Truman a note suggesting he slow down the pace. Too brief a meeting, Rusk felt, would only fuel the cynicism of a press already dubious about the meeting. Truman scribbled a reply: “Hell, no! I want to get out of here before we get into trouble.”

As to the need for additional U.N. troops, MacArthur would leave that for Washington to decide. It was then, at about 9:05, that Truman called a halt. “No one who was not here would believe we have covered so much ground as we have been actually able to cover,” he said. He suggested a break for lunch while a communiqué was prepared. But MacArthur declined, saying he was anxious to get back to Tokyo and would like to leave as soon as possible—which to some in the room seemed to border on rudeness. “Whether intended or not,” wrote Bradley, “it was insulting to decline lunch with the President, and I think Truman was miffed, although he gave no sign.”

“The communiqué should be submitted as soon as it is ready, and General MacArthur can return immediately,” Truman said. The conference had lasted one hour, 36 minutes.

Worth the trip?

In later studies, some historians would write that Truman had traveled extremely far for not much. But to Truman, at the time, it had all been worth the effort. He was exuberant. He had never had a more satisfactory conference, he told the reporters present. Tony Leviero of the New York Times described him beaming “like an insurance salesman who had at last signed up an important prospect.”

The communiqué, which MacArthur read and initialed, stressed “the very complete unanimity of view” that had made possible such rapid progress at the conference table and called MacArthur “one of America’s great soldier-statesmen.” At the airstrip, in a little ceremony just before boarding his plane, Truman said still more as he honored MacArthur with a Distinguished Service Medal. He praised MacArthur for “his vision, his judgment, his indomitable will and unshakable faith,” his “gallantry and tenacity” and “audacity in attack matched by few operations in history.”

The whole spirit of Wake Island was one of relief and exhilaration. The awful bloodshed in Korea, the suffering, was all but over; the war was won. If MacArthur said there was “very little” chance of the Chinese coming in, who, after Inchon, was to doubt his judgment, particularly if what he said confirmed what was thought in Washington? If Truman and MacArthur had disliked or distrusted one another before, they apparently did so no longer. If the conference had accomplished that alone, it had been a success.

They said good-bye in the glaring sunshine of midday at Wake Island, as Truman boarded the Independence.

“Good-bye, sir,” MacArthur said. “Happy landing. It has been a real honor talking to you.”

It was their first and their last meeting. They never saw each other again.

The Darkest of Days

November through December 1950 was a dreadful passage for Truman. Omar Bradley was to call these 60 days among the most trying of his own professional career, more so even than the Battle of the Bulge. For Truman it was the darkest, most difficult period of his presidency.

That Chinese troops had come into the war was by now an established fact, though how many there were remained in doubt. MacArthur estimated 30,000, and whatever the number, his inclination was to discount their importance. But in Washington concern mounted. To check the flow of Chinese troops coming across the Yalu, MacArthur requested authority to bomb the Korean ends of all bridges on the river, a decision Truman approved, after warning MacArthur against enlarging the war and specifically forbidding air strikes north of the Yalu, on Chinese territory.

Another cause of concern was MacArthur’s decision, in the drive north, to divide his forces, sending the X Corps up the east side of the peninsula, the Eighth Army up the west—an immensely risky maneuver that the Joint Chiefs questioned. But MacArthur was adamant, and it had been just such audacity, after all, that had worked the miracle at Inchon.

With one powerful, “end-the-war” offensive, one “massive comprehensive envelopment,” MacArthur insisted, the war would be quickly won. As always, he had absolute faith in his own infallibility, and while no such faith was to be found at the Pentagon or the White House, no one, including Truman, took steps to stop him.

Bitterly cold winds from Siberia swept over North Korea, as MacArthur flew to Eighth Army headquarters on the Chongchon River to see the attack begin. “If this operation is successful,” he said within earshot of correspondents, “I hope we can get the boys home for Christmas.”

The attack began Friday, November 24, the day after Thanksgiving. Four days later, on Tuesday, November 28, in Washington, at 6:15 in the morning, General Bradley telephoned the president at Blair House to say he had “a terrible message” from MacArthur.

“We;ve got a terrific situation on our hands,” Truman told his staff a few hours later at the White House, having waited patiently through the routine of the morning meeting. The Chinese had launched a furious counterattack with a force of 260,000 men, Truman said. MacArthur was going over on the defensive. “The Chinese have come in with both feet.”

Truman paused. The room was still. The shock of what he had said made everyone sit stiff and silent. Everything that had seemed to be going so well in Korea, all the heady prospects since Inchon, the soaring hopes of Wake Island were gone in an instant. But then Truman seemed to recover himself, sitting up squarely in his high-backed chair. “We have got to meet this thing,” he said, his voice low and confident. “Let’s go ahead now and do our jobs as best we can.”

“We face an entirely new war,” MacArthur declared. It had been all of three days since the launching of his “end-the-war” offensive, yet all hope of victory was gone. The Chinese were bent on the “complete destruction” of his army. “This command…is now faced with conditions beyond its control and its strength.”

In further messages MacArthur called for reinforcements of the “greatest magnitude,” including Chinese Nationalist troops from Formosa. His own troops were “mentally fatigued and physically battered.” The directives he was operating under were “completely outmoded by events.” He wanted a naval blockade of China. He called for bombing the Chinese mainland. He must have the authority to broaden the conflict, MacArthur insisted, or the administration would be faced with a disaster.

No war with China

That same day, November 28, at three o’clock in the afternoon, a crucial meeting of the National Security Council took place in the Cabinet Room— one of the most important meetings of the Truman years. For it was there and then, in effect, with Truman presiding, that the decision was made not to let the crisis in Korea, however horrible, flare into a world war. It was a decision as fateful as the one to go into Korea in the first place, and stands among the triumphs of the Truman administration, considering how things might have gone otherwise.

General Bradley opened the discussion with a review of the bleak situation on the battlefield. Vice President Alben Barkley, who rarely spoke at such meetings, asked bitterly why MacArthur had promised to have “the boys home for Christmas”—how he could ever have said such a thing in good faith. Army Secretary Pace said that MacArthur was now denying he had made the statement. Truman warned that in any event they must do nothing to cause the commander in the field to lose face before the enemy.

When Marshall spoke, he sounded extremely grave. American involvement in Korea should continue as part of a U.N. effort, Marshall said. The United States must not get “sewed up” in Korea, but find a way to “get out with honor.” There must be no war with China. That was clear. “To do this would be to fall into a carefully laid Russian trap. We should use all available political, economic and psychological action to limit the war.”

“We can’t defeat the Chinese in Korea,” said Acheson. “They can put in more than we can.” Concerned that MacArthur might overextend his operations, Acheson urged “very, very careful thought” regarding air strikes against Manchuria. If this became essential to save American troops, then it would have to be done, but if American attacks succeeded in Manchuria, the Soviets would probably come to the aid of their Chinese ally. The thing to do, the “imperative step,” said Acheson, was to “find a line that we can hold, and hold it.” Behind everything they faced was the Soviet Union, “a somber consideration.” The threat of a larger war, wrote Bradley, was closer than ever, and it was this, the dread prospect of a global conflict with Russia erupting at any hour, that was on all their minds.

The news was so terrible and came with such suddenness that it seemed almost impossible to believe. The last thing anyone had expected at this point was defeat in Korea. The evening papers of November 28 described “hordes of Chinese Reds” surging through a widening gap in the American Eighth Army’s right flank, “as the failure of the Allied offensive turned into a dire threat for the entire United Nations line.” The whole Eighth Army was falling back. “200,000 OF FOE ADVANCE UP TO 23 MILES IN KOREA” read the banner headline across the New York Times the following day. The two calamities most dreaded by military planners—the fierce Korean winter and massive intervention by the Chinese—had fallen on the allied forces at once.

What had begun was a tragic, epic retreat—some of the worst fighting of the war—in howling winds and snow and temperatures as much as 25 degrees below zero. The Chinese not only came in “hordes” but took advantage of MacArthur’s divided forces, striking both on their flanks. The Eighth Army under General Walton Walker was reeling back from the Chongchon River, heading for Pyongyang. The choice was retreat or annihilation. In the northeast the ordeal of the X Corps was still worse. The retreat of the 1st Marine Division—from the Chosin Reservoir 40 miles to the port of Hungnam and evacuation—would be compared to Xenophon’s retreat of the immortal ten thousand or Napoleon’s withdrawal from Moscow.

“A lot of hard work was put in,” Truman would remember of his own days in Washington. And, as Acheson would write, all the president’s advisers, civilian and military, knew something was badly wrong in Korea, other than just the onslaught of the Chinese. There were questions about MacArthur’s morale, grave concern over his strategy and whether on the actual battlefield a “new hand” was needed to replace General Walker. It was quite clear, furthermore, that MacArthur, the Far Eastern commander, had indeed deliberately disobeyed a specific order from the Joint Chiefs to use no non-Korean forces close to the Manchurian border.

But no changes in strategy were ordered. No “new hand” replaced Walker. No voices were raised against MacArthur. Regrettably, the president was ill-advised, Bradley later observed. He, Marshall, the Joint Chiefs, had all “failed the president.” Here, in a crucial few days, said Acheson afterward, they missed their chance to halt the march to disaster in Korea. Acheson was to lament their performance for the rest of his life. Truman would never put any blame on any of them, but Acheson would say Truman had deserved far better.

General Matthew Ridgway would “well remember” his mounting impatience “that dreary Sunday, December 3,” as hour after hour in the War Room discussion continued over the ominous situation in Korea. Unable to contain himself any longer, Ridgway spoke up, saying immediate action must be taken. They owed it to the men in the field and “to the God to whom we must answer for those men’s lives,” to stop talking and do something. For the first time, Acheson later wrote, “someone had expressed what everyone thought—that the Emperor had no clothes on.” But of the 20 men who sat at the table, including Acheson, and 20 more along the walls behind, no one else spoke. The meeting ended without a decision.

Why didn’t the Joint Chiefs just send orders and tell MacArthur what to do, Ridgway asked the air force chief of staff, General Hoyt Vandenberg, afterward. Because MacArthur would not obey such orders, Vandenberg replied. Ridgway exploded. “You can relieve any commander who won’t obey orders, can’t you?” he said. But Vandenberg, with an expression Ridgway remembered as both puzzled and amazed, only walked away.

The next day, in another closed session, this time at the State Department, Dean Rusk would propose that MacArthur be relieved of command. But again, no one else commented.

MacArthur, meanwhile, was being taken to task by the press, as he had never been. Time, which had long glorified him, charged him with being responsible for one of the worst military disasters in history. An editorial in the New York Herald-Tribune referred to his “colossal military blunder.” Unused to such criticism, his immense vanity wounded, MacArthur started issuing statements of his own to the press. He denied that his strategy had precipitated the Chinese invasion and said his inability to defeat the new enemy was due to restrictions imposed by Washington that were “without precedent.”

Truman did not hold MacArthur accountable for the failure of the November offensive. But he deplored MacArthur’s way of excusing the failure, and the damage his statements could do abroad, to the degree that they implied a change in American policy. “I should have relieved general MacArthur then and there,” he would write much later.

As it was, he ordered that all military officers and diplomatic officials henceforth clear with the State Department all but routine statements before making them public, “and…refrain from direct communications on military or foreign policy with newspapers, magazines, and other publicity media.” Dated December 6, the order was widely and correctly seen as directed to MacArthur.

Truman did not relieve the Far Eastern commander, he later explained, because he knew no general could be a winner every day and because he did not wish to have it appear that MacArthur was being fired for failing. What he might have done had Acheson, Marshall, Bradley, and the Joint Chiefs spoken up and insisted that MacArthur be relieved is another question and impossible to answer.

For now the tragedy in Korea overshadowed the rest. If MacArthur was in trouble, then everything possible must be done to help. “We must get him out of it if we can,” Truman wrote in his diary late the night of December 2, following an intense session with Acheson, Marshall, and Bradley that had left him feeling desperately low. The talk had been of evacuating all American troops. Marshall was not even sure such an operation would succeed, should the Chinese bring in their own air power. “It looks very bad, ” Truman wrote. Yet bad as it was, there was no mood of panic, and this, as those around him would later attest, was principally because of Truman’s own unflinching response.

The bloody retreat in Korea continued. Pyongyang fell “to overwhelming masses of advancing Chinese,” as the papers reported. General Walker’s Eighth Army was heading for the 38th parallel. But Truman remained calm and steady. He wrote in his diary, “I’ve worked for peace for five years and six months and it looks like World War III is here. I hope not—but we must meet whatever comes—and we will.”

Enter: Matthew Ridgway

IT WAS HARRY TRUMAN’S LONG-STANDING CONVICTION that if you did your best in life, did your “damndest” always, then whatever happened you would at least know it was not for lack of trying. But he was a great believer also in the parts played by luck and personality, forces quite beyond effort or determination. And though few presidents had ever worked so hard, or taken their responsibilities so to heart in time of crisis as Truman had since the start of the war in Korea, it was luck, good and bad, and the large influence of personality, that determined the course of events time and again, and never more so than in late December 1950, in the midst of his darkest passage.

Two days before Christmas, on an icy highway north of Seoul, General Walton Walker, commander of the Eighth Army, was idled when his jeep ran head-on into an ROK army truck. Walker’s replacement—as requested by MacArthur and approved immediately by Truman—was Matthew Ridgway, who left Washington at once, arriving in Tokyo on Christmas Day. At his meeting with MacArthur the next morning, Ridgway was told to use his own judgment at the front. “The Eighth Army is yours, Matt. Do what you think best.” MacArthur, wrote Dean Acheson later, “never uttered wiser words.”

That afternoon, Ridgway landed at Taegu, and in the weeks following came a transformation no one had thought possible. Rarely has one individual made so marked a difference in so little time. With what Omar Bradley called “brilliant, driving, uncompromising leadership,” Ridgway restored the fighting spirit of the Eighth Army and turned the tide of war as have few commanders in history.

Since the Chinese onslaught of November 28, the Eighth Army had fallen back nearly 300 miles, to a point just below the 38th parallel, and for a while Ridgway had no choice but to continue the retreat. Abandoning Seoul, Ridgway withdrew as far as Oswan, near the very point where the first green American troops had gone into action in July. Now, instead of the murderous heat of summer, they fought in murderous cold.

The mood in Washington remained bleak. MacArthur continued to urge a widening of the war—again he proposed bombing and blockading China and utilizing the troops of Chiang Kai-shek—and, as before, his proposals were rejected. Dire consequences would follow, he implied, unless policy were changed. He reported:

The troops are tired from a long and difficult campaign, embittered by the shameful propaganda which has falsely condemned their courage and fighting qualities . and their morale will become a serious threat in their battlefield efficiency unless the political basis upon which they are being asked to trade life for time is clearly delineated….

Truman found such messages “deeply disturbing.” When a general complained about his troops’ morale, observed Marshall, the time had come for the general to look to his own morale.

MacArthur called on the administration to recognize the “state of war” imposed by the Chinese, then to drop 30 to 50 atomic bombs on Manchuria and the mainland cities of China. The Joint Chiefs, too, told Truman that mass destruction of Chinese cities with nuclear weapons was the only way to affect the situation in Korea. But that choice was never seriously considered. Truman simply refused to “go down that trail,” in Dean Rusk’s words.

Truman also still refused to reprimand MacArthur. Rather he treated MacArthur with what Acheson considered “infinite patience”—too much infinite patience, Acheson thought, having by now concluded that the general was “incurably recalcitrant” and fundamentally disloyal to the purposes of his commander in chief.

Truman had by now declared a national emergency, announcing emergency controls on prices and wages, and still greater defense spending—to the amount of $50 billion, more than four times the defense budget at the start of the year. He had put Charles E. Wilson, head of the General Electric Company, in charge of a new Office of Defense Mobilization; appointed General Eisenhower as supreme commander of NATO; and, in a radio and television address to the nation on December 15, called on every citizen “to put aside his personal interests for the good of the country.” So while doing all he could to avoid a wider war, he was clearly preparing for one. As Marshall later attested, “We were at our lowest point.”

But then, on the morning of Wednesday, January 17, Marshall telephoned Truman to read an astonishing report just in from General Joe Collins, who had flown to Korea for talks with Ridgway. “Eighth Army in good shape and improving daily under Ridgway’s leadership,” Marshall read. “Morale very satisfactory…Ridgway confident he can obtain two to three months’ delay before having to initiate evacuation…On the whole Eighth Army now in position and prepared to punish severely any mass attack.”

Plainly MacArthur’s bleak assessment of the situation, his forecasts of doom, had been wrong—and the effect of this realization was electrifying. As word spread through the upper levels of government that day, it would be remembered, one could almost hear the sighs of relief. The long retreat of the Eighth Army—the longest in American military history—had ended. On January 25, 1951, less than a month after Ridgway’s arrival, the Eighth Army began “rolling forward,” as he said. 

By the end of March, having inflicted immense casualties on the Chinese, the Eighth Army was again at the 38th parallel. Yet Ridgway’s progress seemed only to distress MacArthur further. Unless he was allowed to strike boldly at the enemy, he said, his dream of a unified Korea was impossible. He complained of a “policy void.” He now proposed not only to massively attack Manchuria, but to “sever” Korea from Manchuria by laying down a field of radioactive wastes, “the by-products of atomic manufacture,” all along the Yalu River. As so often before, his request was denied.

Talking to journalists on March 7, MacArthur lamented the “savage slaughter” of Americans inevitable in a war of attrition. When, by the middle of March, the tide of battle “began to turn in our favor,” as Truman wrote, and Truman’s advisers at both the State Department and the Pentagon thought it time to make a direct appeal to China for peace talks, MacArthur refused to respond to inquiries on the subject. Instead he decried any “further military restrictions” on his command. To MacArthur, as he later wrote, it appeared that Truman’s nerves were at a breaking point— “not only his nerves, but what was far more menacing in the Chief Executive of a country at war—his nerve.”

Truman ordered careful preparation of a cease-fire proposal. On March 21, the draft of a presidential statement was submitted for approval to the other seventeen U.N. nations with troops serving in Korea. On March 20 the Joint Chiefs had informed MacArthur of what was happening—sending him what Truman called the “meat paragraphs” of the statement in a message that seems to have impressed MacArthur as nothing else had that there was indeed to be no all-out war with Red China. His response so jarred Washington as to leave a number of people wondering if perhaps he had lost his mind. Years afterward Bradley would speculate that possibly MacArthur’s realization that his war on China was not to be “snapped his brilliant but brittle mind.”

On the morning of Saturday, March 24, in Korea (Friday the 23rd in Washington), MacArthur, without warning, tried to seize the initiative in a manner calculated only to inflame the situation. He issued his own florid proclamation to the Chinese Communists—in effect, an ultimatum. He began by taunting the Red Chinese for their lack of industrial power, their poor military showing in Korea against a U.N. force restricted by “inhibitions.” More seriously, MacArthur threatened to expand the war.

The enemy, therefore, must by now be painfully aware that a decision of the United States to depart from its tolerant effort to contain the war to the areas of Korea, through an expansion of our military operations to his coastal areas and interior bases, would doom Red China to the risk of imminent military collapse.

In conclusion, MacArthur said he personally “stood ready at any time” to meet with the Chinese commander to reach a settlement.

All Truman’s careful preparations of a cease-fire proposal were now in vain. MacArthur had cut the ground out from under him. Later MacArthur would dismiss what he had said as a “routine communiqué.” Yet his own devoted aide, General Courtney Whitney, would describe it as a bold effort to stop one of the most disgraceful plots in American history, meaning the administration’s plan to appease China.

In his Memoirs, Truman would write that he now knew what he must do about MacArthur:

This was a most extraordinary statement for a military commander of the United Nations to issue on his own responsibility. It was an act totally disregarding all directives to abstain from any declarations on foreign policy. It was in open defiance of my orders as President and as Commander in Chief. This was a challenge to the President under the Constitution. It also flouted the policy of the United Nations…By this act MacArthur left me no choice—I could no longer tolerate his insubordination…

And yet…MacArthur was not fired. Truman said not a word suggesting he had reached such a decision. He sent MacArthur only a restrained reprimand, a message he himself dictated to remind the general of the presidential order on December 6 forbidding public statements that had not been cleared with Washington.

Meantime, on March 14, the Gallup poll had reported the president’s public approval at an all-time low of 26 percent. And soon there were appalling new statistics: U.N. forces had now suffered 228,941 casualties, mostly South Koreans but including 57,120 Americans.

A look back

Truman was dwelling on the relationship between President Abraham Lincoln and General George B. McClellan during the Civil War, in the autumn of 1862, when Lincoln had been forced to relieve McClellan of command of the Army of the Potomac. Truman had sent one of his staff to the Library of Congress to review the details of the Lincoln-McClellan crisis and give him a report. Lincoln’s troubles with McClellan, as Truman knew, had been the reverse of his own with MacArthur: Lincoln had wanted McClellan to attack, and McClellan refused time and again. But then, when Lincoln issued orders, McClellan, like MacArthur, ignored them. Also like MacArthur, McClellan occasionally made political statements on matters outside the military field. Truman later wrote that

Lincoln was patient, for that was his nature, but at long last he was compelled to relieve the Union Army’s principal commander. And though I gave this difficulty with MacArthur much wearisome thought, I realized that I would have no other choice myself than to relieve the nation’s top field commander…

I wrestled with the problem for several days, but my mind was made up before April 5, when the next incident occurred.

On Thursday, April 5, at the Capitol, House Minority Leader Joe Martin took the floor to read a letter from MacArthur that Martin said he felt duty bound to withhold no longer. In February, speaking in Brooklyn, Martin had called for the use of Chiang Kai-shek’s troops in Korea and accused the administration of a defeatist policy. “What are we in Korea for—to win or to lose? If we are not in Korea to win, then this administration should be indicted for the murder of American boys.” Martin had sent a copy of the speech to MacArthur, asking for his “views.” On March 20, MacArthur had responded—and virtually all that he said was bound to provoke Truman, as Martin well knew. Since MacArthur’s letter carried no stipulation of confidentiality, Martin decided to make it public.

The congressman was right in calling for victory, MacArthur wrote, right in wanting to see Chinese forces from Formosa join the battle against communism. The real war against communism was in Asia, not in Europe. “There is no substitute for victory.”

The letter was on the wires at once. At the Pentagon, Bradley called a meeting of the Joint Chiefs. “I did not know that Truman had already made up his mind to relieve MacArthur,” he remembered, “but I thought it was a strong possibility.” The Joint Chiefs, however, reached no conclusion about MacArthur.

On Friday, April 6, official Cadillacs filled the White House driveway. Marshall, Bradley, Acheson, and Harriman met with the president for an hour. Saying nothing of his own views, Truman asked what should be done. When Marshall urged caution, Acheson agreed. To the latter it was not so much a problem of what should be done as how it should be done. He later remembered:

The situation could be resolved only by relieving the General of all his commands and removing him from the Far East. Grave trouble would result, but it could be surmounted if the President acted upon the carefully considered advice and unshakable support of all his civilian and military advisers. If he should get ahead of them or appear to take them for granted or be impetuous, the harm would be incalculable.

“If you relieve MacArthur,” Acheson told Truman, “you will have the biggest fight of your administration.”

Harriman, reminding the president that MacArthur had been a problem for too long, said he should be dismissed at once. “I don’t express any opinion or make known my decision,” Truman wrote in his diary. “Direct the four to meet again Friday afternoon and go over all phases of the situation.” He was a model of self-control. For the next several days, an air of unnatural calm seemed to hang over the White House. “The wind died down,” remembered Joe Martin. “The surface was placid…nothing happened.”

On Saturday, Truman met again with Marshall, Acheson, Bradley, and Harriman, and again nothing was resolved. Marshall and Bradley were still uncertain what to do. They were hesitating in part, according to Bradley’s later account, because they knew the kind of abuse that would be hurled at them personally—an understandable concern for two such men at the end of long, distinguished careers.

On Monday, April 9, the same foursome convened with the president once more, this time at Blair House. But now the situation had changed. The Joint Chiefs had met the afternoon before and concluded that from a military point of view, MacArthur should be relieved. Their opinion was unanimous. Truman, for the first time, said he was of the same opinion. He had made his decision. He told Bradley to prepare the necessary papers.

“Rarely had a matter been shrouded in such secrecy at the White House,” reported the Washington Post on Tuesday, April 10. “The answer to every question about MacArthur was met with a ‘no comment’ reply.” In Tokyo, according to a United Press dispatch, a member of MacArthur’s staff said meetings between the general and Secretary of the Army Pace were “going forward with an air of cordiality”—thus seeming to refute dismissal rumors. A photograph on page one of the Post showed a smiling MacArthur welcoming an even more smiling Pace at the Tokyo airport.

At the end of a routine morning staff meeting, the president quietly announced—”So you won’t have to read about it in the papers”—that he had decided to fire General MacArthur. He was sure, Truman added, that MacArthur had wanted to be fired. He was sure also that he himself faced a political storm, “a great furor,” unlike any in his political career. From beyond the office windows, the noise of construction going on in the White House was so great that several of the staff had to strain to hear Truman. At 3:15 that afternoon, Acheson, Marshall, Bradley, and Harriman reported to the Oval Office, bringing the drafted orders. Truman looked them over, borrowed a fountain pen, and signed his name.

The orders were to be sent by State Department channels to Ambassador Muccio in Korea, who was to turn them over to Secretary Pace, who by now was also in Korea, with Ridgway at Eighth Army headquarters. Pace was to return at once to Tokyo and personally hand the orders to MacArthur—this whole relay system having been devised to save the general from the embarrassment of direct transmission through regular army communications. All aspects of the issue thus far had been kept secret with marked success, but it was essential that there be no leaks in the last critical hours. Announcement of the sensational news about MacArthur was not to be made until the following morning.

The next several hours passed without incident, until early evening. Harriman, Bradley, Rusk, and six or seven of Truman’s staff were working in the Cabinet Room, preparing material for release, when Press Secretary Joe Short received word that a Pentagon reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Lloyd Norman, was making inquiries about a supposed “major resignation” to take place in Tokyo—the implication being that somehow MacArthur had already learned of Truman’s decision and was about to resign before Truman could fire him.

Bradley telephoned Truman at about nine o’clock to report there had been a leak. Truman, saying he wanted time to think, told Bradley to find Marshall and Acheson. Marshall, it was learned, had gone to a movie, but Acheson came to the White House immediately; he thought it would be a mistake to do anything rash because of one reporter’s inquiry. As he had from the start, Acheson stressed the importance of the manner in which the general was dismissed. It was only fair and proper that he be informed before the story broke.

Meantime, something apparently had gone wrong with the transmission of the president’s orders. Nothing had been heard from Muccio about their receipt. By 10:30, Truman had decided. Short telephoned the White House to have all the orders—those relieving MacArthur, as well as those naming Matthew Ridgway his successor—mimeographed as quickly as possible.

“He’s not going to be allowed to quit on me,” Truman reportedly said. “He’s going to be fired!” In his diary Truman recorded dryly, “Discussed the situation and I ordered messages sent at once and directly to MacArthur.”

From a small first-floor study in his Georgetown home, Dean Acheson began placing calls to various officials. At the State Department, Rusk spent a long night telephoning the ambassadors of all the countries with troops in Korea. “Well, the little man finally did it, didn’t he,” responded the ambassador from New Zealand.

At the White House, switchboard operators began calling reporters at their homes to say there would be an extraordinary press conference at 1:00 A.M. And at 1:00 A.M. on Wednesday, April 11, Press Secretary Joe Short handed out the mimeographed sheets in the White House pressroom. Truman, in his second-floor bedroom at Blair House, was by then fast asleep.

Truman Fires MacArthur

General MacArthur learned of his recall while at lunch in Tokyo, when his wife handed him a brown Signal Corps envelope. If Truman had only let him know how he felt, MacArthur would say privately a few hours later, he would have retired “without difficulty.” Where the Tribune reporter got his tip was never revealed. MacArthur would later testify that he had never given any thought to resigning.

According to what MacArthur said he had been told by an unnamed but “eminent” medical authority, Truman’s “mental instability” was the result of malignant hypertension, “characterized by bewilderment and confusion of thought.” Truman, MacArthur predicted, would be dead in six months.


The headline across the early edition of the Washington Post on April 11, 1951, was the headline everywhere in the country and throughout much of the world, with only minor variations. The reaction was stupendous, the outcry from the American people shattering. Truman had known he would have to face a storm, but however dark his premonitions he could not possibly have measured what was coming. No one did; no one could have.

The day on Capitol Hill was described as “one of the bitterest…in modern times.” Prominent Republicans, including Senator Robert Taft, spoke angrily of impeaching the president. The full Republican leadership held an emergency meeting in Joe Martin’s office at 9:30 in the morning, after which Martin talked to reporters of “impeachments,” the accent on the plural. “We might want the impeachments of 1 or 50.” A hill-dress congressional investigation of the president’s war policy was in order. General MacArthur, announced Martin, would be invited to air his views before a joint session of Congress.

In New York, 2,000 longshoremen walked off their jobs in protest over the firing of MacArthur. A Baltimore women’s group announced plans for a march on Washington in support of the general. Elsewhere, enraged patriots flew flags at half-staff, or upside down. People signed petitions and fired off furious letters and telegrams to Washington. In Worcester, Massachusetts, and San Gabriel, California, Truman was burned in effigy. In Houston, a Protestant minister became so angry dictating a telegram to the White House that he died of a heart attack.

In the hallways of the Senate and House office buildings, Western Union messengers made their deliveries with bushel baskets. According to one tally, of the 44,358 telegrams received by Republicans in Congress during the first 48 hours following Truman’s announcement, all but 334 condemned him or took the side of MacArthur, and the majority called for Truman’s immediate removal from office.

A number of prominent liberals—Eleanor Roosevelt, Walter Reuther, Justice William O. Douglas—publicly supported Truman. Further, throughout Europe, MacArthur’s dismissal was greeted as welcome news. But most impressive was the weight of editorial opinion at home in support of Truman—including some staunch Republican newspapers despite vehement assaults in the McCormick, Hearst, and Scripps-Howard papers, as well as the renewed glorification of MacArthur in Henry Luce’s Time and Life.

Nothing had so stirred the political passions of the country since the Civil War. At the heart of the tumult was anger and frustration over the war in Korea. Senator Kenneth Wherry had begun calling it “Truman’s War,” and the name caught on. People were sick of Truman’s War, frustrated, and a bit baffled by talk of a “limited war.” America didn’t fight to achieve a stalemate, and the cost in blood had become appalling. The country wanted it over. MacArthur at least offered victory.

Except for a brief broadcast from the house the night after his dismissal of MacArthur, Truman maintained silence on the matter. General MacArthur was “one of our greatest military commanders,” he told the nation, but the cause of world peace was far more important than any individual.

MacArthur landed at San Francisco on Tuesday, April 17, to a delirious reception. He had been away from the country for 14 years. Until now, the American people had had no chance to see and cheer him, to welcome the hero home. Ten thousand were at the San Francisco airport. So great were the crowds on the way into the city, it took two hours for the motorcade to reach his hotel. “The only politics I have,” MacArthur told a cheering throng, “is contained in a simple phrase known to all of you—God Bless America.”

When Truman met with reporters the next day, at his first press conference since the start of the crisis, he dashed all their expectations by refusing to say anything on the subject. Scheduled to appear before the American Society of Newspaper Editors on Thursday, April 19, the day MacArthur was to go before Congress, Truman canceled his speech, because he felt it should be the general’s day and did not wish anything to detract from it.

There would be “hell to pay” for perhaps six or seven weeks, he told his staff and the Cabinet. But eventually people would come to their senses, including more and more Republican politicians who would grow doubtful of all-out support for the general. Given some time, MacArthur would be reduced to human proportions. Meanwhile, Truman could withstand the bombardment, for in the long run, he knew, he would be judged to have made the right decision. He had absolutely no doubt of that. “The American people will come to understand that what I did had to be done.”

AT 12:31 P.M., THURSDAY, APRIL 19, in a flood of television lights, Douglas MacArthur walked down the same aisle in the House of Representatives as had Harry Truman so often since 1945, and the wild ovation from the packed chamber, the intense, authentic drama of the moment, were such as few had ever beheld. Neither the president’s Cabinet nor the Supreme Court nor any of the Joint Chiefs were present.

Wearing a short “Eisenhower” jacket, without decoration, the silvery circles of five-star rank glittering on his shoulders, MacArthur paused to shake hands with Vice President Barkley, then stepped to the rostrum, his face “an unreadable mask.” Only after complete silence had fallen did he begin: “I address you with neither rancor nor bitterness in the fading twilight of life, with but one purpose in mind: to save my country.”

There was ringing applause and the low, vibrant voice went on, the speaker in full command of the moment. The decision to intervene in support of the Republic of Korea had been sound from a military standpoint, MacArthur affirmed. But when he had called for reinforcements, he was told they were not available. He had “made clear,” he said, that if not permitted to destroy the enemy bases north of the Yalu, if not permitted to utilize the 800,000 Chinese troops on Formosa, if not permitted to blockade the China coast, then “the position of the command from a military standpoint forbade victory…” And war’s “very object” was victory. How could it be otherwise? “In war, indeed,” he said, repeating his favorite slogan, “there can be no substitute for victory. There were some who, for varying reasons, would appease Red China. They were blind to history’s clear lesson, for history teaches, with unmistakable emphasis, that appeasement begets new and bloodier war.”

He was provocative, and defiant. Resounding applause or cheers followed again and again—30 times in 34 minutes. He said nothing of bombing China’s industrial centers, as he had proposed. And though he said “every available means” should be applied to bring victory, he made no mention of his wish to use atomic bombs, or to lay down a belt of radioactivity along the Yalu. He had been severely criticized for his views, he said. Yet, he asserted, his views were “fully shared” by the Joint Chiefs— a claim that was altogether untrue but that brought a deafening ovation. Republicans and most spectators in the galleries leaped to their feet, cheering and stamping. It was nearly a minute before he could begin again.

To those who said American military strength was inadequate to face the enemy on more than one front, MacArthur said he could imagine no greater expression of defeatism. “You cannot appease or otherwise surrender to Communism in Asia without simultaneously undermining our efforts to halt its advance in Europe.” To confine the war only to Chinese aggression in Korea was to follow a path of “prolonged indecision.”

“Why, my soldiers asked of me, surrender military advantages to an enemy in the field?” He paused; then, softly, his voice almost a whisper, he said, “I could not answer.”

A record 30 million people were watching on television, and the performance was masterful. The use of the rich voice, the timing, surpassed that of most actors. The oratorical style was of a kind not heard in Congress in a very long time. It recalled, as one television critic wrote, “a yesteryear of the theater,” and it held the greater part of the huge audience wholly enraptured. Work had stopped in offices and plants across the country, so people could watch. Saloons and bars were jammed. Schoolchildren saw the “historic hour” in classrooms or were herded into assemblies or dining halls to listen by radio. Whether they had any idea what the excitement was about, they knew it was “important.”

“When I joined the army, even before the turn of the century, it was the fulfillment of all my boyish hopes and dreams,” MacArthur said, his voice dropping as he began the famous last lines, the stirring, sentimental, ambiguous peroration that the speech would be remembered for.

The hopes and dreams have long since vanished. But I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barracks ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that is “Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.” And like the old soldier of the ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away—an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty.


A “hurricane of emotion” swept the room. Hands reached out to him. Many in the audience were weeping. “We heard God speak here today, God in the flesh, the voice of God!” exclaimed Republican Representative Dewey Short of Missouri, a former preacher. To Joe Martin, it was “the climaxing” of the most emotional moment he had known in thirty-five years in Congress. Theatrics were a part of the congressional way of life, Martin knew, but nothing had ever equaled this.

It was MacArthur’s finest hour, and the crescendo of public adulation that followed, beginning with a triumphal parade through Washington that afternoon, and climaxing the next day in New York with a thunderous ticker-tape parade, was unprecedented in U.S. history. Reportedly 7,500,000 people turned out in New York, more than had welcomed Eisenhower in 1945 more even than at the almost legendary welcome for Lindbergh in 1927.

In fact, not everybody cheered. There were places along the parade route in New York where, as MacArthur’s open car passed, people stood silently, just watching and looking, anything but pleased. In Washington, one senator had confided to a reporter that he had never feared more for his country than during MacArthur’s speech. “I honestly felt that if the speech had gone on much longer there might have been a march on the White House.”

Truman had not listened to MacArthur’s speech, or watched on television. He had spent the time at his desk in the Oval Office, meeting with Dean Acheson as was usual at that hour on Thursdays, after which he went back to Blair House for lunch and a nap. At some point, however, he did read what MacArthur had said. Speaking privately, he remarked that he thought it “a bunch of damn bullshit.”

As Truman had anticipated, the tumult began to subside. For seven weeks in the late spring of 1951, the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees held joint hearings to investigate MacArthur’s dismissal. Though the hearings were closed, authorized transcripts of each day’s sessions, edited for military security reasons, were released hourly to the press.

MacArthur, the first witness, testified for three days, arguing that his way in Korea was the way to victory and an end to the slaughter. He had seen as much blood and disaster as any man alive, he told the senators, but never such devastation as during his last time in Korea. “After I looked at that wreckage and those thousands of women and children and everything, I vomited. Now are you going to let that go on. “The politicians in Washington had introduced a “new concept into military operations—the concept of appeasement,” its purpose only “to go on indefinitely…indecisively, fighting with no mission.”

But he also began to sound self-absorbed and oddly uninterested in global issues. He would admit to no mistakes, no errors of judgment. Failure to anticipate the size of the Chinese invasion, for example, had been the fault of the CIA. Any operation he commanded was crucial; other considerations were always of less importance. Certain that his strategy of war on China would not bring in the Soviets, he belittled the danger of a larger conflict. But what if he happened to be wrong, he was asked. What if another world war resulted? That, said MacArthur, was not his responsibility. “My responsibilities were in the Pacific, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and various agencies of the Government are working night and day for an over-all solution to the global problem. Now I am not familiar with their studies. I haven’t gone into it.” To many, it seemed he had made the president’s case.

The great turning point came with the testimony of Marshall, Bradley, and the Joint Chiefs, who refuted absolutely MacArthur’s claim that they agreed with his strategy. Truman, from the start of the crisis, had known he needed the full support of his military advisers before declaring his decision about MacArthur. Now it was that full support, through 19 days of testimony, that not only gave weight and validity to the decision, but discredited MacArthur in a way nothing else could have.

Never, said the Joint Chiefs, had they subscribed to MacArthur’s plan for victory, however greatly they admired him. The dismissal of MacArthur, said all of them—Marshall, Bradley, the Joint Chiefs—was more than warranted; it was a necessity. Given the circumstances, given the seriousness of MacArthur’s opposition to the policy of the president, his challenge to presidential authority, there had been no other course. The fidelity of the military high command to the principle of civilian control of the military was total and unequivocal.

Such unanimity of opinion on the part of the country’s foremost and most respected military leaders seemed to leave Republican senators stunned. As James Reston wrote in the New York Times, “MacArthur, who had started as the prosecutor, had now become the defendant.”

The hearings ground on and grew increasingly dull. The MacArthur hysteria was over; interest waned. When, in June, MacArthur set off on a speaking tour through Texas, insisting he had no presidential ambitions, he began to sound more and more shrill and vindictive, less and less like a hero. He attacked Truman, appeasement, high taxes, and “insidious forces working from within.” His crowds grew steadily smaller. Nationwide, the polls showed a sharp decline in his popular appeal. The old soldier was truly beginning to fade away.

TRUMAN WOULD REGARD THE DECISION to fire MacArthur as among the most important he made as president. He did not, however, agree with those who said it had shown what great courage he had. (Harriman, among others, would later speak of it as one of the most courageous steps ever taken by any president.) “Courage didn’t have anything to do with it,” Truman would say emphatically. “General MacArthur was insubordinate and I fired him. That’s all there was to it.”

But if the firing of MacArthur had taken a heavy toll politically, if Truman as president had been less than a master of persuasion, he had accomplished a very great deal and demonstrated extraordinary patience and strength of character in how he rode out the storm. His policy in Korea—his determined effort to keep the conflict in bounds—had not been scuttled, however great the aura of the hero-general, or his powers as a spellbinder. The principle of civilian control over the military, challenged as never before in the nation’s history, had survived, and stronger than ever. The president had made his point and, with the backing of his generals, he had made it stick. 

David McCullough is the author of Path between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870—1914 (1977) and Mornings on Horseback (1981). His biography Truman won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize.

this article first appeared in military history quarterly

Facebook: @MHQmag | Twitter: @MHQMagazine