Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series marking the anniversary of the start of the Korean War.
On April 20, 1951 the largest open-car, ticker-tape parade in the history of New York City occurred. For nigh seven hours, over 19 miles, retiring five-star General of the Army Douglas MacArthur gloried in the adulation of 7 million spectators.
On April 19, the 71-year-old Gen. MacArthur had spoken before a respectful and admiring informal joint Congress. He included the memorable line, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”
Meanwhile, one non-attendee continued to glower at MacArthur. President Harry Truman, who had relieved him on April 11, thought the speech nonsensical. With China’s massive entry into the Korean War on Nov. 25-26, 1950, military reunification of the Korean peninsula by conventional means became unattainable. MacArthur’s belief in total war clashed with Truman’s of limited war.
On Nov. 30, 1950, President Truman told the press that atomic weapons in Korea could not necessarily be ruled out. He stated their deployment would be left “up to the military commander in the field,” when presidential authority required it. (Was Truman perhaps leery to authorize the A-bomb again within five years and bear the onus for its use against more East Asian countries and their populations?)
Uneasy British Prime Minister Clement Atlee hastily flew to Washington, meeting with President Truman on Dec. 5. He sagely reminded Truman that the proclaimed United Nations objective of June 27, 1950 in Korea was to save only that portion of it below the 38th Parallel. Atomic weapons use required pro forma British consent, would upset Britons, and nullify continuing concurrent Sino-British trade.
Complying on Dec. 6, President Truman sent a pointed directive to all Far Eastern U.S. military commanders to “use extreme caution” when making public statements, and to have all press releases first cleared by Washington. Its focus was the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, ‘loose cannon,” Gen. MacArthur.
Capitalizing upon Truman’s nuclear weapons “gaffe,” MacArthur on Dec. 9, announced he wished a “commander’s discretion” by requesting 34 atomic bombs; four for bombing Chinese and Russian Manchurian airbases, four for dropping on the 484,000 invading “Chi-Coms,” and 26 to apparently detonate along the north bank of the Yalu River in order to convert the Korean Peninsula into an “island,” reminiscent of his Pacific campaigns isolating and conquering enemy-held atolls.
MacArthur’s submitted atomic bombs requisition was never fulfilled.
Rather, on Dec. 29, a confidential Truman missive to MacArthur read, “Korea is not the right place to fight a major war.” (Joint Chiefs chairman General Omar N. Bradley, eloquently said, “It would be the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”) Korea was not worth a World War III.
In the wake of President Truman’s communique, a miffed MacArthur sardonically suggested the UN retreat back to Japan due to Washington’s “loss of will to win.”
U.S. 8th Army commander (as of December 23,1950) Lt. Gen. Matthew Bunker Ridgway queried Air Force Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg about MacArthur asking, “You can relieve any commander that won’t obey orders, can’t you?”
Taken aback, Vandenberg was aloof. ( Such was his reputation that “Move over God, it is Mac,” was a MacArthur colloquialism.)
With China’s intervention, MacArthur stated that Korean reunification was conventionally “impracticable.” Openly countering with his proposal on Dec. 30, he would bomb Manchurian bases and factories, and also have the Navy bombard China’s coastline.
Truman’s planned ceasefire talks were postponed.
A Korean inspection in January 1951 by JCS generals Vandenberg and J. Lawton Collins found restored Army and Marine morale plus a strong U.N. forces posture. Henceforth, the Joint Chiefs of Staff no longer awed MacArthur; his credibility was gone.
On March 7, 1951, a defiant MacArthur aired a public statement saying, “The battle lines cannot fail to reach a point of military stalemate.” Ruefully he said “It would be ludicrous if [our] men’s lives were not involved.”
However, Seoul was retaken from the Chinese on March 14 by U.S. forces under MacArthur’s field commander, “Matt” Ridgway. The front re-stabilized near the 38th Parallel; the UN goal was met.
Despite this, MacArthur was to publicly state his own (slightly amended) five-point plan: (1) Bringing in Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist forces to amphibiously raid China; (2) Aerial “reconnaissance” of Manchurian bases and of China’s coast; (3) A naval blockade of China; (4) An economic blockade of the Chinese mainland; and, (5) the isolation of North Korea in order to stop Chinese reinforcements and resupply.
To MacArthur, born into a U.S. military family tradition of total armed victory and unconditional surrender, the Korean War had devolved into a senseless “die for tie” (actually, a press quote) draw. As a continuous habitant of East Asia since being stationed in the Philippines in 1935, he held a provincial view of the Korean conflict so stating, “If we lose the war to communism in Asia, the fall of Europe is inevitable.”
A MacArthur ally, Rep. Joseph Martin, Jr., (R-MA) pontificated to the Congress on Feb. 12, 1951, that the “unleashing” of Chiang would not widen the Korean War, but decisively win it. Martin wrote MacArthur on March 8 for support.
On March 20, 1951, MacArthur responded in a letter, which stated, “There is no substitute for victory.”
Upon receiving the general’s written reply, on March 24, 1951, Martin read it into the Congressional public record. On that date and for the third time in the war, MacArthur called upon the “Chi-Coms” to surrender to him.
Meeting on April 9, the Joint Chiefs of Staff recommended MacArthur’s ouster to President Truman. Because MacArthur’s reprehensible volubility had not violated exact military code, Truman as commander in chief, had to decide the general’s fate.
Far from shying from ordering a recall, Truman exclaimed he hoped MacArthur would not resign beforehand, so that he would have the satisfaction of firing him.
Thus, on April 11, 1951, Truman announced to the American people that he had to relieve General MacArthur for not cooperating with administration policy in Korea.
MacArthur’s abrupt relief by Truman was not unprecedented. Abraham Lincoln’s relief of Gen. George McClellan on Nov. 5, 1862 stemmed from much the same reason. (Inversely however, MacArthur’s insubordination was for advocating an unlimited war extending far beyond the Korean peninsula in pursuit of a total victory, whereas McClellan’s insubordination was because he wanted to keep the seat of war limited to the Virginia peninsula in return for a truce retaining slavery.)
MacArthur’s attempted riposte against the “Truman-Acheson presidency” took the form closed Congressional hearings from May 3 through June 25, 1951. In a white shirt, tie, and a dark suit, MacArthur, the expatriate general turned civilian—who saw the Korean War in black and white—led the Democratic-censored proceedings with a three-day testimony which rehashed his old controversy with Truman.
As MacArthur faded away in tedium, “Mr. Truman’s War” frustratingly came to the fore-the president having a 25 percent approval by war-weary Americans.
Futini is a Napa-based history enthusiast.