Why President Truman Fired the Most Prestigious American General of His Time

Gen. Douglas MacArthur during the initial U.S. invasion of Leyte, Philippines in 1944. (U.S. Army)

When Gen. Douglas MacArthur took command of the United Nations Command in South Korea, he was already a World War II hero, Medal of Honor recipient, commander in chief of the Far East and supreme commander of the Allied Powers.

North Korea invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950. MacArthur, with his long pedigree as a leader and already based in Japan, was the natural choice to lead the American troops in Korea. Within a year, the president of the United States relieved the general of all his commands.

Gen. MacArthur was confident that the Korean War would be a short one. Even after the South Korean capital of Seoul fell to the communists three days after the invasion, he assured President Harry S. Truman that the war could be won.

Even before the president named him the overall commander in Korea, MacArthur was ahead of the situation. He sent ammunition and supplies to Pusan on the southern tip of the Korean peninsula to help ensure the allied forces could make a stand there. MacArthur already authorized the U.S. to use naval and air forces on North Korean troops by the time Truman approved it.

Read: The Korean War: Everything You Need to Know

The general's most audacious move was a landing at Inchon, behind the North Korean advance. In the minds of the other generals of his time, Inchon wasn't just a bad landing area; it was the worst that could be chosen. High tides and higher seawalls meant a hazardous landing for American forces, who would be at risk until they could establish a beachhead.

Even though many doubted the possible success of the Inchon Landing on Sept. 15, 1950, it was a spectacular success. As allied forces fought for their lives at the Pusan Perimeter, the U.S. X Corps of the Army's 7th Infantry Division and the 1st Marine Division found Inchon ripe for the taking.

Brig. Gen. Courtney Whiting (front left), Gen. Douglas MacArthur (second from right), and Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond (far right) observing the attack on Inch'ŏn, South Korea, September 15, 1950. (National Archives)

Within two days, the Marines had broken through and captured Kimpo Airfield, the Army had landed and blocked a communist counterattack and the battle to retake Seoul had begun. Back in the south, South Korean and U.S. Army forces broke out of the Pusan Perimeter and sent the North Koreans into a full retreat.

MacArthur had broken the back of the communist invasion, and his stock had never been higher. With the North Korean People's Army back across the 38th parallel, the president and the general were soon at odds over how to proceed: end the war with a ceasefire or advance into the north and topple the communist regime?

In a meeting on Wake Island in October 1950, where President Truman presented Gen. MacArthur with his fifth Distinguished Service Medal, the president asked about the likelihood of Chinese or Soviet intervention in the war. MacArthur knew the Chinese had hundreds of thousands of troops across its border with North Korea and stated his belief that a Chinese intervention was unlikely, and if it happened, the UN forces would "slaughter" them before they reached Seoul.

But by the time Truman met with MacArthur, Chinese troops had already crossed the Yalu River, which separated China and North Korea.

When MacArthur returned to the war, he ordered a full invasion of North Korea. UN forces advanced rapidly toward the Yalu River. Pyongyang fell on Oct. 20, 1950. Five days later, the UN force encountered the Chinese for the first time at the Battle of Onjong. The Chinese intervention had begun, the Republic of Korea II Corps was completely destroyed and now the UN forces were being pushed south.

As the war raged on across the Korean peninsula, a public battle was being fought between Gen. MacArthur and the president of the United States. As 1950 turned into 1951, MacArthur told reporters that political constraints were hampering his ability to conduct the war. In response, the Truman White House ordered that all press statements would have to be cleared with the administration before being made public.

That didn't stop MacArthur, who continued to make public complaints. On the battlefield, however, the UN had pushed back the full extent of the Chinese intervention. On March 14, 1951, the UN captured Seoul for the fourth and final time, pushing the communists back across the original border.

MacArthur, believing China's military power was actually much weaker than it was, believed that expanding the war into mainland China would cause a total collapse of the government in Beijing. In a communique to Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, he advocated that expansion, which included bombing China and landing Nationalist Chinese forces from Formosa (now known as Taiwan) onto the mainland.

General of the Army Douglas MacArthur meets with President Harry S. Truman on Wake Island after the successful Inchon Landing, 1950. (National Archives)

Truman, along with many in his administration, believed that the Soviet Union would intervene for China in the case of a larger war. Although the general submitted a plan for the use of nuclear weapons against China, he had not yet requested their use. Atomic bombs were a critical component to his plan to defeat communist China, a plan that was explained in an interview published after MacArthur's death.

The general also believed nuclear weapons should be used at the field commander's discretion, not the president's. The Truman administration did not want to use nuclear weapons and did not have faith that MacArthur could win a prolonged, expanded war in Asia without them. Instead, Truman wanted a negotiated truce and an orderly withdrawal from the conflict.

On April 5, 1951, MacArthur gave the greenlight to Ridgway to launch Operation Rugged, an invasion of North Korea 20 miles across the 38th parallel, securing Seoul's water supply and a further advance, all without consulting Washington. It was the last straw for Truman.

After conferring with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Truman relieved MacArthur of his command because the general was "unable to give his wholehearted support to the policies of the United States Government and of the United Nations in matters pertaining to his official duties." Truman named Ridgway as MacArthur's replacement.

MacArthur returned to the United States to a hero's welcome and a ticker-tape parade. He addressed a joint session of Congress to deliver his now-famous "Old Soldiers Never Die" speech.

Truman was widely panned for his decision, which was incredibly unpopular among the American public. Some legislators even called for Truman to face impeachment charges, but closed-door Senate hearings confirmed that Truman was acting within his authority to fire MacArthur, even if the decision was unpopular.

While MacArthur's dismissal reinforced the concept of civilian control of the military, it would have doomed Truman's chances in the 1952 presidential election. He decided not to run for another term, clearing the way for another former general, Dwight D. Eisenhower, to take office and end the war in a negotiated truce.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

Want to Learn More About Military Life?

Whether you're thinking of joining the military, looking for post-military careers or keeping up with military life and benefits, Military.com has you covered. Subscribe to Military.com to have military news, updates and resources delivered directly to your inbox.

Story Continues
Military History Korean War