On this day in 1951, President Harry S. Truman relieves General Douglas MacArthur of his commands due to the general’s insubordination and unwillingness to conduct a limited war in the defense of South Korea; for the first time since 1899, MacArthur was ordered out of uniform.
Mac was the third son of Arthur MacArthur, later the army’s senior ranking officer, and Mary Hardy MacArthur, an ambitious woman who strongly influenced Douglas. He was graduated from West Point in 1903 with the highest honors, and began a rather swift ascension through the ranks, serving sequentially in Mexico, France and the Philippines; he became the Army’s youngest General at age 44 in 1925.
Never too far from occasional excesses in judgment, MacArthur came under severe criticism in 1932 when he sent regular troops to oust the Bonus Army (WW I veterans protesting for their promised pensions) from a makeshift camp in D.C., an action wherein veterans, their wives and children were killed at the hands of fellow Americans. From 1935 on he served as Philippines military adviser, and retired from active duty in 1937, only to be recalled for WW2.
From Pearl Harbor on, Mac did an admirable if arduous job of slowing, stopping and turning back the Empire of Japan’s hegemony in the Pacific, helping to win the theater through island-hopping by land, complemented by Admiral Nimitz’s mastery by sea. After surrender, MacArthur ran Japan as military governor until the outbreak of the Korean War.
Immediately selected to command all UN Forces against the invading Communist North Koreans, MacArthur saw UN troops nearly pushed off the peninsula entirely. Drawing from his WW2 playbook, MacArthur planned and executed a daring and brilliant landing at Inchon, and became mesmerized by his own myth, pushing the invading Korean People’s Army nearly all the way to the Chinese border of North Korea. It was there that Mao Zedong and his own war-planners launched the Chinese First Phase Campaign, pushing the US, ROK and UN forces back south of the Ch’ongch’on River, before mysteriously and abruptly stopping.
MacArthur, agitated and badly failing to see the feint, still believed that China had not intervened in Korea on a large scale, and the suddenness of the Chinese withdrawal in the face of a victory further reinforced this belief. Working on the assumption that only 30,000 Chinese troops could remain hidden in the hills, he ordered the bombing of the bridges over the Yalu River in an effort to cut off Chinese reinforcements as part and parcel of the Home-by-Christmas Offensive. On November 24 he commenced his move to rout the remaining Chinese and North Korean forces and end the Korean War.
Unknown to UN planners, however, there were already over 180,000 Chinese troops lurking in Korea, with more reinforcements infiltrating across the border. As the US Eighth Army stopped its advance on the afternoon of November 25, 1950, the PVA 13th Army commenced the massive, cascading Second Phase Campaign. A withering frontal attack pulverized the entire UN line, as they were pushed back to the 38th Parallel in “the longest retreat in US military history.”
Highly frustrated and privately embarrassed, MacArthur sought unilateral control of at least nine Mark 4 nuclear bombs; apprehensive about delegating the decision on how they should be used to MacArthur, who lacked expert technical knowledge of the weapons and their effects, the joint chiefs decided the nuclear strike force would report to the Strategic Air Command, further frustrating the General and provoking increased bellicosity.
The final showdown between Mac and Truman, and principles of civilian versus military control, came at the Wake Island Conference, in which the General was summoned by the President to report, confer and make nice for the press. Going rather out of his way to show disdain, MacArthur showed up rumpled and soiled, refusing to lunch with his boss and generally acting a General fool. As all of Truman’s top advisers agreed, MacArthur’s serial insubordination truly called for dismissal, but Truman ultimately paid the high political price in declining to seek reelection in 1952.
Although he denied his nuclear intentions in congressional testimony, MacArthur in fact told two interviewers in 1954 “I could have won the war in Korea in a maximum of 10 days . . . I would have dropped between 30 and 50 atomic bombs on his air bases and other depots strung across the neck of Manchuria.” The General continued, “It was my plan as our amphibious forces moved south to spread behind us—from the Sea of Japan to the Yellow Sea—a belt of radioactive cobalt. It could have been spread from wagons, carts, trucks and planes . . . For at least 60 years there could have been no land invasion of Korea from the north. The enemy could not have marched across that radiated belt.”
Said Truman of the affair that may have cost him his second full term, “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”