Truman's Firing of General Douglas Macarthur during the Korean War

By Patterson, Amy; Schamel, Wynell et al. | Social Education, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Truman's Firing of General Douglas Macarthur during the Korean War


Patterson, Amy, Schamel, Wynell, Potter, Lee Ann, Social Education


ALTHOUGH IT HAS RECEIVED so little public attention that it is referred to as the "forgotten" war, the Korean conflict had a profound and lasting effect on America's domestic and foreign affairs. While the National Archives holds thousands of documents related to the Korean War, some of the most interesting pertain to the controversial dismissal of the Commander in Chief of the UN Forces in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur. As one of the great military commanders of the twentieth century, and one of the most arrogant, MacArthur enjoyed tremendous public popularity. Coming only nine months after he assumed command of the UN forces in Korea, MacArthur's firing provoked intense political and public criticism of the Truman administration. Truman's decision to fire MacArthur came out of his firm belief that the general had overstepped his authority and had become both an embarrassment to the administration and a hindrance to Truman's war aims.

The featured document, located at the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri, is a draft of the statement relieving MacArthur of his command. It reveals much about Truman's feelings concerning his own role as Commander in Chief, as well as his sense about how such a statement would be received by the public. Truman felt compelled to praise MacArthur's "distinguished and exceptional service" even as he insisted that "military commanders must be governed by the policies and directives issued to them" by their superiors especially the president. MacArthur had precipitated his own firing both by overstepping the bounds of his authority in the field and by taking his views to the public.

MacArthur's dismissal highlights many of the critical issues relating to the Korean War in particular and twentieth-century warfare in general. These include the question of civilian versus military control of the armed forces, the emerging role of the United Nations as an international military force, and the waging of "limited war."

The Korean conflict began as a civil war. In 1950, the Korean Peninsula was divided between a Soviet-backed government in the north and an American-backed government in the south, a division that had solidified at the end of World War II. Japan had taken control of the Korean peninsula after the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and Korea remained under the control of the Japanese up to and during World War II. In an agreement during the last weeks of the war, a demarcation line along the 38th parallel was established to facilitate the surrender of Japanese troops to Allied forces. The Japanese subsequently surrendered to the Russians in the north and to the Americans in the south.

In an effort to avoid a long-term decision regarding Korea's future, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to divide Korea temporarily along the 38th parallel, a latitudinal line that bisected the country just north of Seoul. This line became more rigid after October 1945, when the Soviets stopped inter-zonal travel and began fortifying the 38th parallel, and in 1946, when Kim Il Sung organized a communist government in the north. Shortly afterwards, nationalist exile Syngman Rhee returned to Korea with General MacArthur's assistance, and set up a rival government in the south. Both governments hoped to reunify the country under their own rule.

With South Korean independence in place, U.S. occupation formally ended, and U.S. troops began withdrawing from the peninsula. The last U.S. unit departed in June 1949, leaving only a small group of military advisors in South Korea. Russia followed suit, simultaneously withdrawing the Red Army from the north.

On June 25, 1950, the North Korean People's Army (NKPA) invaded South Korea. NKPA troops launched a coordinated attack at several strategic points along the 38th parallel and headed south toward Seoul. In the absence of the Soviet representative, who had walked out of the United Nations Security Council earlier in the year, the Council condemned the invasion and called for UN member nations to assist South Korea. …

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