A Look Back: Truman Relieves MacArthur

murphyBy Westbrook Murphy, General Counsel, Truman Scholarship Foundation

Sixty years ago today—April 11, 1951—President Harry Truman relieved General Douglas MacArthur of his commands in Japan and Korea.  Doing so firmly re-established the Constitutional principle of civilian control; of the military.  The back story also shows how Truman took responsibility for his decisions as announced by the famous sign on his desk: “The Buck Stops Here.”


Douglas MacArthur emerged from Word War II as a wildly popular general.  Like Patton in Europe, MacArthur’s campaign up the island chain from Australia was aggressive and captured large amounts of territory and enemy prisoners with a comparatively low ratio of U.S. casualties. 

And—like Patton—MacArthur seldom missed a chance to glorify his own reputation.  His ego knew few bounds.  As Truman wrote privately: “Unlike MacArthur, the Cabots at least talked to the Lodges before telling God what to do.”

In a precursor of his contretemps with Truman, in the early 1930s MacArthur had gotten away with openly defying President Hoover.  MacArthur then was the Army’s Chief of Staff. 

In the depths of the Depression, World War I veterans marched on Washington to demand that a deferred bonus due to them in two more years be paid early.  This so-called bonus army set up a makeshift camp on the eastern side of the Anacostia River—across the river from the present sites of RFK and the Washington Nationals Stadia. 

One day the bonus army crossed the Anacostia and marched in a demonstration up Pennsylvania Ave.  Shots were fired—no one knew by whom—and one or two people were killed.

President Hoover called out the Army to restore order.  Col. Dwight Eisenhower, then MacArthur’s principal aide, advised MacArthur to assign some other officer to lead the Army’s peacekeeping operations.  But MacArthur ignored this advice.  Putting on his full uniform, he took personal command of the operation.

President Hoover’s original orders were explicit: a U.S. Army detachment was to force the bonus marchers back across the Anacostia, but to stop there without itself crossing the river.  When Hoover sent a messenger repeating his order, MacArthur dismissed it, declaring that he was not bound by any so-called orders from the President.

MacArthur did not stop at the river, but crossed the Anacostia and razed the bonus army’s makeshift camp.  He then went to the White House and defied Herbert Hoover to challenge what MacArthur had done.  Hoover refused to do so.

You may read more about this and other events in MacArthur’s life in William Manchester’s American Caesar

The Korean Situation

The first few months of the North Korean’s surprise late June 1950 attack across the 38th parallel were highly successful.  They drove the United nations forces (mostly U.S.) into a defensive line around the southeast Korean port of Pusan. 

MacArthur conceived a daring plan of an amphibious landing at Inchon, a port mid-way up the peninsula’s western side—not far from the capital of Seoul and the 38th parallel.  If successful, UN forces then could cut off the North Korean Army. 

But the 20-foot+ tides at Inchon made the entire operation a huge gamble.  Landing craft could reach the shore only for an hour or so during the high tides that occurred about 12 hours apart.  The Pentagon brass was highly skeptical, but President Truman backed the Inchon landing.

The Inchon landing in September, 1950, turned the war around.  Many North Koreans were killed or captured between UN forces who had landed at Inchon and those who broke out of the Pusan perimeter.  The UN forces drove what remained of the North Korean army back across the 38th Parallel, and continued the campaign northward—but without any clear strategic goal having been established. 

The Wake Island Meeting

In October, 1959, President Truman met personally with MacArthur, traveling much further to the meeting place—Wake Island—than did MacArthur.  Two asides, before resuming the principal story:

  • Mrs. Truman was deeply concerned about the President flying so far in what was then a propeller-driven presidential plane across so much of the Pacific—particularly the last leg from Hawaii to Wake Island.  White House Physician Wallace Graham told her not to worry:  the Navy would have a line of ships stationed along the route which quickly could go to the rescue if the plane should need to ditch.  When Mrs. Truman realized that the Navy lacked enough ships to cover that vast stretch of the Pacific, Dr. Graham reassured her that the entire route would be covered because, as the planed passed over the ship at the end of the line, that ship would steam around to the front.
  • President Truman wanted to take with him a gift for Mrs. MacArthur: See’s chocolate candies of which she was known to be fond.  While the plane stopped over in San Francisco, he sent my father Charles Murphy out to search for candy.  My father could find only 1-pound boxes, and returned with five of them.  During the next stop at Honolulu, he tried again and found a 5-pound box for the President to give to Mrs. MacArthur.  I never learned what happened to five 1-pound boxes.

One of the main topics discussed on Wake Island was whether the Chinese Communists might intervene militarily as the UN forces pushed northward toward the Chinese border.  MacArthur told the President that the Chinese would not intervene, but—if they did—he pitied them.  They would be slaughtered like sheep.  In describing that conversation years later, may father said that MacArthur was the most persuasive man he ever heard.

When they parted, President Truman thought that MacArthur agreed with the President’s military aims as described below.

Differing War Aims

MacArthur—and Truman too—badly misjudged Chinese intentions.  In late November, 1950, tens of thousands of Chinese “volunteers” stormed across the frozen Yalu River and inflicted great casualties on the UN forces while driving them back to about the 38th Parallel.

President Truman’s goal in Korea was limited:  he wished to beat back the North Korean aggression and restore order on the Korean peninsula.  He feared that widening the war would give the Soviet Union an opportunity to initiate military action in Europe while the U.S. was bogged down in Korea, and might even lead to World War III.

Declaring that, “There is no substitute for victory,” MacArthur wanted to attack Communist China, and perhaps even restore to power the Nationalist Chinese under Chiang Kai-shek.  MacArthur made public his disagreement with the President through, inter alia, a message he sent to an American Legion Convention and a letter he wrote to Joseph Martin, the House Republican Leader. 

For more detail, read David Halberstam’s last book, The Coldest Winter.  You’ll find there that MacArthur was well past his prime even as a military commander. 

The Last Straw

In the spring of 1951 the Truman Administration had feelers out to the Chinese that might have brought an end to the Korean fighting.  MacArthur sabotaged these efforts by publically announcing that any truce would have to be negotiated with him.  Truman then decided that McArthur must be relieved of his commands.  But he kept this decision to himself.

He had a file assembled of the correspondence between MacArthur and his nominal superiors in Washington.  He gave copies of this file to each of one of the most sterling set of advisors ever assembled for a U.S President:

  • Secretary of State Dean Acheson,
  • Secretary of Defense George Marshall,
  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Omar Bradley, and
  • Special wartime advisor Averill Harriman.

He instructed each to read the file and then reassemble the next day.  They did so, agreeing that MacArthur should be relieved. Gen. Marshall, however, advised caution because of the expected public reaction.  Truman then told them of his decision to relieve MacArthur.

What a President!

Under my father’s direction the White House staff and the Pentagon begin to prepare the necessary papers to carry out the President’s decision to relieve Gen. MacArthur and appoint Gen. Mathew Ridgeway in his place.  Out of respect for MacArthur, they trued to arrange for Army Secretary Frank Pace, who then was in Korea, to fly to Tokyo and personally inform MacArthur that he was being relieved.  The effort to reach Pace was unsuccessful. 

Reacting to a possibility (false, as it turned out) that MacArthur had learned of the President’s decision and would try to gain a public relations advantage by resigning, the White House rushed to announce the President’s decision late at night.  About 10 p.m. President Truman, as was his habit before making an important decision, assembled his staff to ask their individual opinions.

A young aide to Averill Harriman named Ted Tannenwald spoke up to push an idea that my father had rejected earlier in the day.  Tannenwald urged that the White House press release should recite that Truman was acting on the advice of his principal civilian and military advisers—the group listed above.

Truman looked at him and said: “No, Son, not tonight.  All that will come out eventually.  But tonight this is the President acting as President on his own authority.”

In The Coldest Winter, supra, Halberstam calls this President Truman’s finest hour.

The day before MacArthur was relieved Herblock’s Washing Post editorial cartoon showed artillery captain Harry Truman cowering under his desk before the towering figure of the great General MacArthur.  Herblock’s cartoon the next day was simply a drawing of the White House flying a large American flag from the roof, with the caption: 48 Star General.”


Relieving General MacArthur created the greatest public furor of any of Truman’s decisions.  MacArthur returned to a hero’s welcome in the United States, including a tickertape parade down Broadway.  He delivered to a joint session of Congress his famous speech that “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

Truman, on the other hand, was accused of being mentally unbalanced.  There were calls in Congress and elsewhere for his impeachment.  Congressional hearings were convened.  But the MacArthur bubble burst when Army Chief of Staff Omar Bradley’s crisply summarized for the Congressional committee that: “Gen. MacArthur wanted to get the United States into the wrong war in the wrong place with the wrong enemy at the wrong time.” 

Westbrook Murphy serves as General Counsel of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation.

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