This week in history: President Truman fires General MacArthur
On April 11, 1951, Harry Truman, the president of the United States, fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur from his post as commander of the U.N. forces in South Korea at the height of the Korean War. Truman relieved MacArthur for repeated conflicts over the conduct of the war, and critical remarks he had made against the administration.
MacArthur had been the principal U.S. Army commander in the Pacific theater during World War II and had overseen the occupation of Japan after the war. When communist North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, the United Nations passed Resolution 82, which created a U.N. force to check North Korean aggression. Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommended MacArthur be placed in command of the U.N. force and Truman made the appointment.
The beginning of the war saw U.N. forces pushed down into a tiny corner of the peninsula, surrounding the city of Pusan. Initially, the U.N. strategy called for military units to be sent directly into the Pusan perimeter to hold the line, though MacArthur believed a different strategy was in order. The general developed a plan to make an amphibious landing at Inchon, the port city that serviced the South Korean capital of Seoul, both of which had been overrun by the North Koreans. The landing so far behind North Korean lines, MacArthur believed, would force a general retreat for the North Koreans lest they become cut off from their supply lines and face destruction from their rear.
In his biography “Old Soldiers Never Die: The Life of Douglas MacArthur,” Geoffrey Perret wrote, “There was one day in MacArthur's life when he was a military genius: September 15, 1950. In the life of every great Commander there is one battle that stands out above all the rest, the supreme test of generalship that places him among the other military immortals. For MacArthur that battle was Inchon.”
The landing worked just as MacArthur predicted and the North Korean army began a frantic retreat northward. After this initial success, however, MacArthur made a series of strategic errors. First of all, MacArthur insisted on concentrating his forces to conquer Seoul, rather than cutting across the peninsula in an attempt to trap the fleeing North Korean army. Second, after taking U.N. forces into North Korea, MacArthur pushed north to the Chinese border after repeated warnings from Washington that such a move could bring the newly created communist People's Republic of China into the conflict.
MacArthur insisted that the Chinese would never enter the war because they feared the American atomic bomb. Within a few months the Chinese had entered the war, and together with the North Korean army began pushing south. November and December saw significant U.N. defeats, and MacArthur was quick to deflect criticism.
MacArthur began pressing Truman to use atomic bombs against the Chinese, urging the president to use roughly 50 atomic bombs in Manchuria and other major population centers. This suggestion had some support from the Joint Chiefs, though Truman, who understood the implications of dropping atomic bombs better than any man before or since, refused.
In his book, “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War,” historian David Halberstam wrote, “On March 7 (1951) MacArthur started out a press conference in Korea by tweaking President Truman, with references to what he called the serious, indeed abnormal inhibitions placed on him, the lack of additional forces given him and other restraints imposed from Washington. Then, at a moment when Washington was just beginning to contemplate trying to move Beijing to the peace table, he mocked the Chinese for their failures and their own limitations — virtually taunting a proud enemy that had just defeated him. That in itself greatly angered the president because MacArthur had just made it a great deal harder to negotiate with China.”
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