President's Address: Korean War Dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur
Harry S. Truman
Delivered on April 11, 1951
When it was decided that U.S. Army general Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964), commander of the United Nations forces in the Far East, must be relieved of command because of his insubordination, it was obvious that it must be handled very carefully. MacArthur was beloved by the press, the Republican Party, and a good portion of the American public. And President Harry S. Truman (1884–1973), a Democrat, was already in trouble at home over the Korean War (1950–53). Despite precautions, the firing of the revered seventy-one-year-old general did not go smoothly. According to the plan, Secretary of the Army Frank Pace (1912–88), who was in the Far East at the time, would bring MacArthur the notice of his dismissal at 10 a.m. on April 12, 1951. But the communications system failed; Pace did not receive the notice. Before anything else could be done, the newspapers got the scoop about MacArthur's firing. Truman had no choice then but to send the orders to MacArthur directly and to order a press conference. He delivered the address excerpted below that night.
Things to remember while reading this excerpt from the "President's Address":
- The difference between limited versus unlimited war had become the biggest bone of contention between President Truman and General MacArthur. Truman and his staff, by the spring of 1951, believed that the costs of an all-out war with the Chinese, who were fighting on the side of the North Koreans, were too extreme and dangerous. They decided to use their military strength to hold a defensive line keeping South Korea free of invasion from the north, and tried to use negotiation to end the war. MacArthur, on the otherhand, believed that "there is no substitute for victory," and was willing to risk a larger war in order to destroy the enemy.
- As a military commander, MacArthur's duty was to carry out the orders of the president and the Joint Chiefs of Staff regardless of his personal opinions. The Joint Chiefs is an agency within the Department of Defense serving to advise the president and the secretary of defense on matters of war and to coordinate battle plans among the branches of the U.S. military.
- The Soviet Union, which was established in 1922, was comprised of fifteen republics. During the cold war, a period of heightened political tension between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted from the end of World War II in 1945 to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. and other Western (noncommunist) governments were fearful that the Soviets were trying to create a communistic bloc of nations opposed to the Western powers.
- The Soviet Union was not in favor of a war in Korea, and initially its premier, Joeph Stalin (1879–1953), did not give North Korean premier Kim II Sung (1912–1994), a fellow communist, permission to invade the south. Even when Stalin gave his approval to Kim, he did so reluctantly and never sent any troops. Though Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung; 1893–1976), the leader of the newly formed People's Republic of China, likewise was reluctant to engage in the war, Communist China did come to the aid of the North Koreans.
Excerpt from "President's Address: Korean War Dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur"
I want to talk plainly to you tonight about what we are doing in Korea and about our policy in the Far East.
In the simplest terms, what we are doing in Korea is this: We are trying to prevent a Third World War.
I think most people in this country recognized that fact last June. And they warmly supported the decision of the Government to help the Republic of Korea against the communist aggressors. Now, many persons, even some who applauded our decision to defend Korea, have forgotten the basic reason for our action.
It is right for us to be in Korea. It was right last June. It is right today.
I want to remind you why this is true.
The communists in the Kremlin are engaged in a monstrous conspiracy to stamp out freedom all over the world. If they were to succeed, the United States would be numbered among their principal victims. It must be clear to everyone that the United States cannot—and will not—sit idly by and await foreign conquest. The only question is: When is the best time to meet the threat and how?
The best time to meet the threat is in the beginning. It is easier to put out a fire in the beginning when it is small than after it has become a roaring blaze.
And the best way to meet the threat of aggression is for the peace-loving nations to act together. If they don't act together, they are likely to be picked off, one by one….
[The communists] want to control all Asia from the Kremlin. This plan of conquest is in flat contradiction to what we believe. We believe that Korea belongs to the Koreans, that India belongs to the Indians—that all the nations of Asia should be free to work out their affairs in their own way. This is the basis of peace in the Far East and everywhere else.
The whole communist imperialism is back of the attack on peace in the Far East. It was the Soviet Union that trained and equipped the North Koreans for aggression. The Chinese communists massed 44 well-trained and well-equipped divisions on the Korean frontier. These were the troops they threw into battle when the North Korean communists were beaten.
The question we have had to face is whether the communist plan can be stopped without general war. Our Government and other countries associated with us in the United Nations believe that the best chance of stopping it without general war is to meet the attack in Korea and defeat it there.
That is what we have been doing. It is a difficult and bitter task.
But so far it has been successful.
So far, we have prevented World War III.
So far, by fighting a limited war in Korea, we have prevented aggression from succeeding, and bringing on a general war. And the ability of the whole free world to resist communist aggression hasbeen greatly improved. We have taught the enemy a lesson. He has found out that aggression is not cheap or easy. Moreover, men all over the world who want to remain free have been given new courage and new hope. They know now that the champions of freedom can stand up and fight and that they will stand up and fight….
We do not want to see the conflict in Korea extended. We are trying to prevent a world war—not to start one. The best way to do that is to make it plain that we and the other free countries will continue to resist the attack.
But you may ask why can't we take other steps to punish the aggressor. Why don't we bomb Manchuria and China itself? Why don't we assist Chinese Nationalist troops to land on the mainland of China? If we were to do these things, we would become entangled in a vast conflict on the continent of Asia and our task would become immeasurably more difficult all over the world.
What would suit the ambitions of the Kremlin better than for our military forces to be committed to a full scale war with Red China?
It may well be that, in spite of our best efforts, the communists may spread the war. But it would be wrong—tragically wrong—for us to take the initiative in extending the war. The dangers are great. Make no mistake about it. Behind the North Koreans and Chinese communists in the front lines stand additional millions of Chinese soldiers. And behind the Chinese stand the tanks, the planes, the submarines, the soldiers, and the scheming rulers of the Soviet Union.
Our aim is to avoid the spread of the conflict….
I have thought long and hard about this question of extending the war in Asia. I have discussed it many times with the ablest military advisers in the country. I believe with all my heart that the course we are following is the best course.
I believe that we must try to limit the war to Korea for these vital reasons to make sure that the precious lives of our fighting men are not wasted; to see that the security of our country and the free world is not needlessly jeopardized; and to prevent a third world war.
A number of events have made it evident that General MacArthur did not agree with that policy. I have therefore considered it essential to relieve General MacArthur so that there would be no doubt or confusion as to the real purpose and aim of our policy.
It was with the deepest personal regret that I found myself compelled to take this action. General MacArthur is one of our greatestmilitary commanders. But the cause of world peace is more important than any individual.
The change in commands in the Far East means no change whatever in the policy of the United States. We will carry on the fight in Korea with vigor and determination in an effort to bring the war to a speedy and successful conclusion.
We are ready, at any time, to negotiate for a restoration of peace in the area. But we will not engage in appeasement. We are only interested in real peace….
This is our military objective—to repel attack and to restore peace.
In the hard fighting in Korea, we are proving that collective action among nations is not only a high principle but a workable means of resisting aggression. Defeat of aggression in Korea may be the turning point in the world's search for a practical way of achieving peace and security.
The struggle of the United Nations in Korea is a struggle for peace.
The free nations have united their strength in an effort to prevent a third world war. That war can come if the communist rulers want it to come. But this Nation and its allies will not be responsible for its coming.
We do not want to widen the conflict. We will use every effort to prevent that disaster. And in so doing, we know that we are following the great principles of peace, freedom, and justice.
What happened next…
Lieutenant General Matthew B. Ridgway (1895–1993) succeeded MacArthur as the commander of the United Nations forces in the Far East. Lieutenant General James A. Van Fleet (1892–1992) took over Ridgway's command of the Eighth Army in Korea.
In July 1951, truce talks with the Chinese and North Koreans began. At the request of Ridgway, who didn't trust the enemy, combat continued throughout the two years of negotiations, at the cost of thousands of lives.
Truman decided not to run for another term as president in 1952. MacArthur tried to win a Republican nomination, but failed. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969), the moderate Republican who took office, followed in Truman's footsteps with a limited war policy accompanied by peace negotiations.
Did you know …
- Although Truman dismissed MacArthur for his inflammatory public statements that threatened an all-out war with China, Truman, too, considered defeating the Chinese through all means available. On November 30, 1950, at a press conference, Truman stated that the use of the atomic bomb (two of which the United States had dropped on Japan with devastating effect to bring World War II to a close) was always under consideration in the Korean War. His statement, like some of MacArthur's, spread panic throughout the world.
Where to Learn More
Alexander, Bevin. Korea: The First War We Lost. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1986, revised edition, 2000.
Varhola, Michael. Fire and Ice: The Korean War, 1950–1953. Mason City, IA: Savas Publishing, 2000.
"President's Address, 11 April 1951." Harry S. Truman Library. [Online] http://www.theforgottenvictory.org/macarthur.htm (accessed on August 14, 2001).