Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum


FAQ: Why did President Truman dismiss General MacArthur?

In 1951, President Truman and his advisors were preparing to engage North Korea and China in peace negotiations, in an attempt to resolve the ongoing conflict. General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the U.N. forces in Korea, issued an unauthorized statement containing a veiled threat to expand the war into China if the Communist side refused to come to terms. When MacArthur continued to support an expansion of the war, communicating directly with a like-minded Republican congressman, Truman, with the backing of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the Secretaries of State and Defense, felt they had no alternative but to replace MacArthur with a military commander who would act in concert with the administration's foreign policy. On April 11, 1951, President Truman relieved MacArthur of his command.

The members of the Joint Committee on Armed Services and Foreign Relations of the United States Senate, who conducted an inquiry in the spring of 1951 into the dismissal of MacArthur and the military situation in the far east, acknowledged that, "the removal of General MacArthur was within the constitutional power of the President." However they also complained that, "the circumstances were a shock to the national pride (and) the reasons assigned for the removal of General MacArthur were utterly inadequate to justify the act." (Individual Views of Certain Members of the Joint Committee on Armed Services and Foreign Relations of the United States Senate, May 3 - June 27, 1951, p 46).

Richard H. Rovere and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., however, in their contemporary account of the MacArthur dismissal, questioned MacArthur's Korean policy, noting General Omar Bradley's belief that, "it would have involved us in the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time against the wrong enemy." Further, they stated that it would have, "wrecked our global strategy in the hope of achieving a magnificent success in a local engagement," whereas then current American foreign policy recognized, "as MacArthur did not, that time is on our side, and sought in Korea to play for time - time to mobilize, time to rearm ourselves and our allies, time to bring into production new weapons and equipment and test their use, time for Europe to recover and rearm, time to build an ever-widening circle of allies and friendly neutrals, time for discontent to ferment within the sphere of Soviet power." (The General and The President and the Future of American Foreign Policy, 1951, p 244).

Later historians, such as Robert Smith, contend that, "[c]rudely, deliberately, with complete understanding of what would ensue, MacArthur undertook to sabotage Truman's effort, in March 1951, to open peace negotiations with the Chinese (and that) no one not blinded by hero worship could overlook the arrogance and contempt with which MacArthur deliberately flouted Truman's directive." (MacArthur in Korea, 1982, p 155).

Truman's mistake, according to Rovere and Schlesinger, was not the dismissal of MacArthur, but rather was, "a failure in political education. He made all the necessary decisions with great and simple courage; but he lacked the gift of illuminating them so that the people as a whole could understand their necessity." (ps 248-249).