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Korean War: General Douglas MacArthur Is Relieved

  • Published
  • By Howard E. Halvorsen
  • 7th Air Force Historian
As you know from your previous reading, our forces in early 1951 were regrouping after the December 1950 Chinese intervention and the untimely death of General Walker, Commander of the Eighth Army. The new commander of the Eighth Army was Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgeway, a hard-nosed commander who both understood the troops and the strategic situation. The United Nations forces began Operations Killer and Ripper which drove the communist enemy north of Seoul. Meanwhile, overall commander of the United Nations forces, General Douglas MacArthur, was continuing to get into trouble with his civilian bosses.

General MacArthur was one of the great protagonists in American history during the twentieth century. If you said he lived his entire life, from cradle to grave, in the United States Army you would be very nearly right. General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was born into a military family in 1880 in the American Old West. His father, Arthur MacArthur Jr., commanded an infantry company which protected settlers and railroad workers from the "Indian menace." As a teenager, Arthur had served in the Union Army during the American Civil War earning the Congressional Medal of Honor for leading an assault up Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga, Tennessee. Young Douglas MacArthur experienced the United States wherever his father was stationed while growing up, including a tour in Washington, D.C. and later in Texas.

Previously disinterested in school, Douglas MacArthur first thrived scholastically at the West Texas Military Academy where he was valedictorian and later graduated West Point as First Captain at the top of the class of 1903. His father, fresh from service in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, was able to look on the graduation ceremony with pride at a son who had achieved one of the finest records in Academy history. Later, young Douglas MacArthur was nominated for the Congressional Medal of Honor for his conduct of a reconnaissance mission during the 1914 occupation of Veracruz. In World War I, he rose to the rank of brigadier general, was again nominated for the CMoH, awarded the Silver Star seven times and also was twice awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Many may not remember that Douglas MacArthur retired from the military in 1937 after a distinguished career. He was recalled to head the Pacific forces in WWII where he gained worldwide fame and a Congressional Medal of Honor for his service in the Philippines Campaign. He and his father were the first father and son to each be awarded the medal. He was only one of five men ever to rise to the rank of General of the Army in the U.S. Army, and the only man to become a Field Marshall of the Philippine Army. He stayed in the Army after World War II ended to command the Japanese occupation, and then lead the U.N. troops in the Korean War.

General MacArthur's leadership during World War II is well documented and outside our purview here in the Republic of Korea. Instead, let's find lessons learned during the Korean War. After the surprise invasion in June 1950 of the Republic of Korea by the Immun Gun, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea Army, the outnumbered forces for freedom were in constant retreat and were dealt defeat after defeat. Not since French Marshal Joseph Jacques Cesaire Joffre's (popularly nicknamed "Papa Joffre") leadership of allied forces in World War I had there been a steadier leader in the face of disaster than MacArthur in Korea. It was said of Joffre that World War I was nearly lost in the first month with him, but most certainly would have been lost without him. MacArthur, unlike Joffre, was not only unwavering in the face of long odds, but was also able to change as the situation changed. It was a particular boon to allied chances that MacArthur was friendly with Republic of Korea leader Syngman Rhee, MacArthur's personal choice to lead the post-World War II RoK government. One might disagree with his tactics or even his campaign strategy, but MacArthur took an allied army out of retreat, placed them in position and in condition to fight again. This first happened after the initial invasion with the Inchon Landing and later after the Chinese intervention. All the while General MacArthur faced frequent disagreement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, his own subordinate commanders, and from President Harry S. Truman. Any soldier who has a conflicting point of view with his superior should be able to, with courtesy, express it in private. Truman's problem was that MacArthur was sharing his contrary views with the world.

At an age when most officers were hoping for leaves or eagles, MacArthur was wearing general's stars. Yet from the ghastly slaughter of 1917-1918 he retained a horror of the effects of war. Most Americans at the time had been brought up to avoid war like the plague, but once in it pull out all the stops. By experience, MacArthur had the same view; that to justify the sacrifices a war must be for only the most transcendental of purposes. President Truman wished to avoid a World War III on the Korean peninsula so soon after World War II had ended with the use of nuclear weapons. General MacArthur did not want a limited war; he wanted to win and win big, or get out. Nothing else was worth the cost in lives and treasure in the general's mind. It is easier now so many years later that we can safely debate whether or not MacArthur was correct in his view of the world. What was not right was his public insubordination to his president and the United Nations.

On March 24, 1951, without consulting with his leadership, General MacArthur delivered to Red China an ultimatum. Within the message was the implication that the United States and her allies might attack the Chinese homeland. Sometime between 24 March and 5 April President Truman decided to relieve MacArthur of his command. On 5 April 1951, Joe Martin, Representative of Massachusetts, read a letter from MacArthur on the House floor which stated:

It seems strangely difficult for some to realize that here in Asia is where the Communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest, and that we have joined the issue thus raised on the battlefield; that here we fight Europe's war with arms while the diplomats there still fight it with words; that if we lose the war to communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable, win it and Europe most probably would avoid war and yet preserve freedom. As you pointed out, we must win. There is no substitute for victory.

No matter who was right, MacArthur's statement in his ongoing correspondence with the Congressman was insubordination. Truman intended to give notice to relieve General MacArthur via Secretary of the Army Frank Pace who happened to be in the Far East. However, Pace could not be reached and a Chicago paper was going to scoop the story. Truman then decided his general could receive his notice over the wire at the same time everyone else in the world got it.

MacArthur received the news with remarkably good cheer. He briefed his replacement, General Matthew Ridgway, and flew to the United States with his wife and son. It was his and his wife Jean's first visit to the continental United States since 1937, when they had been married; Arthur IV, now aged 13, had never been to the United States. He then made his last official appearance in a farewell address to the U.S. Congress. The address, interrupted by 50 ovations, ended with:

I am closing my 52 years of military service. When I joined the Army, even before the turn of the century, it was the fulfillment of all of my boyish hopes and dreams. The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that "old soldiers never die; they just fade away."

And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty. Goodbye.

True to his word, the old soldier "faded away" from the public eye, declined offers to run for political office, and lived quietly in New York until his death in April 1964. The memory of such a great man, despite any mistakes made, should not fade away - ever.