October, 1950-April, 1951: Truman-MacArthur Confrontation Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

General Douglas MacArthur of the U.S. Army was a powerful military leader and a highly controversial politician, having been a Republican Party contender in the presidential campaigns of 1944, 1948, and 1952. As the overseer of the occupation of Japan, he was the obvious choice as commander of all United Nations forces when the Korean War broke out in June, 1950.

General Douglas MacArthur of the U.S. Army was a powerful military leader and a highly controversial politician, having been a Republican Party contender in the presidential campaigns of 1944, 1948, and 1952. As the overseer of the occupation of Japan, he was the obvious choice as commander of all United Nations forces when the Korean War broke out in June, 1950.

The Korean War challenged the willingness of the U.S. people to accept the burden of a discouraging and dirty struggle to check communist aggression. It was a war being fought for limited ends, without hope of a decisive victory. This was the first war to be carried forward under the policy of containment initiated by President Harry S. Truman. A cause of serious dispute was whether the brand of military strategy dictated by the containment policy would prove workable or would be tolerable to the public and to Congress. In the first year of the Korean War, the question of how communist expansion should be met found expression in a personal, political, and constitutional struggle between President Truman and General Mac-Arthur. MacArthur’s flouting of a strategy that had presidential approval resulted in his dismissal. A public outcry ensued. The MacArthur-Truman confrontation was one of the most serious threats in the nation’s history to the basic principles of civilian control over the military.

The circumstances in which the Korean War began guaranteed that MacArthur would have a commanding role. In June, 1950, MacArthur, after a long and illustrious military career, was serving as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP). Since September, 1945, MacArthur had governed Japan, exercising the functions and enjoying much of the prestige of a head of state. For some time, MacArthur had disapproved of the Far Eastern policy of the Truman administration. MacArthur believed that Asia would be the supreme test of communist expansion, not Europe.

President Harry S. Truman greets General Douglas MacArthur at the latter’s arrival on Wake Island on October 14, 1950. (AP/Wide World Photos)

When North Korea invaded South Korea in June, 1950, President Truman responded and gained United Nations’ sanction. MacArthur was appointed supreme commander of U.N. forces in Korea. Operating out of his headquarters in Tokyo and using staff officers who were personally devoted to him, MacArthur began to plan a bold offensive counterstrike that would place the United Nations on the way to a complete victory. This plan called for amphibious landings at Inchon, the port on Korea’s west coast a few miles from Seoul, and was carried forward against strong opposition from some military and naval leaders. MacArthur dismissed all objections, revealing a pattern of authoritarianism that was to become clearer as the weeks and months passed. He believed that Korea provided a priceless opportunity for the United States to recoup lost prestige and to stop Asian communism once and for all. He also saw this war as an outstanding opportunity to conclude a brilliant military career.

China Enters the War

As the U.N. forces approached China in the north, rumors of Chinese intervention abounded. MacArthur downplayed them. He advocated, if necessary, a preventive war against China, including the dropping of twenty or thirty atomic bombs on Chinese cities. He supported a policy of encouraging the Chiang Kai-shek regime on Formosa and employing part of Chiang’s army in Korea. This was in direct opposition to Truman’s aim of preventing any widening of the war. MacArthur’s outspokenness about Formosa caused the first dispute with Truman, and apparently led the president to give serious thought to firing the general. Instead, Truman ordered MacArthur to withdraw the statement, which MacArthur did.

President Truman was forced to move carefully in his relations with MacArthur because of MacArthur’s great popularity and the power of his political supporters. The stunning success of the Inchon landings added to the general’s reputation. Military success also allowed the Truman administration to expand its political goals in Korea. For a time, Truman and MacArthur worked toward the same ends. The administration’s initial aim had been the restoration of the thirty-eighth parallel as the boundary between North and South Korea, but in September, Truman approved Mac-Arthur’s proposal that United Nations and South Korean forces move into North Korea and occupy the entire country. This action followed a National Security Council recommendation that all North Korea be occupied, unless Soviet or Chinese troops were encountered. The thirty-eighth parallel was crossed on October 7, and the campaign proceeded without difficulty. By mid-November, advance units were nearing the Yalu River. Mac-Arthur’s headquarters was supremely confident that complete victory was assured and discounted growing rumors of military intervention by the Chinese communists.

At that point, an extraordinary conference took place. Truman flew to remote Wake Island for a meeting with MacArthur on October 14. The fact that the president would travel so far to meet with a subordinate was evidence of the delicacy of the relationship between the two men. The Wake Island conference glossed over the differences between them. MacArthur provided assurances that the Chinese would not intervene, but was in error. On November 26, Chinese forces crossed the Yalu River and attacked the exposed flanks of MacArthur’s forces. There followed a numbing retreat, and by Christmas, 1950, United Nations forces were once again fighting below the thirty-eighth parallel.

Truman and MacArthur now took opposing positions. The Truman administration, alarmed by China’s action, moved to limit the war. MacArthur pressed for attacks against the Chinese troops and supplies in Manchuria and, implicitly, for expansion of the war into China proper. The president refused and decided to allow only the Korean side of the Yalu River bridges to be bombed. This was a compromise that infuriated Mac-Arthur.

MacArthur’s Intransigence

MacArthur became increasingly belligerent. In January, 1951, he recommended a naval blockade of China, air attacks to destroy Chinese military and industrial capabilities, and the use of Nationalist Chinese forces in Korea. The president again restrained him, arguing that the worldwide threat of the Soviet Union made a war of containment necessary in Korea. The fact that Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgway, MacArthur’s deputy in Korea, was dealing directly with the White House and the Pentagon, and was making a success of limited war, made MacArthur’s position more difficult.

The final phase of the MacArthur-Truman confrontation began when the general attempted to bypass the president in order to gain support for his program from Congress and the U.S. people. MacArthur’s practice of making public his differences with the president and Washington policymakers angered and embarrassed Truman on several occasions. The break came in late March, 1951. When MacArthur learned that President Truman planned to issue a peace offer, he released a military appraisal, a document that amounted to an ultimatum to the Chinese. It destroyed any hope of a negotiated settlement and precipitated Truman’s decision to dismiss Mac-Arthur. “By this act,” Truman stated, “MacArthur left me no choice–I could no longer tolerate his insubordination.”

After making his decision, Truman was concerned only about the timing of the act, but the timing was to be decided by MacArthur and his allies in Congress. On April 5, Representative Joseph Martin read a letter from MacArthur on the floor of the House of Representatives. MacArthur again rejected the limited war policy and called for total victory in Asia. A series of meetings began in the White House the following day. On April 11, President Truman cabled MacArthur in Tokyo and, at the same time, informed the press that the general was being relieved of his command because he was unable to give wholehearted support to the president’s policies.


General MacArthur returned to the United States a triumphant hero. He addressed a joint session of Congress. Across the nation, there was a tremendous surge of support for him. A joint Senate committee conducted hearings during the rest of the summer. Truman rode out the emotional reaction, secure in the conviction that his decision had been correct. He was supported openly by his military advisers. Powerful foreign leaders praised his courage. After two months of hearings, the committee issued no report.

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