Truman-MacArthur Confrontation

A disagreement between the head of military forces in Korea and the U.S. commander in chief tested the principle of civil control of the military.

Summary of Event

General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was a powerful American 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. [kw]Truman-MacArthur Confrontation (Mar. 24-Apr. 11, 1951)[Truman MacArthur Confrontation]
[kw]MacArthur Confrontation, Truman- (Mar. 24-Apr. 11, 1951)
[kw]Confrontation, Truman-MacArthur (Mar. 24-Apr. 11, 1951)[Confrontation, Truman MacArthur]
Korean War (1950-1953)
Truman-MacArthur Confrontation[Truman MacArthur Confrontation]
Korean War (1950-1953)
Truman-MacArthur Confrontation[Truman MacArthur Confrontation]
[g]North America;Mar. 24-Apr. 11, 1951: Truman-MacArthur Confrontation[03470]
[g]Asia;Mar. 24-Apr. 11, 1951: Truman-MacArthur Confrontation[03470]
[g]United States;Mar. 24-Apr. 11, 1951: Truman-MacArthur Confrontation[03470]
[g]South Korea;Mar. 24-Apr. 11, 1951: Truman-MacArthur Confrontation[03470]
[g]Japan;Mar. 24-Apr. 11, 1951: Truman-MacArthur Confrontation[03470]
[c]Government and politics;Mar. 24-Apr. 11, 1951: Truman-MacArthur Confrontation[03470]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Mar. 24-Apr. 11, 1951: Truman-MacArthur Confrontation[03470]
MacArthur, Douglas
[p]MacArthur, Douglas;and Harry S. Truman[Truman]
MacArthur, Douglas
[p]MacArthur, Douglas;Korean War
Truman, Harry S.
[p]Truman, Harry S.;Korean War
Truman, Harry S.
[p]Truman, Harry S.;and Douglas MacArthur[MacArthur]

The Korean War challenged the willingness of the U.S. people to accept the burden of a discouraging and dirty struggle in order to check communist aggression. It was a war being fought for limited ends, without hope of total victory. This was the first war to be carried forward under the policy of containment initiated by President Harry S. Truman. An issue under 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 MacArthur. MacArthur’s flouting of a strategy that had presidential approval resulted in his dismissal, and a tremendous public outcry ensued. The MacArthur-Truman confrontation was one of the most serious threats in the nation’s history to the basic principle of civilian control over the military.

General of the Army Douglas MacArthur speaks in Chicago in April, 1951, shortly after being relieved of his command by President Harry S. Truman.

(National Archives)

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, moreover, 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—not Europe—would be the location of the supreme test of communist expansion.

When North Korea invaded South Korea in June, 1950, President Truman responded and gained the 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, a 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.

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 Chiang Kai-shek regime on Formosa (Taiwan) 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 his statements, 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 MacArthur’s proposal that United Nations and South Korean forces move into North Korea and occupy the entire country.

This action followed a U.S. National Security Council recommendation that all of 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. MacArthur’s headquarters was supremely confident that complete victory was ensured and discounted growing rumors of military intervention by the Chinese.

At this point, an extraordinary conference took place. Truman flew to remote Wake Island for a meeting with MacArthur on October 14, 1950. 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 he 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, thoroughly frightened 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 MacArthur.

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 Ridgway, Matthew , MacArthur’s deputy in Korea, was being dealt with directly by 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 American people. MacArthur’s practice of making public his differences with the president and Washington policy makers angered and embarrassed Truman on several occasions. The break came on March 24, 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 MacArthur. “By this act,” Truman stated, “MacArthur left me no choice—I could no longer tolerate his insubordination.”

Henceforth, the president 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 Martin, Joseph read a letter from MacArthur dated March 20 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 commands, 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, and the controversy, like the general himself, gradually “faded away.” The confrontation, however, had the effect of strengthening the principle that the president is commander in chief of the armed forces and all military officers owe him their allegiance. The military, for better or for worse, remains an instrument of the policies and agendas of the civilian government, even during times of war. Korean War (1950-1953)
Truman-MacArthur Confrontation[Truman MacArthur Confrontation]

Further Reading

  • Broesamle, John, and Anthony Arthur. “No Substitute for Victory: Harry S. Truman, Douglas MacArthur, and the Korean War.” In Clashes of Will: Great Confrontations That Have Shaped Modern America. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005. Analyzes the Truman-MacArthur confrontation and compares it to other American controversies, from the Pullman porter strike to the clash between Sandra Day O’Connor and Clarence Thomas over affirmative action. Index.
  • James, D. Clayton. Command Crisis: MacArthur and the Korean War. Colorado Springs: U.S. Air Force Academy, 1982. Contends that the Truman-MacArthur confrontation has been overemphasized. Argues that poor communication seems to have been as important as policy disputes.
  • _______. The Years of MacArthur, 1880-1964. 3 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970-1985. A definitive biography of MacArthur, based on more than twenty years of research and hundreds of interviews. Balanced and restrained. The third volume covers the confrontation with Truman.
  • McCullough, David. Truman. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. A Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Truman. Concludes that the Korean War was Truman’s worst ordeal and asserts that the timing of the decision to remove MacArthur was crucial.
  • Pearlman, Michael D. Truman and MacArthur: The Winding Road to Dismissal. Fort Leavenworth, Kans.: Combat Studies Institute, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, [2003?]. Military assessment of the decisions and statements that led to MacArthur’s removal. Bibliographic references.
  • Rasor, Eugene L. General Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964: Historiography and Annotated Bibliography. Bibliographies of Battles and Leaders 12. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. A comprehensive compilation of writings and publications about MacArthur. Includes a historiographical narrative and an annotated bibliography of 759 individual publications.
  • Rovere, Richard H., and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. General MacArthur and President Truman: The Struggle for Control of American Foreign Policy. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction, 1992. Originally published in 1951 as The General and the President, this negative critique of MacArthur and his actions in Korea concludes that MacArthur challenged the doctrines of collective security and of civilian authority.
  • Spanier, John W. The Truman-MacArthur Controversy and the Korean War. New York: Norton, 1965. A scholarly assessment of the controversy, emphasizing the decision that the United Nations forces should cross the thirty-eighth parallel and MacArthur’s end-of-the-war offensive of November, 1950. Detached appraisal and support for Truman’s decision.
  • Truman, Harry S. Years of Trial and Decision. Vol. 2 in Memoirs. New York: Doubleday, 1955-1956. Includes recollections and rationale for the Wake Island conference, the decision to recall MacArthur, and the Senate hearings in the summer of 1951. Describes MacArthur as a mercurial character and argues that the Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously supported Truman.

Korean War

Treaty of Peace with Japan Is Signed in San Francisco