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Reflections on the MacArthur Controversy at Sixty

From: Historically Speaking
Volume 12, Number 2, April 2011
pp. 37-40 | 10.1353/hsp.2011.0019

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All hell broke loose in Washington on Wednesday, April 11, 1951, and it showed no sign of ebbing in the days that followed. Republican senator Joseph R. McCarthy called for the impeachment of the Democratic president Harry S. Truman, accusing him of making decisions under the influence of "bourbon and Benedictine." Other Republicans in Congress talked of similar action against Secretary of State Dean Acheson, or even of abolishing the State Department. When a Democratic senator came to the defense of the president on the Senate floor, several Republicans tried angrily to interrupt him. Freshman Republican Richard M. Nixon, always on guard against dirty tricks by the enemy camp, warned that Democrats were planning one of history's most reprehensible "smear campaigns" against General Douglas MacArthur, a darling among right-wing Republicans. Senators from the opposing parties participating in a radio talk show became so heated toward each other that only the moderator's intervention prevented a resort to fisticuffs. A White House aide seeking comic relief jotted down an imaginary scenario concocted by the Republicans that included "the burning of the Constitution," the "lynching of Secretary Acheson," the leap by "300 nude D.A.R.'s . . . from [the] Washington monument," and a "21-atomic bomb salute" to General MacArthur. CBS's Eric Sevareid commented wearily that "Washington is a place that can never, for very long, deny itself indulgence in the wild pleasures of party politics."

Intense partisanship in Washington had been building since the surprise victory by the Democrats in the 1948 election, but the immediate cause of the fury was Truman's relief of MacArthur from all his commands.

The 60th anniversary of that event invites us to revisit its causes, its execution, and its impact on American politics and foreign policy. The exercise serves as a reminder that extreme partisanship in the nation's capital is not unique to the present, nor does it necessarily lead to disaster or even a halt of all progress on crucial issues. In a period in which the direction of U.S. foreign policy was hotly contested, the Truman administration proved able to sustain its goal of limiting the Korean War and to do so while continuing to build a durable alliance system that included Japan, the strategic prize of the western Pacific, and western Europe, the key area in U.S. global strategy.

Why did Truman fire MacArthur? The president's explanation was that the general, as commander of U.S. forces in the Far East and United Nations forces in Korea, had publicly dissented from the administration's policy of attempting to limit the war there rather than expanding it to achieve total victory (i.e., the unification of the peninsula under a friendly government). That dissent represented insubordination to the president as commander-in-chief of U.S. armed forces, thereby threatening the constitutional principle of civilian control of the military. As Truman put it to Democratic congressman Maury Maverick, "I had to choose between General MacArthur and the Constitution . . . and I decided to save the Constitution."

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President Truman meeting General Douglas MacArthur, Wake Island, October 1950. From the PBS documentary Truman: American Experience (1997).

Until the early 1980s this interpretation remained largely unchallenged among serious historians. In 1982, however, Joseph C. Goulden, a journalist and best-selling author of numerous works of nonfiction, presented an alternative explanation. MacArthur had been dismissed, Goulden claimed, because the National Security Agency (NSA) had intercepted and decrypted messages from Spanish and Portuguese diplomats in Tokyo to their governments. They reported private comments by MacArthur expressing confidence "that he could transform the Korean War into a major conflict in which he could dispose of the 'Chinese Communist question' once and for all." According to Goulden, the general's repeated public criticism of U.S. policy in Korea was insufficient to explain the president's decision. Only concrete evidence that MacArthur planned to act out his views and expand the war provoked Truman into a move that he knew would generate a storm of protest at home. Goulden cited Charles Burton Marshall, in 1951 a member of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, as the source for...