Sunday, April 24, 2011

History Moments: President Truman's Sacking of General Douglas MacArthur

President Harry S Truman meets General Douglas MacArthur, Wake Island, Philippines, 1950

"I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President. That's the answer to that. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was…"

President Truman on his removal of General Douglas MacArthur from command in 1951

My father in law, Noel, a history buff who I respect immensely, quoted the above to me in a discussion on history and recommended it to me as a future Bytes item. On looking into it I found that the interest was not just in the quotation but in the facts of the dismissal, the interview that the quote came from and the brutally honest opinions, assessments views expressed by President Truman in that interview.

The following post is lengthy but, I believe, still informative and relevant to today’s political factional intrigues and party power struggles. Witness, for example, the political assassination of Kevin Rudd.

Harry S Truman (1884-1972) was President of the USA in the years 1945-1953. It was under Truman’s presidency that the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and WW2 was brought to an end. It was also during Truman’s presidency that North Korea invaded South Korea, precipitating the Korean War. The war lasted for 3 years (1950-1953): MASH, set in the Korean War, lasted for 11 years.

 US general Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) had figured prominently in WW2 as Supreme Commander, Southwest Pacific Area, in defending and later retaking the Philippines. MacArthur accepted the Japanese surrender and oversaw the occupation of Japan between 1945 and 1951.

MacArthur led the United Nations Command in the Korean War from 1950 to 1951. Unlike Truman’s wish to limit the military intervention in Korea, MacArthur wanted the UN and the US to invade China to smash communism and to use nuclear bombs. MacArthur publicly advocated actions that contradicted the official policies of the US Government and ignored Truman’s order to restrict military interaction with the media.

On 9 April 1951 Truman removed MacArthur from his command.

One year after Truman’s death in 1972, Merle Miller published Plain Speaking, an oral biography of Truman. Miller had interviewed Truman extensively for a television series.

The following extracts are from the interviews in that book:


Mr. President, I know why you fired MacArthur, but if you don't mind I'd like to hear it in your own words.


I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President. That's the answer to that. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the laws for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail. That's why when a good one comes along like General [George] Marshall, why you've got to hang onto them, and I did....


Mr. President, how can you explain a man like that?


I've given it a lot of thought, and I have finally concluded... decided that there were times when he . . . well, I'm afraid when he wasn't right in the head. And there never was anyone around to him to keep in line. He didn't have anyone on his staff who wasn't an ass kisser....

Truman also spoke of his intention to sack MacArthur on a prior occasion:


I told them [the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff] I wanted to fire him, and I wanted to send over General [Omar] Bradley to take his place. But they talked me out of it. They said it would cause too much of an uproar, and so I didn't do it, and I was wrong.


Mr. President, suppose you had done it that morning in August [1950, when MacArthur sent a message to the Veterans of Foreign Wars announcing his own foreign policy] instead of the following April?


I don't know. I do not know. We might have got out of Korea six months earlier and not been at one time on the brink of a third world war. But I don't know for sure.

The only thing I learned out of the whole MacArthur deal is that when you feel there's something you have to do and you know in your gut you have to do it, the sooner you get it over with, the better off everybody is."

Truman and MacArthur did not meet until 1950, when Truman summoned him to a meeting out of concern at MacArthur setting up his own foreign policy and giving military directives and orders contrary to US Government policy. Cautioned against having the meeting at the White House in case MacArthur used it to political advantage, they met at Wake Island in the Pacific.


MacArthur was always playacting.... He was wearing those damn sunglasses of his and a shirt that was unbuttoned and a cap that had a lot of hardware. I never did understand, an old man like that [MacArthur was 70] and a five-star general to boot, and he went around dressed up like a nineteen-year-old second lieutenant. But I decided to overlook his getup, and we shook and we arranged a meeting. I got there on time, but he was forty-five minutes late, and this meeting - - it was just between the two of us you understand....

When he walked in, I took one look at him at I said, "Now you look here. I've come halfway around the world to meet you, but don't worry about that. I just want you to know I don't give a good goddamn what you do or think about Harry Truman, but don't you ever again keep your Commander in Chief waiting. Is that clear?"

His face got as red as a beet, but he said, he indicated that he understood what I was talking about, and we went on there.... He was just like a little puppy at that meeting. I don't know which was worse, the way he acted in public or the way he kissed my ass at that meeting.


Mr. President, you have the reputation of being a somewhat impatient man, somewhat quick on the draw, but it seems to me, sir, under these circumstances, that you displayed Job-like patience. How did you manage to keep silent?"


...I knew that if the slightest mistake was made, we would find ourselves in a third world war, and as I told you time and again, I had no intention in any way of allowing that to happen. General Bradley said at the time that that would be the wrong war at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy, and he was absolutely right....


Was that possibly your most difficult time as President?


[After a "very long" pause] I believe it was.


You said General Marshall had some doubts about discharging MacArthur.


Yes, he did; he was concerned about the reaction of certain Congressmen, and he wanted to think over what he felt the reaction of the troops would be. And so at the end of the meeting I asked him, I said, "General, you go over there and you read all the correspondence that's passed between MacArthur and me for the last two years. Then be in my office at nine in the morning, and if you still feel I shouldn't fire him, I won't."

I knew the general very, very well; we'd been through a lot together, and I knew how his mind worked, and there wasn't a doubt in the world in my mind that when he saw what I'd put up with, that he'd agree with me.

And the next morning at eight fifteen when I got to my office, he was out there waiting for me, which was very unusual. General Marshall was usually a punctual man, but I had never known him to be ahead of time. He worked on a very tight schedule.

But that morning he looked up at me, and he says, "I spent most of the night on that file,Mr. President, and you should have fired the son of a bitch two years ago."

And so we went right ahead, and we did it. There were a good many details to be worked out. I asked General Bradley to be sure we had the full agreement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which he got; they were all unanimous in saying he should be fired. And we had to arrange to turn the command over to General Ridgway.

And then of course, we wanted to be sure that MacArthur got the news through official channels. We didn't want it to get into the newspapers first. I signed all the papers and went over to Blair House to have dinner. Some of the others stayed behind at the White House to decide on exactly how to get the word to Frank Pace [secretary of the army, then in Korea]. Pace was supposed to notify the general.

While I was still at Blair House, Joe Short [press secretary] came in to where the others were, and he said he had heard that the Chicago Tribune had the whole story and was going to print it the next morning.

So General Bradley came over to Blair House and told me what was up, and he says if MacArthur hears he's going to be fired before he officially is fired, before he's notified, he'd probably up and resign on me. And I told Bradley, "The son of a bitch isn't going to resign on me, I want him fired."

MacArthur's dismissal was announced on late night radio that night:
"With deep regret I have concluded that General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is unable to give his wholehearted support to the policies of the U.S. Government and of the U.N. in matters pertaining to his official duties. In view of the specific responsibilities imposed upon me by the Constitution of the U.S. and the added responsibilities entrusted to me by the U.N. I have decided that I must make a change in command in the Far East. I have, therefore, relieved General MacArthur of his command and have designated Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgway as his successor".
MacArthur accepted the unsurprising news impassively. He said that he had never disobeyed orders, and that his dismissal was a plot in Washington to weaken the American position in the Far East.

MacArthur delivered a farewell address to Congress on 19 April 1951.

The final paragraphs of that address are:
"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.

Good Bye."


  1. Thank you very much for your work and especially the Trumans exact words in the interview about MacArthur. It is priceless and so much fun to read. I am passing this on for both of my grown sons to read. It explains better than I ever could why I get so frustrated with the last two Democratic Presidents. Oh for the day when a man like Harry Truman serves again. The press and the public will not know what to think!!

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  3. You're welcom. An interesting chapter of history.

  4. Fabulous background stuff.
    I was unfortunately brought up to think of MacArthur as the hero and Truman as the somewhat wimpish villain.
    You can see my portrait of MacArthur doing his Gregory Peck impersonation here:

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  6. I thought MacArthur was already at wake island and greeted Truman with a hand shake instead of a salute


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