From the Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester’s Walk on Honor in Highland Park. Alex White disagrees that MacArthur and his men were on the brink of defeating the North Koreans when China stepped in. Alex’s full commentary below. [All photos: David Kramer] See Remembering the Korean War in Rochester
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial of Greater Rochester is a unique historical repository. Recently, I read the plaque on the Walk of Honor marking General Douglass MacArthur’s dismissal as General of the US Army on April 11th, 1951. Knowing little of the episode, I visited the Brighton Memorial Library. I listened to H.W. Brands’ 2016 THE GENERAL VS. THE PRESIDENT: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War (very good) and watched the 1977 film MacArthur starring Gregory Peck (very mediocre), and perused other items from the library’s well stocked collection.In the months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, Japanese forces invaded the Philippines, a United States protectorate, where MacArthur was serving as Field Marshal of the Philippine Army. With the American garrison in Corregidor under seize and nearing capture, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to leave for Australia. MacArthur invoked his famous promise and prophesy: I shall return!
By then one of America’s great war heroes for his success in the island-hopping campaign, MacArthur did return to Corregidor in February, 1945.
In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. MacArthur became Commander-in-Chief of the United Nations Command.
MacArthur’s tenure as Commander-in-Chief included several controversies. While MacArthur was credited with a brilliant victory in the amphibious landing at Inchon in September 1950, by most accounts he underestimated the strength of the Chinese army that two months later invaded South Korea.
By spring 1951, the relationship between MacArthur and President Truman was deteriorating. MacArthur believed that Asia — not Europe where NATO confronted the Soviet Union — should be the primary front against communism, a worldview Truman did not share. In March, MacArthur gave an unauthorized press conference, but more importantly, he privately communicated with congress, advocating for an invasion of China. Citing insubordination, Truman felt he had no recourse but to relieve MacArthur of his command.
Truman’s decision to “fire” MacArthur — as the headlines blared — was highly unpopular. In a Gallop poll, 69% of the public favored MacArthur, while Truman’s overall popularity slipped to 22%. In MacArthur’s homecoming tour, he was greeted in New York by the largest ticket tape parade of its kind in the history of the city. Some anticipated a constitutional crisis as calls for impeachment arose. Soon, the MacArthur fervor waned, as well as support for his global strategy. As William Manchester (American Caesar) explains, six years after the fall of Germany and Japan, voters were in no mood for another great war.
Returning to private life, in 1953 MacArthur hoped to influence President Eisenhower’s Korean War strategy to little avail. (In 1948, MacArthur ran a short-lived campaign for the Republican presidential nomination; in 1952, MacArthur held out unlikely hopes that in a Republican convention split between Taft and Eisenhower, he would emerge as the nominee.)
In 1962, West Point honored the increasingly frail MacArthur with the Sylvanus Thayer Award for outstanding service to the nation, which had gone to Eisenhower the year before. In accepting the award, MacArthur’s speech to the cadets — his final major public appearance — had as its theme: “Duty, Honor, Country.”
(Full Korean War timeline)
For further commentary, I turned to Alex White, amateur military historian and owner of Boldo’s Armory. Previously, in October 23rd and 24th, 1952 when Ike and Adlai were in town back to back. , Alex offered commentary on President Dwight Eisenhower and the Korean War. Alex holds strong opinions on MacArthur, offered for our consideration.
First, I have very few positive things to say about MacArthur as a general; he’s one of the most overrated commanders in American history. Frankly, I think we would have been better off if MacArthur had not survived Corrigedor in 1942 after he was surprised by the Japanese attack.
As for Truman’s firing, it was way overdue. Before MacArthur was fired, he was ill prepared for the North Korean attack, refused to follow orders to stop at the 38th Parallel, bringing the Chinese into the war for which he was, again, ill prepared.
Then MacArthur starts asking Truman for permission to conventionally bomb China. As the US military position in Korea continues to deteriorate, MacArthur amplifies his request to nuke China. Finally, Truman relieves MacArthur of his command — which he should have done at the beginning — when MacArthur is effectively caught with his pants down. Roosevelt fired Admiral James Richardson after Pearl Harbor for a similar failing of preparedness.
Within a historical context, the Truman-MacArthur standoff and its outcome speaks well of the strength of our democratic institutions. In many countries, Truman’s action would have resulted in a coup or a military uprising.
Many generals, including MacArthur, have said they hate war. When Ike shared similar sentiments, they came off as sincere. I never had the same feeling from MacArthur.