James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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Lessons Learned: General MacArthur’s Dismissal

by James M. Lindsay
April 11, 2012


A new installment of “Lessons Learned” is now out. This week I discuss President Harry Truman’s announcement on April 11, 1951, that he had dismissed General Douglas MacArthur as commanding general of U.S. forces in Korea. In the video, I look at the principle of civilian control of the military and discuss when exercising that control is justified. Here’s a question to consider when thinking about wartime decision-making: How much deference should presidents give to the military, and under what conditions should they overrule military advice?  I encourage you to weigh in with your answer in the comments section below. And one quick correction. I mistakenly say in the video that General MacArthur sent a letter critical of the Truman administration’s policy in Korea to the “Republican speaker of the House.” MacArthur actually sent his letter to the House Republican minority leader.

I hope you enjoy the video.

If you are interested in learning more about Truman’s dismissal of MacArthur, or the U.S. role in the Korean War, here are some books worth reading:

David Halberstam. The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War. (2007)

William Manchester. American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964. (1978)

Michael D. Pearlman. Truman and MacArthur: Policy, Politics, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown. (2008)

Stanley Sandler. The Korean War: No Victors, No Vanquished. (1999)

John W. Spanier. The Truman-MacArthur Controversy and the Korean War. (1965)

Post a Comment 56 Comments

  • Posted by Josh Dauderis

    The President should give the Military free reign as long as it does not violate the Geneva Convention or international law. The Military should be cooperating with the President, however the President should recognize that Military generals have been leading all their life know more about strategy than the President. Truman fired McArthur for disobeying Truman’s orders not to move into North Korea, however, had he moved into North Korea and taken the country we would not have to deal with the North Korean threat today. While the plan was to contain communism, we could’ve avoided future conflict by taking North Korea by force. The President should only overrule the advice of the Military if it would start another international conflict bigger than the one already taking place. In WWII,Hitler insisted that he be involved in Military planning, and that yielded Operation Barbarossa. Someone that is not trained in Military strategy should not attempt to take part in the deliberations, however approve or disapprove the plans created by the Military. Let the Military do its job, they can do it better than the President.

  • Posted by Nick

    I believe the president should give the army as much power as hey need to get what needs to be done, but still have dominance over the army. To use the Korean War as an example, I believe the order of containment should’ve been absolute. And then the army should be given as much power as they need to accomplish that goal of containment and nothing more. Of course the president should be well advised on whether or not to change the order if it’d be advantageous. But they should overrule any militaristic advice if it goes against the objective set.

  • Posted by Abigail

    The president should give a significant amount of power to the military, more so in small scale wars. In larger wars military commanders should still have a good amount of power, but larger movements should have to be approved by the president or other military forces before it is acted on.
    During the Korean war, MacArthur was successfully pushing North Korea out of South Korea, however, because Truman believed that this strategy would not coincide with his own plan to keep peace, he stripped MacArthur of his position and all power that the military had. If Truman let MacArthur and the military continue on their expedition, MacArthur could have successfully achieved Containment of South Korea. In instances like these, the military should have the power to control the situation, for it could provide great success for the country and world.

  • Posted by Lydia Flaherty

    I believe the President should give a great deal of power to the military seeing as though they are a very essential part of our government. They handle a great amount of ordeals overseas. If the government and the military were to work together many things would be resolved in rational ways. The military understands matters internationally in ways that the government does not. Only under certain, urgent, circumstances should the president intervene and take complete control. In my opinion the president shouldn’t take control because they do not have the same experience with this stuff rather than generals who have years of experience. But with exception of The Korean War president Truman’s decisions were more knowledgeable than Mcarthur. Truman knew if they pushed to far China would intervene

  • Posted by Ben

    I believe that the president should give the generals an objective in was and that then those generals would be able to achieve this goals by whichever means that see fit. That’s why I believe the firing of MacArthur was justified. He was told to push the North Koreans back to the 38th parallel and no further to avoid conflict with China, but he did not do do this he went past and created conflict with China.

  • Posted by Bailey

    I think that the generals ar given a lot of power ant they definitely should be limited. I think that they should be able to make small decisions in battle but the big ones should be a decision by the president and congress. Like the decision that MacArthur made he had no reason to do that and it led America into a war they should not be in. If he did not try to push forward into North Korea then he would probably not have many people killed. So yes I think that their power should definitely be limited.

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