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)

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  • Posted by Val

    For as long as America has been independent, its presidents and its military has had limited power. For a good reason. Checks and Balances makes it so that each branch of government doesn’t have too much power. Including the executive branch (president). Therefore, the president cannot declare war based on a military general’s war tactics. War must be declared by the legislative branch. The military should only be given limited power by the president because otherwise, our government would become a military dictatorship. For example, when dealing with conflicts in Syria, Obama made a remark basically stating that he does not have to have Congress’ permission to declare war. This is wrong because it is unconstitutional. When the military is being unnecessarily aggressive, or is endangering the lives of innocent civilians. For example, in WWII, the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki soled based on hopes of quickly ending the war, defeating the Japanese and sparing the lives of the U.S military.

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