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)

Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

Post a Comment 29 Comments

  • 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.

  • Posted by Kristen

    I believe the president should give the military a fair amount of power. Obviously they should both work together as a unit, but sometimes the people that are there watching things unfold would know better than someone safe and far away. Yes, the president sometimes can overrule in the case of millions of lives at stake and even if it puts his country at risk. Such as in the Korean War when MacArthur wanted to keep pushing forward into China in the fight to end communism the president at the time Truman told him not to and even fired him. Truman didn’t want to risk starting a world war which would kill many. Yet you would think the person who was trained and in charge of a certain section would have the best idea of what to do because it is their job. All together I think the military should have some authority over the president in their field of work.

  • Posted by Nathalie Good

    I think that when the president gives a task to the military he should give them the responsibility and power to decide how to carry out that task. However I think that the president should have over all control to pull the plug and or assign the tasks. So in terms of what happened in Korea it was right that General Mcarthur called the shots on where he wanted to place troops and how he wanted to push the communists out of north Korea. However I agree with what Truman did by stopping them once they completed the task. I believe it was right that he has the final call.

  • Posted by Christine

    The military is critical in our safety, and what they do is what keeps us safe. The president has that ‘final decision’ though. If the president disagrees with a decision that a general, or members of the military are making, then the president will not allow it to go through. For example in the Korean War, President Truman did not agree with General MacArthur. General MacArthur wanted to continue taking over land into China, but the president believed that was a bad idea. He fired the general. If the president feels that some decision by the military is not wise, or is not the best decision for the country, it is important they overrule the military advice given.

  • Posted by Isabel

    In my opinion, the president normally should not overrule the military’s advice. In a war, especially if it is across the world, the president doesn’t have a really good idea of what is going on. Being in a war is different than making decisions from the sidelines, so the people in the military most likely understand the situation much more than the president. Additionally, the people in the military undoubtedly have more experience than the president, so the president should give a lot of power to the military. However, the military should not have complete control and the president should be able to overrule some military decisions. At home the president has more authority, but away at war the military has a better understanding of the situation and should be given more power. For example, in the Korean War General MacArthur was more aware of the situation and had more experience than the president, so he should have been given more authority.

  • Posted by Janie

    Although the military should be given some freedom, the country can’t have them always making their own decisions as it may get out of control. Similar to all of the branches of the government, if one of them became too powerful it would get unbalanced and things would go wrong. This isn’t any different for the military. During the Korean war, MacArthur’s decisions could have led to a third world war if the president hadn’t limited him to just resisting the attack. Just because he was a powerful general and wanted to expand doesn’t mean that it was the right choice. This is similar to when the question of using the atomic bomb was present. The people bombing Japan could have decided not to drop it but Truman made it clear that he wanted it to happen. His decision, along with many other government opinions, helped end World War II. I do believe that a lot of military actions are well thought out and potentially very helpful to the country. However, when it may contribute to something as extreme as ending or starting a world war, I think the president has the right to step in. Also, when that happens compromises could be made and incorporate everyone’s ideas.

  • Posted by Phoebe Chetsas

    I believe that the military should have the majority of control of the government in the United States. However, I certainly do not mean the United Nations army, I am referring to the actual United States military that is allowed to use force on adversaries and fire back when shot at. In times like these, our president is nothing but a puppet to begin with, he has very little real power. I feel that if the majority of the power was given to sane military officials, then that would kind of straighten out the United States until we return to a stable economic and mental state. However, I am not referring to Marshall Law, in which one power crazed general could inflict a tremendous amount of damage. As history has shown us in World War Two when Hitler abused the power of the military on the Jewish populations and countless other minorities, one military leader/ anyone taking complete control of a nation is seriously bad news. What I am stressing is that the division of power should be about two thirds military and one third all of the politicians combined. This includes the president who should be lumped in with other political leaders and not get that whole one third of the power to himself. This division of power can also be seen in the conflicts today, particularly where the United Nations is placing absurd restrictions on the United States military personnel. The brave men and women serving there should not be taking orders from anyone’s house is not there on the hostile terrain. The only people that our military should have to obey are their commanding officers who can make the best decisions because they are living the situation, unlike our president who can give outrageous and unreasonable orders thousands of miles away from the actual battleground. The politicians therefore, should have only one third of the power and no control over the military.
    With every rule however, there are exceptions. The only circumstances in which I can see this plan failing is if a military leader is doing things or making orders to deliberately endanger his troops or if the military were to turn on the nation and begin to use brutal force on unarmed civilians. These scenarios are extremely unlikely though. Also, if the military were to turn on us then a verbal order from congress or the president himself to stop would not really do much. In that scenario, America would most likely descend into anarchy and all political power would be useless against tanks and machine guns.

  • Posted by Alyssa

    The president shouldn’t allow the military to have more power than him. It is like checks and balances. Congress can veto the president and the president should be able to put the military in line when their suggestions have no connection with the goal at hand. The president should overrule the military’s advice when their advice could affect the nation negatively as well. For instance, when it came to the advice of General MacArthur during the Korean War, his actions could have affected the United States negatively. Another war could have started. In addition, the focus at hand, was recovering South Korea. MacArthur wanted to advance farther and not focus on the original goal. Therefore situations like these, give the president the right to overrule the military’s advice.

  • Posted by Josh S

    When one asks how much power should the president give to the military. I would answer that they both should not be giving out that power because it is up to the independent citizens on the coutnry to decide that. America always has said that our military is citizen run, so should it not stay that way? The president should listen to what the people, congress, senate, and military say before making deicisions or granting any power. So in relation to how much power he should give to them would be enough so that they can do what they can to protect the country but not too much so that they can outwieght the power of the citizens in their country. Overruling the military’s advice would also be simple as they would only need to do it if the public did not repsond well or the government thought it would pose a direct and dangerous threat to their country. For example, when president Truman decided to overrule MacArthur’s advice on advancing into China, he did it because he thought it might produce another World War against the Soviets, Chinese, and any other places with hints of communism. This would put America in a dangerous position after exiting WWII only a few years earlier. So when it comes to power, it is all up to the people of the country.

  • Posted by Amanda Busa

    How much power the President gives the military all depends on the situation. If the United States is in the middle of a war, which would determine the fate of many people, some power should go to the military. The military should have the power of what battles to pick and chose (not to put the country into martial law). The President should give power to the military generals over seas to decide what needs to be done in certain situations, but only for war time measures. If it is a little skirmish, it is best for the President to decide what to do for the nation, since he should have the nation’s best interests at heart. For World War II, military generals and commanders should have had a lot of power over seas since the President wouldn’t have been able to see what was going on 24/7, the generals would have more knowledge to know what to do. WWII was a war that the United States couldn’t afford to lose. But with something like the Korean War, I don’t think the military should have been making decisions such as the United States invading another country who they were not planning on fighting. If MacArthur decided to invade China, it may have caused WWIII. Presidents should overrule the military’s advice if the decisions will impact the citizens of America, if the decision would cause an all out war or economic issues.

  • Posted by Maggie

    I believe that the president should have the majority of the control over the military. The president is elected so that he can speak, represent, and make decisions for the people of the United States. The military officials are not put in there positions to do what the citizens want they are put there to make sure the citizens are protected. Going back to The Korean War if McCarthur did what he wanted he could have started another world war beginning with China. Maybe then people of the United States favored McCarthur but if Truman let him make that decision, people’s views would change. The point of the war was to get North Korea out of South that was it. By McCathur going into North he is, number one being a hypocrite because if North can’t be in South why can we be in North, and number two we don’t need anymore deaths than the 50,000 that already occurred. This is why the president should have control because he knows what is better for the people, and knows what the people want.

  • Posted by Praneeth Uppalapati

    In my opinion, the amount of power the president gives to the military is all dependent on the presidents viewpoints. One president could prefer to give more power to his military because of his trust and confidence in his general combining with perhaps his lack of expertise on the issue at hand. On the other hand another president could be a more dominant president at the helm and have a clear vision in mind. In this case it is probably best if the president takes control as he is the commander in chief after all. In the case of the conflict in Korea, Truman clearly had a vision in his head about what type of actions we should and shouldn’t take. General MacArthur disagreed with this and there was a conflict. If this is the case I agree with the action that Truman took because of his clear vision as to what he wanted to do and how to carry out the job. There can’t be two leaders. As to in what situations the president could overrule the military’s advice it would be the same as the above reasons. If the president knows what he is doing then the military should step back to their commander in chief. If the president isn’t sure about his decisions than more often than not the president would ask for the general’s advice anyways.

  • Posted by Taylor

    The president should give enough power to the military in order for them to get the job done right. Yes, the president should be able to know of all the strategies, plans, and tactics being used, but ultimately, the military is the one trained to fight, not the president. This being said, the president should be able to weigh in on these plans and his opinion should be regarded highly. For drastic instances, the president should have a protocol to follow when he/she truly thinks the military is in the wrong and have the power to shut it down. It’s for this reason that we have the checks and balance system so that no one person can gain too much power. The military should overrule the president only when they are confident and completely positive that there is no other option besides their current plan and they must continue. For example, in the Korean War, General MacArthur was fired by the president because he believed that the US should not invade China. He had the power to shut down the campaign because he believed he was preventing a world war. The military didn’t overrule the president in this instance because it was acceptable and it wasn’t vital to the campaign to continue into China.

  • Posted by Stephanie O'Reilly

    All branches of the military are there to balance each other and make sure no branch has too much power. They use checks and balances to keep each tabs on each branch. The president has no power to declare war because of a military generals war tactics. In laymans terms the president can’t give the military all the control. The military may have the strategy but they don’t always think of the best interest of the country. For example american general MacArthur had the idea to push into China to destroy communism. This may have been a good idea in general, but it was not for a country that was trying to avoid world war three. The military has to be given a limited amount of power or our country could be destroyed. There is also a time and place when the president should step and stop the military. This is when our country is in jeopardy, or we are trying to avoid starting only thing larger than we meant to. For example when MacArthur wanted to keep pushing towards China Truman stepped in and made sure that world war three was not started.

  • Posted by Hannah H.

    As long as America has been around, the country has done everything in its power not to give anyone too much power. After World War II, everyone was worried about Communist uprisings, which take away freedom from the people and devote it all to one central power. Feudalism did this in a way by controlling the social statuses of the regions’ people, which was why the Magna Carta was created, which was used to help create the American government used from the 1700s to now. Because we have founded ourselves on the belief that no one should get more power than the next person, I believe that the president should be allowed to give ample power to the military. When it comes to war tactics, the military, or in this case, General MacArthur’s advice and eye for the planning should be the head of all appeals. After all, he does know his best. But, his job was to push the North Koreans out of South Korea and past the 38th parallel, which obviously he took too far and started getting carried away with idea about invading China. The whole point of this mission was to prevent a war from happening, which MacArthur must not have understood if he thought it was okay to invade North Korea and China. Because of this reason, I feel like the president shouldn’t give complete control to the military for fear that any general could go crazy with planning and be unnecessarily aggressive, possibly causing more war and more debt. The president should overrule military advice when it comes to those points.

  • Posted by Madison

    Our entire system of government is built on the promise that each branch, each group, and each person, will oversee, and be overseen, the others. The checks and balances of the government keep our country in working order, and keep our military, our president, and our legislators, from getting out of hand. It ensures that no one group ascertains more power than is democratic, and that no one group takes matters into its own hand. The president needs to be able to trust those in charge of the military, while also carefully keeping an eye that they do not get too power hungry. But, at the same time, the military needs to keep an eye on the president, and ensure that their orders are being given for the right reason. In Korea, President Truman rightfully took away General MacArthur’s command, through the checks and balances system. He saw that the general was too aggressive, and that it would end badly, and prevented that from happening. In both directions, the president and the military should guarantee that both sides are acting respectfully, but also democratically. In more modern times, specifically in the Middle East, Obama has made multiple comments that insinuated that he had total control. That is the exact reason that the checks and balances is in place; so that one one branch becomes too powerful. So that the president does not declare unnecessary wars, and so that the military does not endanger the lives of its soldiers, or of the civilians of the countries that are invaded. In conclusion, this country can run well, if and only if, the checks and balances system is followed correctly

  • Posted by Payton

    America has always had a balance of power throughout the government, but there has been debate of where the power lies. The President has a large amount of power, but the question lies in how much power should he give to others such as the military. The Constitution gives the President the right to wage wars as commander in chief. During the Korean War, Commander MacArthur ignored the orders of President Truman to keep out of China and remained on a quest past North Korea and into the communist country China. President Truman in turn fired General MacArthur. The power of the president seems to overpower the military in this instance. There are certain conditions that the President should overrule the military. One instance is if the military is putting the well-being of the country as a whole in jeopardy. If the military is spending too much money and is making life at home extremely difficult, the President should be able to step in and stop the military actions that are occurring by the United States if he thinks necessary.

  • Posted by Tim H

    The U.S. Has a good balance of power so that not one person or group has to much power. This is the result of the U.S. Being a democracy. I think that it is a good idea for the government to only allow a certain amount of power to the military, because if they allowed the military to do whatever it pleased, it would control everything in the country. During the Korean War, the North Koreans gave there military to much power, because they basically could do whatever they wanted and that is why they tried to take over South Korea. If they were given a limited amount of power, they would have never invaded South Korea, and 2 million lives would have been saved. Another example of how bad a military dictatorship is North Korea today, because the military tells people what they can and can’t do. The President should be able to overrule military advice having the congress people or citizens vote on the decision. If the case of Truman and MacArthur, Truman should have not been able to fire MacArthur, because he had the United States best interest in mind when he argued with Truman.

  • Posted by Nick M.

    I believe that the president should definitely have power when it comes to military operations. In some areas though, the generals already have it covered. For one thing they are a lot more knowledgeable about fighting battles. For this reason I think the president should leave the battle plans. The president should be able to oversee the battle plans to make sure the plans are not too hasty have purpose. However when it comes to big decisions like in the Korean War the president has the right to make the call. He is the leader of the country and knows what is best for the country. I think that the decision made by Truman in the Korean War was a smart move. Invading further into China would cause a lot more casualties in the end, and invading them would not be containment. Also having a conflict with China was not part of the original plan of containment. The only problem with Truman getting involved was that nothing was fixed. The borders were just put back to the 38th parallel, so it made it seem like McArthur’s campaign had been for nothing.

  • Posted by Merry

    The matter of military authority compared to presidential authority in the government was one of the most fussed about events regarding the Korean war was Truman’s authoritative firing of General MacArthur. The militaries power administered by the president should be a feasible amount, meaning that the military shouldn’t have the power to declare wars (such as what MacArthur wished to do with communist China) but have enough power and weight to have their recommendations considered in terms of what is best for the country. One of the basic principles of our constitutions is checks and balances. This basic principle relates directly to the Korean War. Truman’s right to put the military back in it’s place was justified and backed by the constitution itself. Any president should have the right to overrule a military decision if it falls under the principle of checks and balances. Such as when the military solely is deciding which countries to attack. If the ideal distribution of power is maintained though the checks and balances principles there should be no problems regarding decision making in the government. In ideal circumstances, unlike those of the Korean War, the three branches of government should collaborate in unison in order to make the best decisions for the present and future fate of the country.

  • Posted by Kayla

    The president shouldn’t give the military too much power because military leaders may take it upon themselves to expand more than necessary. Or they may try to act with other interests in mind and not in the best interests of the country. For example, General MacArthur wanted to continue to push his troops into China during the Korean War, but that could have possibly caused WW3 and further conflicts with communist China. Also, during the 16th century, the Japanese tried many time to invade and take control of Korea, but were unsuccessful, therefore it had been a tough area to invade and maintain control over, so it would be in the US’s best interest to focus on protecting the land they began to gain.. If the United States had tried to invade a country with a large population, and therefore a large army, with Soviet support, who also had a large army, the U.S. would have lost many men and may have lost all control of Korea as well, including South Korea.

  • Posted by Malachy Doyle

    President’s should give a lot of power to the military. An example is when President Truman told General MacArthur to not attack China. When he said this, General MacArthur was infuriated and was eventually fired because of his attitude towards Truman. What also happened is that China sent reinforcements to North Korea and pushed back the American soldiers to 38th Parallel. This is the original line of division between North Korea and South Korea when the war started. 50,000 Americans died and 500,000 people died from both North Korea and South Korea. Also President’s should not override there military under any conditions. Generals in the field of battle can usually make a better decision than the president on what to do next in the field of battle. Generals should have a lot of power in the military and presidents should not have the ability to override there military.

  • Posted by Merrill Cushman

    The president should give limited power to the military because the president is the chief of the nation and not his generals. Him and congress will make he call and not the military. This is because the president has to over look the situation and if he see’s it might have a severe i pact on our shores, he must stop that dilemma. The military and everything in it is a branch of the nations government so they should be able to override or start a war on their own. It’s similar to what we see at the moment with the Isis threat. We all know the U.S at the moment is the number one super power in the world. So the military has a lot of confidence in its ability to end this situation now. But the president has yet to give in because he doesn’t want to spark another war. We technically just got out of the Middle East and we don’t want to jump pack in again. The chief and his staff should overrule the military when we are in a state of isolation. Also if it interferes with the national security of the people.

  • Posted by Bo Calais

    The president should give a decent amount of power to the military. The president will have made policies that should be followed though. The military leaders can certainly consult the president about it if he disagrees but it isn’t good to disobey the president. That being said, the president should not create too many policies about warfare because the military will know more about tactics than the president most likely. In the case of the Korean War/Conflict, MacArthur disobeyed President Truman. I don’t think he should have done this because the mission was to contain the spread of communism. That was achieved when they took over South Korea. MacArthur’s job was to keep the part of Korea south of the 38th Parallel democratic. He did achieve it, except for a small piece of land called Pusan, but didn’t stop. He pushed up into North Korea and then even China. The goal was world peace, and he was potentially starting a war. Though there was probably a good chance that he would win the battle, being such a great general, it was still not the mission. I think Truman did the right thing because MacArthur was going against his president. That is where the president should overrule the military’s advice. If they start to do something against the mission, that’s when they have to be shut down.

  • Posted by Jacob Metzger

    I think that the military should be given control only what they need, but still have to have their ideas checked by congress because this way it keeps the checks and balances that are already set in our government. This is because the military should get their views checked by multiple people so this way any flaws can be detected. Although ultimately it’s because we need to make sure the military doesn’t get out of hand because they have a lot of weapons that can do sever damage to countries and we can’t just go using them whenever we want. Like in the Korean War when the military’s General MacArthur kept making his troops push North Korea which only got China involved and then lead to more deaths to only end where we started. This is showing how deadly our weapons can be and if we use them wrong how it can only cause death and this is why we need all branches of the government watching the army to get all opinions on what we should do, and to make sure they don’t go crazy.

  • Posted by Randi

    The military should be limited for many reasons. One thing that is in place that helps with this is checks and balances. Checks and balances make it so that each branch of government doesn’t have too much power, this also includes the president. This makes it so the president cannot declare war based on military tactics, and war must be declared by the legislative branch. The military should only be given limited power because if the military had unlimited power, our government military might possibly become a dictatorship. An example of this is when we were in South Korea fighting for South Korea, the military general wanted to push forward into China and keep on fighting, which the president put a stop to. If the president hadn’t stopped the military general, we could have lost many more lives and the Korea war could of ended a lot worse than it originally did.

  • Posted by Alex

    The president has a good amount of control over the military as it is. Just using Korea and Truman and MacArthur as an example it seemed to work well enough. I think Truman made the right choice. World War 3 could have started. MacArthur wouldn’t have stopped. If the president hadn’t had the power who knows how much damage could have happened? They should overrule the military’s advice in situations like that. Each branch of government has limited power and for good reason. We wouldn’t want everything to be controlled by the military. If it’s easily going to get out of hand then they need to stop. More deaths and spending should justify staying out of wars and being cautious. The president has a different perspective on the events when he’s not caught up in it like the military officials. I think it works the way we have it and there’s definitely more events in American history that can back that up.

  • Posted by Danny Fallon

    The president should give the military as much power as it is needed to fully protect the country to the best of their ability. In the case of the Korean War I believe that the president was in the wrong. I believe that ther General should have been able to go into China and start fighting communism there. If the army has there own power and the ability to make their own choices , the a lot of things should go better. The president as much he knows what is going on, he doesn’t know how it’s going on. The government isn’t an expert in military, the general is. The president can override it in certain instances when there is information he knows that he cannot share with others, and can make an informed decision that will turn out better.

  • Posted by Daniel D

    How much power should the President give to the military?

    The Military should have emergency powers, in which they get triggered, when crisis is near, the president should give the military a sizeable amount of power, considering that they are the ones fighting. You can bring up the argument that in WWII, MacArthur was a great leader, and he had taught the subject of island hopping in Japan, in which they had fully attacked every island, and they successfully were able to do this for pretty much every island. The president and the five star general should be on par with their level of militaristic power, and MacArthur even wrote a letter to the republic of US, explaining why the presidents power should be checked, that letter was written in 1951. MacArthur was able to defeat the communists with a mere loss of 10,000 troops. He was the best in his class, and for a president to just relieve him is surprising, he really was an amazing general. He knew all the rights and wrong. Truman had his points, the containment policy was one in which we contain and not want to go to foreign lands to conquest them. He wanted to avoid a next big general war as he called it.

    Under what conditions should they overrule the military’s advice?

    They should be able to overrule the military’s advice if they really, genuinely think it will be best for the people. Even if that means that the people will hate him, than it has to be for the people at all costs, when you are a war general, and you tend to have very nice loss, in which the enemy falls within weeks, then they tend to get an inflated personality. Truman should have asked the people would want instead of just going ahead and laying him off, the public approval rating was about 26% of an approval rating. The people more than obviously did not want this to go through, but it did anyways. In the Vietnam war in 1965, Lyndon Johnson ordered the carpet bombing of North Vietnam, just like that, and nobody could say nothing. Police riots in Chicago and many other places during the era, forced the government to retreat from Vietnam after suffering heavy losses. If you think about it, we had our forces out all dying slowly in Vietnam, while we were fighting a war at our own Homefront. Only if it is conditional to do so, is when the president should be able to overrule the officer in command, only because doing so violates the “civilians army”

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