Americans love generals. We have elected twelve of them president. But for a president, generals can be an enormous pain—and a political threat. James K. Polk worried (rightly) that Winfield Scott was hankering after his job. Abraham Lincoln couldn’t get George B. McClellan to fight, finally relieved him of command of the Army of the Potomac, and then beat him decisively in the 1864 election.
But the president who had the most tempestuous confrontation with a general was Harry Truman. He appointed Douglas McArthur commander of all UN (and U.S.) forces in Korea in June 1950, only to relieve him of command ten months later for publicly challenging administration policy. McArthur didn’t take his firing quietly. He immediately returned to the United States, and on April 19th, 1951, gave a rousing speech to a joint session of Congress. It remains one of the best speeches in American history. And it nearly sparked a constitutional crisis.
The clash between Truman and MacArthur turned on what to do about China. In the spring of 1951 the Korean War was not going well. The smashing victory that MacArthur had engineered at Inchon in September 1950 was swept away two months later when 300,000 Chinese troops poured across the Yalu River. Rather than facing a relatively weak adversary in North Korea, the United States now possibly faced total war with China—or worse yet, China and its ally, the Soviet Union. Truman concluded that discretion was the better part of valor. He would do what he could to keep the war in Korea limited. That meant not attacking China itself.
MacArthur, however, wanted to take the war to the Chinese. He thought that would break the stalemate that had begun to form on the peninsula and win the war. Truman ordered MacArthur to keep his opinions to himself. But the general made sure that his thoughts made their way into the public debate. He went a step too far, though, when he wrote a letter to the House Republican Minority Leader criticizing Truman’s limited-war strategy. When the letter became public, Truman decided that he had no choice but to relieve MacArthur of command. As he said years later:
I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a b*tch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.
Unfortunately for Truman, whose public approval rating stood at 26 percent at the time, the story did not end there. His critics lashed out at him for firing a bona fide war hero and a man who was one of only five five-star generals in American history. Congress invited MacArthur to address a joint session, an honor never before (or since) extended to a general who had been relieved of command. MacArthur, who had been away from the United States for fourteen years, used his address to defend his preferred strategy for Korea at length, insisting that “in war there is no substitute for victory.” He went on to make a not-so-subtle jab at the president who refused to take the war to the Chinese:
There are some who, for varying reasons, would appease Red China. They are blind to history’s clear lesson, for history teaches with unmistakable emphasis that appeasement but begets new and bloodier war. It points to no single instance where this end has justified that means, where appeasement has led to more than a sham peace. Like blackmail, it lays the basis for new and successively greater demands until, as in blackmail, violence becomes the only other alternative.
“Why,” my soldiers asked of me, “surrender military advantages to an enemy in the field?” I could not answer.
MacArthur concluded his tour-de-force with one of the most memorable passages of any speech ever delivered by an American and one that was clearly designed to put himself in the most sympathetic light for his countrymen:
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 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.
The speech was a sensation. Some thirty million Americans had watched it on television. (You can listen to the speech in four parts, here, here, here, and here.) Though MacArthur only spoke for thirty-four minutes, members of Congress interrupted him more than thirty times with applause. One congressman called it the “voice of God.” Herbert Hoover hailed MacArthur as “a reincarnation of St. Paul into a great General of the Army who came out of the East.” The day after the speech, MacArthur traveled to New York City, where the welcome only got warmer. The city threw him the largest ticker-tape parade in its history. LIFE reported that more than seven million people tossed an estimated 2,852 tons of paper during the parade. Western Union set the figure at 1,700 miles of ticker tape.
Truman had a different assessment of MacArthur’s speech, saying privately that it was “a hundred percent bullsh*t.” One of Truman’s advisors wrote a satirical memorandum outlining the schedule that MacArthur imagined for his homecoming:
(Schedule for Welcoming of General MacArthur): 12:30, Wades ashore from Snorkel submarine; 12:31, Navy Band Plays “Sparrow in the Treetop” and “I’ll be Glad You’re Dead, You Rascal You”; 12:40, Parade to the Capitol with General MacArthur riding an elephant; 12:47, Be-heading of General Vaughan at the rotunda; 1:00, General MacArthur addresses Members of Congress; 1:30-1:49, Applause for General MacArthur; 1:50, Burning of the Constitution; 1:55, Lynching of Secretary Acheson; 2:00, 21-atomic bomb salute; 2:30, 300 nude D.A.R.’s leap from Washington Monument; 3:00, Basket lunch, Monument grounds.
Although the mock schedule was intended to be tongue-in-cheek, it highlighted the White House’s real concern that MacArthur’s behavior threatened the bedrock principle of civilian control of the military. (William Manchester subsequently wrote a best-selling biography of MacArthur, the title of which, American Caesar, implied the potential threat MacArthur posed to the American constitutional system.)
Fortunately for Truman, the controversy quickly died down, though less because Americans suddenly remembered that presidents had an unquestioned right to fire generals and more because they didn’t really like the policies that MacArthur favored. In congressional hearings held soon after MacArthur’s speech, U.S. military leaders testified that they did not support a broader war with China. General Omar Bradley, himself a five-star general, famously told Congress that “in the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, [MacArthur’s] strategy would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy.” A Senate committee eventually concluded that “the removal of General MacArthur was within the constitutional powers of the President but the circumstances were a shock to the national pride.” However much a shock MacArthur’s firing was, it reaffirmed what the Framers had intended when they made the president commander-in-chief—he, and someday she, has unquestioned authority to relieve military officers of command.
Many commentators speculated at the time that MacArthur would emulate McClellan and challenge Truman for the presidency. (An effort by MacArthur’s supporters to get him the Republican presidential nomination in 1948 had failed miserably.) But when 1952 came around, he instead endorsed Robert Taft and worked with the Ohio senator to keep Dwight D. Eisenhower, MacArthur’s former aide, from winning the nomination. That effort failed. In 1953, Eisenhower took the oath of office as the country’s 34th president and the last one to have served as a general. MacArthur meanwhile made good on the closing passage of his speech and largely faded from public view.