Why Did Truman Fire MacArthur? (And Why Did He Wait So Long to Do It?)


Mr. Pearlman retired in 2006 as a professor of history at the United States Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth. He is author of Warmaking and American Democracy: The Struggle over Military Strategy, 1700 to the Present, which won the Henry Adams Prize, and To Make Democracy Safe for America: Patricians and Preparedness in the Progressive Era. His latest book is: Truman and MacArthur: Policy, Politics, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown (Indiana University Press, April 2008).

That President Harry Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur will hardly be news to readers of the History News Network. The recently published Truman and MacArthur: Policy, Politics, and the Hunger for Honor and Renown (Indiana University Press) tries to throw new light on this old topic.

The real story is not that Truman dismissed MacArthur; it is that it took him so long to do it in the face of persistent provocation that he later called “insubordination.” David Halberstam in The Coldest Winter published last year said Truman feared MacArthur. True, the general certainly had substantial public and political support that would make any government official hesitate. However, it appears that the president was more intimidated by his internalized concept of civil (meaning political)-military relations based on his own reading of history.

Truman’s best biographers—David McCullough, Alonzo Hamby, and Robert Ferrell—all note his captivation with Great Men and Famous Women, a Victorian anthology of biographical portraits he received from his mother when 10 years old. Truman particularly gravitated to the depictions of military commanders, especially his heroes, Hannibal and Robert E. Lee. He, of course, would have to wonder why neither paragon ultimately triumphed. Truman answered in an entry to his diary, 14 May 1934, when contemplating leaving county government and running for the Senate: “Of all the military heroes Hannibal and Lee were to my mind the best. . . they won every battle [but] lost the war due to crazy politicians.”

Truman’s subsequent reading of history reinforced this point of view. His favorite book, bar none, was Douglas Southall Freeman’s four-volume biography, R.E. Lee. He himself met Freeman while observing military maneuvers in the 1944 and called upon his counsel to the Truman Committee providing Senate oversight of the war effort. Freeman constantly warned against political mistreatment of military commanders purportedly exemplified in the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the [Civil] War. “They abused General Meade like a pickpocket—you read that” Truman subsequently said. Such racking doubt about civilian politicians miring military operations was hardly a mind-set suitable to confront a commander as seemingly confident as Douglas MacArthur.

MacArthur was also a great devotee of Freeman, whom he hoped would write the history of MacArthur’s campaigns in World War II: no one “has the divine gift of inspiration like yourself. It would be a contribution of military science beyond compare.” Freeman as a biographer was averse to criticizing his protagonist, who happened to be the standard of excellence that MacArthur’s mother held for MacArthur. “I am of Virginia,” he wrote Freeman, and have studied Lee and Stonewall Jackson, “all my professional life. . . . In some of my lonely vigils with momentous decisions pending . . . it seemed to me almost as though those great Chieftains of the Gray were there to comfort and sustain me.”

Nonetheless, according to one close aide of MacArthur, the general feared he could not measure up to the Lee benchmark when having to make those “momentous decisions.” As if to vanish doubt, he chronically sought more glory to prove himself to himself, the world, and history. Korea, said by MacArthur to be “Mar’s last gift to a warrior,” might provide a final claim to military immortality to be gained: overthrowing the communist regime by invading China from across the Taiwan Strait in late 1950-early 1951. Truman, although chronically disinclined to discipline a field commander, finally said no, although doing it quite politely until MacArthur did what Truman felt was unacceptable for a soldier, namely acting like a politician. When the general endorsed a campaign statement from a highly partisan Republican, he struck a historical analogue such as often guided the president’s way of thinking.

Truman back in 1950 entered the Korean War on the basis of a belief that Stalin was probing his will like Hitler probed that of Britain and France, who had brought on World War II by concessions at Munich. In 1951, when finally firing MacArthur, Truman again reached into history wherein MacArthur, no Robert E. Lee, became a George McClellan who “worked with the minority to under cut the Administration when there was a war on.” “I can show,” Truman told his staff, just how the so-and-so double-crossed us. . . . [MacArthur] is going to be regarded as a worse double-crosser than McClellan.”