Harry Truman’s decision to fire Douglas MacArthur at the height of the Korean War in April 1951 shocked the American political system and astonished the world. Much of the world didn’t realize the president had the power to fire a five-star general; much of America didn’t realize Truman had the nerve.
But Truman did fire MacArthur, whose complaints against the commander in chief had grown louder and more public. MacArthur wanted to expand the war against China, which had entered the Korean fighting in late 1950. MacArthur complained that the president was tying his hands by forbidding the bombing of China, thereby sacrificing American lives and endangering American freedom.
Truman suffered the complaints for a time, out of respect for MacArthur and wariness of MacArthur’s allies in Congress. But the complaints began to confuse America’s allies and enemies as to what American policy was and who made it. The last thing Truman wanted was a wider war in Asia, which would weaken the American position in Europe. And Europe, not Asia, was where the Cold War would be won or lost, Truman judged.
Truman’s top advisers agreed. The MacArthur firing prompted the Democratic-led Congress to invite the general to address a joint session, which MacArthur moved to applause and tears when he declared that “old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” Among Republicans, there were murmurs of support for a MacArthur candidacy for president. The Senate’s Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committes held joint hearings, at which MacArthur detailed his disagreement with the president and claimed the backing of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for his position.
The joint chiefs contradicted him. The Senate hearings were closed to the public, but a transcript was released each day including all but the most sensitive comments. Omar Bradley, the chairman of the joint chiefs, flatly rejected MacArthur’s call for a wider war. “In the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this strategy would involve us in the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy,” he said.
Bradley’s categorical conclusion proved the most compelling public statement by any official at the committee hearings. For a soldier of Bradley’s stature, with no history of politics, to contradict MacArthur so completely caused even the most ardent of MacArthur’s supporters to pause and reconsider.
Yet it was the statements that were not made public that did the real damage to MacArthur. Not until the 1970s was the secret testimony declassified, and even then it languished in the archives, overlooked by all but a few specialists in a topic time seemed to have passed by. But to read it now is to understand how quickly, and thoroughly, one of America’s most popular generals was undone.
The rule of excision in the hearings was to delete testimony that might compromise American security. Such testimony included remarks related to American knowledge of Chinese and especially Soviet arms and war readiness; revealing what the American side knew might tip the communists as to how the Americans knew it. Democrat Harry Byrd of Virginia asked Omar Bradley about Russian strength in the vicinity of Manchuria and North Korea. Bradley responded forthrightly, “There are 35 Russian divisions in the Far East. Nine of them are in the Vladivostok area; four in the Port Arthur-Dairen area; three in Sakhalin; two in the Kurile Islands; one near Kamchatka; and 16 others scattered along the railway from Lake Baikal on east.”
“About 500,000 in all?” asked Byrd.
“Thirty-five divisions, plus supporting troops, run probably something like 500,000 or more,” Bradley replied.
Bradley’s comments were deleted when the transcript was released.
Another category of excisions revealed American vulnerabilities in a larger war. Byrd asked what would happen if those 500,000 troops were “thrown into action with enemy submarine attacks to prevent the evacuation of our troops should they be badly outnumbered and have to evacuate?”
Bradley answered: “Should Russia come in with this army strength, her naval strength, which is quite strong in submarines, and her air power, which is quite strong in the Far East—if she should come in with all of those, we might have a hard time supplying our troops in Korea and would even, under certain circumstances, have difficulty evacuating them.”
How many submarines did the Russians have in the vicinity of Korea? asked Byrd.
“Approximately 85,” Bradley said.
“If they went into action, could we then still evacuate our troops?”
“Yes, to a certain extent because we have considerable naval forces there who could help us.”
But it wouldn’t be easy, Byrd sensed. “It would be a very serious situation?”
“It would be a very serious situation,” Bradley confirmed.
Byrd asked about the broader consequences of Russian intervention. “What other areas in Asia is Russia likely to take over if there is war in Asia?”
“Through the use of the Chinese they have the possibility of and even capability of taking over Indochina, Siam, Burma and maybe eventually India,” Bradley said. “In addition to that, they could take over Hong Kong and Malaya.”
Bradley knew that this alarming estimate might sound defeatist, but he thought the senators needed to hear it. He insisted that the exchange be deleted before the transcript was released to the newspapers and published the next day.
Other excised testimony revealed a fundamental reason for the administration’s reluctance to escalate in northeast Asia: There was precious little for the United States to escalate with. American air power, in particular, was stretched very thin. Hoyt Vandenberg, the Air Force chief of staff, told the committee that Korea was already claiming a large part of America’s available air strength. “The Air Force part that is engaged in Korea is roughly 85 percent—80 to 85 percent—of the tactical capacity of the United States,” he said. “The strategic portion, which is used tactically, is roughly between one-fourth and one-fifth. The air defense forces are, I would judge, about 20 percent.”
Many Americans, and much of the world, imagined the United States had boundless military capacity. MacArthur had suggested as much, regarding air power, when he had told the committee that the U.S. Air Force could take on China without diminishing America’s capacity to check the Soviets.
Vandenberg wasn’t going to disabuse America’s enemies of such notions, but he needed for the senators to hear, behind closed doors, that this was far from the case. “I am sure Admiral Davis will take this off the record,” Vandenberg said, referring to the officer overseeing the excisions, who did indeed take his remarks off the record. “The air force of the United States, as I have said, is really a shoestring air force.” Vandenberg had used the phrase in open testimony; now he provided details. One small, intrinsically insignificant country—Korea—was absorbing an alarming portion of America’s air resources. “These groups that we have over there now doing this tactical job are really about a fourth of our total effort that we could muster today.” To escalate against China, even if only from the air, would be reckless in the extreme. “Four times that amount of groups in that area over that vast expanse of China would be a drop in the bucket.”
Other remarks contradicted MacArthur’s recurrent complaint about the advantage the Chinese derived from the administration’s refusal to grant him permission to bomb targets beyond the Yalu River in China. Democrat Walter George of Georgia, echoing MacArthur’s assertion that “China is using the maximum of her force against us,” said it was unfair that MacArthur had to fight a limited war while the Chinese fought all out.
Omar Bradley responded that George was quite mistaken—and, by implication, that MacArthur was quite misleading. The Chinese were not fighting all out, not by a great deal. “They have not used air against our front line troops, against our lines of communication in Korea, our ports; they have not used air against our bases in Japan or against our naval air forces.” China’s restraint in these areas had been crucial to the survival of American and U.N. forces in Korea. On balance, Bradley said, the limited nature of the war benefited the United States at least as much as it did the Chinese. “We are fighting under rather favorable rules for ourselves.”
Vandenberg amplified this point. “You made the statement, as I recall it, that we were operating against the Chinese in a limited fashion, and that the Chinese were operating against us in an unlimited fashion,” the air chief said to Republican Harry Cain of Washington.
“Yes, sir,” Cain replied.
“I would like to point out that that operates just as much a limitation, so far, for the Chinese as it has for the United Nations troops in that our main base of supply is the Japanese islands. The port of Pusan is very important to us.”
“It is indeed.”
“Our naval forces are operating on the flanks allowing us naval gunfire support, carrier aircraft strikes, and the landing of such formations as the Inchon landing, all without the Chinese air force projecting itself into the area,” Vandenberg said. “Therefore, the sanctuary business, as it is called, is operating on both sides, and is not completely a limited war on our part.”
George Marshall, the secretary of defense and a five-star general himself, made the same argument. Marshall, insisting on “the greatest concern for confidentiality,” said he had asked the joint chiefs just hours before: “What happens to the Army if we do bomb, and what happens to our Army if we don’t bomb in that way.” The chiefs’ conclusion: “Their general view was that the loss of advantage with our troops on the ground was actually more than equaled by the advantages which we were deriving from not exposing our vulnerability to air attacks.”
In other words—and this was Marshall’s crucial point, as it had been Vandenberg’s—the limitations on the fighting in Korea, so loudly assailed by MacArthur and his supporters, in fact favored the American side.
Marshall elaborated. “I am referring to the air fields, which we have very few of with the length of runway required, and wing-tip to wing-tip of planes, which are very vulnerable. I am referring to the fact that our transportation runs without regard to visibility, whereas theirs”—China’s—“has to be handled only at night, and if the weather is fair, that is illuminated and is subject to destruction.” China’s decision to yield the air was what allowed America to remain in Korea. “We can move reserves with practically no restriction at all, and they have the greatest difficulty in relation to that. If bombing starts, we have a great many conditions that will be far less advantageous to us.”
Joe Collins, the army chief of staff, explained how Communist restraint had prevented an utter American debacle. Referring to the moment MacArthur had initially sought permission to bomb into China, Collins said, “When the first recommendations came in to bomb across the frontier, our troops were separated in Korea. The Tenth Corps was operating from the base at Hungnam, and our other forces were operating from bases at Pusan and Inchon. As soon as the Chinese attack began we were very much concerned about the fact that we would have to get that Tenth Corps out; and had we permitted the bombing north of the Yalu, we were dreadfully afraid that that might be the thing that would release the Russian planes, and additionally, have them give additional assistance to the Chinese, and might well have subjected the Tenth Corps to bombardment and possibly submarine attack during the perilous evacuation from Hungnam. Troops evacuating from a port of that character, in commercial ships, are terribly subject to air and underwater attack; and in my judgment, it would be a much too risky procedure.”
Collins wasn’t quite so blunt as to say it, but his message was clear: Far from complaining about the limited nature of the war, MacArthur should have been grateful for it.
The committee members were sobered, if not stunned, by the chiefs’ and Marshall’s testimony. Americans tended to believe that, having won World War II, the American military could dispatch China with one hand and whack Russia with the other. The secret testimony of Marshall and the chiefs made patent that America’s military had its hands full already.
Other testimony deleted from the published transcript severely undercut the idea that Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Nationalists would be of any help in a larger war. MacArthur had repeatedly urged that the United States accept Chiang’s offer to join the fighting against China. Marshall and the others roundly rejected it. The committee inquired. Chiang’s forces had proven inept in their fight against the Chinese Communists, and several of the senators wanted to know if they could be expected to improve. Democrat Russell Long of Louisiana put the question directly to Marshall: “Do you have any indication that the Chinese Nationalist troops on Formosa [now Taiwan] could be depended upon to fight more fiercely than they did when they were fighting on the Chinese mainland?”
“Well, whatever reply I would make to that I would want off the record,” Marshall answered.
“I would like my question also to be off the record,” Long added.
Marshall explained that the Pentagon had sent a reconnaissance team to Formosa to determine the readiness and improvability of the Chinese Nationalists, and it had yet to report back. But he wasn’t at all hopeful. He particularly worried about Communist infiltration of the Nationalists. “What we have feared all the time was a boring from within,” he said. Marshall noted that similar infiltration by German agents and sympathizers had debilitated the French army in 1940; in the present case the possibility of infiltration rendered any reliance on the Nationalists extremely dubious. The Nationalists had abandoned a great deal of American weaponry in losing the mainland to the Communists; Marshall couldn’t see risking more.
The problem with the Nationalists started at the top, Marshall and the chiefs declared confidentially. “The trouble of it is Chiang is not accepted by a large part of the Chinese,” Omar Bradley said. “Chiang has had a big chance to win in China and he did not do it.” There was little reason to think he would do better if given a second chance. “From a military point of view, in my own opinion I don’t think he would have too much success in leading the Chinese now. It is true some of them are getting tired of the Communists and might be more loyal to him now than they were before, but in my opinion he is not in position to rally the Chinese against the Communists even if we could get him ashore.”
A turn to Chiang’s army, as MacArthur and others recommended, would not bolster American security, but weaken it. “Their leadership is poor, their equipment is poor, and their training is poor.”
The secret testimony damaged MacArthur in ways he never understood. Veteran observers of Washington expected the Senate committee to draw formal conclusions; the tenor of the hearings, the predilections of the questioners and the partisanship of the moment suggested that there would be a majority report, a minority report and possibly separate statements by individual members.
But the co-chairmen of the committee, Democrats Richard Russell of Georgia and Tom Connally of Texas, guided the process in a different direction. Though they were of the same party as the president, they felt no obligation to make a hero of Truman, and so they reckoned that a report by the majority Democrats was unnecessary. This calculation simultaneously spiked the efforts of the minority Republicans to issue a formal condemnation of Truman. Meanwhile in Korea, the Eighth Army, which had retaken Seoul and established a defensible line that crisscrossed the 38th parallel, turned back a new Communist offensive, with heavy losses to the Chinese. The Chinese failure prompted a suggestion from Moscow, during the last days of the hearings, that an armistice in Korea would contribute to world peace. This raised hopes of an end to the fighting and complemented the chairmen’s desire to put the controversy over the war’s conduct behind them.
The result was an anodyne assertion of national unity. “For the past seven weeks the Senate Committees on Armed Services and Foreign Relations have assiduously examined into the facts and circumstances bearing on the relief of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and on American policy in the Far East,” the committee statement declared. Significantly, this was the sole mention of MacArthur’s name, and the statement said nothing more about his firing. It acknowledged differences of opinion among the witnesses and among the examiners, yet it hailed these differences as a sign of strength rather than weakness. It assured America’s allies that the country’s commitment to freedom hadn’t wavered. And it warned enemies not to misunderstand the workings of democracy. “The issues which might divide our people are far transcended by the things which unite them. If threatened danger becomes war, the aggressor would find at one stroke arrayed against him the united energies, the united resources, and the united devotion of all the American people.”
The statement was silent, of course, on the secret testimony of Marshall, Bradley, Vandenberg and Collins. MacArthur thereby escaped the injury the testimony would have done his reputation, but the secrets badly eroded his support among those who should have been loudest on his behalf. Alexander Wiley, Styles Bridges and the other Republicans were compelled by the revelations about America’s vulnerability to rethink their endorsement of MacArthur and the belligerent course he favored. They didn’t recant in public; they wouldn’t give Truman that satisfaction. But they no longer looked to MacArthur as a credible alternative to Truman on military strategy or in politics. They eased away from the general, and because the testimony was sealed, they never said why.
And MacArthur never found out. His presidential prospects fizzled as the Republicans and the country turned to another general, Dwight Eisenhower. MacArthur retired to New York, where he died in 1964.
From the Book:THE GENERAL VS. THE PRESIDENT by H. W. Brands. Copyright © 2016 by H. W. Brands. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC