The Beginning of the End: MacArthur in Korea

Today’s post comes from Gregory Marose, an intern in the National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications.

Photograph of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander South West Pacific (ARC 2595319)

It was 61 years ago today that General Douglas MacArthur was named commander of United Nations forces in Korea. The final command in an illustrious career, MacArthur’s tenure in Korea led to a controversial feud with President Harry Truman and ultimately his dismissal.

The Korean War began on the morning of June 25, 1950, when troops from communist North Korea crossed the 38th parallel and attacked the Republic of Korea. Within hours the United Nations Security Council convened to adopt Resolution 82, which called for the withdrawal of all North Korean forces. When no withdrawal occurred, the UN passed a subsequent resolution asking member nations to provide military assistance for the removal of all aggressive forces below the 38th parallel.

Since the United States military was leading the aid effort, the United Nations authorized the American government to select the commander-in-chief of UN forces. The Joint Chiefs of Staff unanimously proposed that General MacArthur lead the coalition.

By early September, MacArthur’s forces had pushed most of the North Korean troops back beyond the 38th parallel. Filled with confidence after a major tactical victory at Inchon, MacArthur lobbied to push up into North Korea and crush further aggression. This request, however, made many inside the Truman administration wary.

President Truman and his advisers believed that since North Korea shared its northern border with China, an aggressive surge by MacArthur could cause the Chinese to fear for their own safety and enter the war. Taking that into account, the President issued the order to advance beyond the 38th parallel with the understanding that coalition forces would stop short of inciting Chinese intervention.

Crossing the 38th parallel. United Nations forces withdraw from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital. 1950 (ARC 541822)

When President Truman flew to meet General MacArthur at Wake Island in October, the President continued to convey his trepidation with regard to China. MacArthur, however, dismissed the likelihood of Chinese intervention and confidently declared that “if the Chinese tried to get down to Pyongyang, there would be the greatest slaughter.” A month later, MacArthur was proven wrong after Chinese forces attacked the Eighth Army.

Once engaged in the conflict, Chinese forces began to inflict serious casualties on UN forces and change the shape of the war. MacArthur began to clash with President Truman and his advisers on policy issues. The General even began circumventing the chain of command, at one point issuing an order that Chinese forces surrender or face punitive action.

In the spring of 1951, MacArthur took his feud with Truman public with a letter criticizing the President’s conservative war strategy. This proved to be the final straw.

On April 10,  General MacArthur was relieved of his command. Though the war between Truman and MacArthur had concluded, the arduous war in Korea waged on until July of 1953.

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