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Posted on Apr 10, 2005 in War College

Commentary on the Truman-MacArthur Controversy

By Mo Ludan

Editor Introduction

Armchair General subscriber and frequent on-line forum participant, Romulo Ludan, provided us with his comments regarding some issues surrounding President Harry S. Truman’s firing of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur on April 11, 1951. This action and the controversy it continues to evoke has gone down as one of the most famous instances of the exercise of the Constitutional principle of civilian control of the military in US history. The May 2005 issue of Armchair General featured this subject in our regular “Command Decisions: The Story Behind the Story” article. We thought Mr. Ludan’s comments on other issues surrounding this watershed event would complement the article and provide more grist for on-line discussion by our forum participants.


Here are his comments on several issues surrounding the Truman-MacArthur controversy:

Issue #1. MacArthur critics contend that the “old-fashioned” General did not understand Truman’s “limited war” policy and that he only wanted to “expand the war.”

Comment: MacArthur desired only to destroy the enemy where he had chosen to attack — in Korea. His proposal to bomb the Yalu bridges, to avail himself of the time-honored right of “hot pursuit” of enemy aircraft, and to utilize his own air and naval forces to carry the war to the enemy’s supply and communication lines, were hardly a prescription for expanding a conflict into a third world war.

It was a war that was started by the other side’s unprovoked attack on the South. As Willoughby and Chamberlain point out ( “MacArthur”; see bibliography at end of this paper): Such action was merely the prescription for ending the war he had been ordered to fight. In no case was he in favor of sending American troops to fight on Chinese soil. “Anybody who advocates that,” in MacArthur’s words, “should have his head examined.”

Issue #2. Truman wanted to avert a nuclear war with the Soviets so he was forced to fire MacArthur.

Comment: Recently released archives of the former Soviet Union confirm what the General had been saying all along. Russian scholar Evgueni Bajanov affirms in “Assessing the Politics of the Korean War 1949-1951” that Stalin vehemently did not want a direct confrontation with the U.S. Stalin believed, rightly so, that his country was still reeling from the ravages of WW2. USSR had no atomic arsenal, industrial capacity, nor strategic bombers. It needed time to catch up with the U.S., the world’s only superpower at the time. Against the advice of his military commander, Truman failed to exploit this opportunity, relying instead on dubious diplomatic proposals from the U.N. and his State Department.

On September 1950, MacArthur’s successful Inchon Landing turned the tide of war. Stunned, Stalin, Mao, and Kim were bitterly at odds on how to salvage the deteriorating situation. The disarray reached a point where it threatened to break up the tenuous triumvirate. It was an opportunity every field commander would dream of. MacArthur instantly pleaded with Washington permission to bomb the Yalu bridges and the Reds’ supply bases. Truman denied the request in favor of a new U.N. diplomatic initiative. If MacArthur were allowed to cut off the enemy’s supply line, the war would have been over and the two Koreas united under U.N. trusteeship.

Bajanov reveals that some of Mao’s closest advisers at that time suggested that China should accept the American advance, even occupation by the U.S. of Manchuria. “Let Moscow and Washington fight the war,” they said, “and in the process we can keep China away from trouble.”

Issue #3. China was provoked into entering the war by MacArthur’s crossing the 38th parallel. MacArthur’s intelligence failed to detect Chinese troops’ movement and eventual entry on November 1950.

Comment: Mao used the 38th crossing as pretext for entering the war. He would have entered regardless of UN orders to cross the 38th. It was only after 1) Stalin pressured Mao and assuring him of Soviet air support and 2) testing of Washington’s will to retaliate (page 2) that Mao reluctantly joined the fray.

Contrary to reports, G.H.Q. in Tokyo was diligently at work. On October 15, 1950 Tokyo reported 18 Red divisions along the Yalu while 38 divisions were carried in nearby Manchuria against MacArthur’s 8th Army, now reduced to only 9 divisions, thanks largely to Truman administration’s drastic cutbacks of the military (Frazier Hunt “The Untold Story of Douglas MacArthur”, Wm. C. Triplett II “Rogue State”).

To determine if Beijing’s army was on the move or not, by day or night, was made impossible by Truman’s own suicidal order that kept our planes 20 miles south of the river border. It was the general consensus of all present that Red China had no intention of intervening, a viewpoint advanced by the CIA and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Both reported directly to Washington, not Tokyo. Note that it was the task of these two federal agencies, Marshall’s Pentagon, and Bradley’s JCS, to gather intelligence worldwide and to feed MacArthur with the true intentions of Moscow and Beijing, not the other way around. The scope of MacArthur’s military intelligence was therefore limited to his theater of operations. Bradley went so far as to extract an agreement from MacArthur to return two American divisions before Christmas for disposal on the European front. Surprisingly, Truman turned down Chiang Kai-shek’s offer to send an advance force of 35,000 battle-hardened Nationalist troops (out of 500,000) to help MacArthur.

After MacArthur’s successful Inchon counter-offensive, the fate of the North Koreans was sealed. But the Chinese Communists chose to wait until the end of October, i.e., at least six weeks later, before they started crossing the Yalu. Willoughby and Chamberlain (ibid.) then ask: Why did Mao fail to come to the aid of the North Koreans immediately? For the simple reason that after Inchon, the Communists had to face the probability that the Yalu bridges and their adjacent supply bases would be bombed, thus jeopardizing any successful intervention. MacArthur knew that supply line is the nervous system of any military operation.

How little did MacArthur realize, however, that it would be conveyed to the Red Chinese that even though they entered the fray en masse, it would be under the “sanctuary” of being immune from any destructive action by our military forces within their own areas. Even if this meant putting the lives of our own men at grave danger. That the Red Chinese commander apparently knew such a decision would be forthcoming while MacArthur did not, represents “one of the blackest pages ever recorded.”

During this time the three major Cambridge spies – Burgess, MacLean, and Philby – were in position to do the most damage to the US/UN effort. Burgess stayed at the Foreign Office (F.O.) until he transferred to the British Embassy in Washington in late summer, 1950. Philby was already in D.C. as MI-6’s formal liaison to FBI, CIA, and Canadian intelligence. MacLean would head the U.S desk at the London F.O. At this time Washington was teeming with Communist spies, sympathizers, and surrogates in the Truman administration (Frazier Hunt, op. cit., Romerstein & Breindel “Verona Secrets,” Ann Coulter “Treason”).

Some 50 years later Triplett writes (op. cit.): The three spies could have passed word to Moscow that there was no risk to China or to Soviet Union from a massive attack by the Americans, confirming what Willoughby and Chamberlain had suspected 50 years earlier. Triplett goes on to say that the three spies had provided Stalin, Mao, and Kim with a unique look inside Allied assumptions, strategies, and plans for the Korean War and the Cold War period. The result was to set in motion a reign of terror unleashed by Kim Il Sung in 1950 that continues today (under his son Kim Jung Il, who now threatens to aim nuclear-tipped missiles at Los Angeles).

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  1. It’s hard to take you seriously when you:
    1. Compare casualty rates of the bug out of the 8th Army with the attack of Okinawa. How do you compare a retreat with an attack against an entrenched Japanese enemy defending their home territory. Of course an attacking force against a well prepared enemy will incur higher casualties.
    2. Describe the retreat of the 8th Army as a withdrawal made with “consummate skill”. History are you reading. You need to read Donald Knox’s The Korean War: Pusan to Chosin to read actual recollections of men who were there to understand that this was an disorganized bug out.
    3. Give credit to MacArthur for the ’51 counteroffensive, when any student of the war knows that Gen. Ridgeway was responsible for and directed this offensive
    4. In you discussion of MacArthur’s sacking, you leave out crucial and significant actions. MacArthur’s letter to his congressman was a full discourse of disagreement with his commander. Sorry, but field commanders are not afforded this luxury. He was directed not to issue communiqués to the press. He constantly ignored this and continued to publically push for his views for the course of the war. If anything Truman took too long to pull the plug on MacArthur.

  2. Mac is a good example of a recurring theme among so many military men: that they don’t understand, or even perceive, that the military part is only one small part of a multifacetted situation. This is OK as long as 1. the person in question is quite clear that he is completely subject to the orders of the US *civil* leadership, and 2. that civil leadership is competent. Mac is certainly not a singular case; military grumbling has occurred plenty of times. However it would be so much better if we educated the people who become our officers in ALL of these fields (e.g. diplomacy, econoics, sociology etc. etc.). The lamentable way Iraq has gone is a good example, where several high officers did NOT understand this, and the result was the use, exclusively in some cases (Odierno….) of heavy handed tactics and alienation of the population.