(W)Archives: You’re Fired!

April 11, 2014

On April 11, 1951 the Defense Department’s communication system sent a rare “Flash” precedence message streaking from Washington to South Korea.  The message was classified Top Secret, but its substance would soon become very public.

President Harry Truman had fired General Douglas MacArthur, the World War II hero and commander of United Nations forces in Korea.

Truman was fed up with two years of what he viewed as insubordination and the ignoring of orders by MacArthur.  For instance, in June 1950 MacArthur was authorized to bomb targets in Korea south of the 38th parallel.  MacArthur had ordered bombing of targets north of the parallel.  Only afterwards did he seek the authority to do so.  The bombings themselves were of no major import, but it was a bad sign and further such incidents ensued.  However, the straw that broke the camel’s back was when MacArthur started publicly debating the President over America’s defense policy and corresponding out of channels with a member of Congress on this subject.

By late March, 1951 Truman had already decided to fire the General.   However, MacArthur was such a major figure that before pulling the trigger the President engaged in several days of consultation with Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall; General Omar Bradley, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and through him the Joint Chiefs; Secretary of State Dean Acheson; and “Wise Man” Ambassador Averell Harriman.  All of these men agreed that MacArthur must go.  Indeed, Harriman and Marshall said that MacArthur should have been fired two years earlier.

Unfortunately, Clausewitzian friction affected the firing.  The original plan was to send a cable through State Department channels to the U.S. Ambassador in South Korea, who was expected to be receiving Secretary of the Army Frank Pace.  Pace was then to deliver the word to MacArthur.  In the event, Pace was visiting the front when he was expected to be with the Ambassador and the State Department’s communication system suffered a power failure that slowed receipt of the message.  By this time, word had reached the White House that the press knew what was afoot.  The news would be in the next morning’s papers.

The result was the Flash message through Defense channels and a near simultaneous early morning White House briefing for the press.  In the end, one of MacArthur’s aides heard the news on the radio and informed Mrs. MacArthur, who told her husband.  The message itself became irrelevant.

It is interesting to contrast the firing of MacArthur with the departure in 2010 of General Stanley McChrystal, commander of ISAF forces in Afghanistan.  McChrystal was allowed to tender his resignation after an article appeared in Rolling Stone which indicated that some of the his staffers were insufficiently respectful of President Obama.  The administration then permitted McChrystal to retire with four star rank even though he had not held it long enough to qualify for such a status under normal procedures.

The result of the firing of MacArthur was a political firestorm that seriously damaged Truman’s popularity.  The President was even burned in effigy on America’s streets.  However, over time, historians and the public have come to see Truman’s move as the right decision.  The firing of MacArthur, at the time one of the most widely popular general officers in American history, shored up the principle of civilian authority over the military and made a bold statement that there would be no American Caesar.  One could argue that if MacArthur had been allowed to retain his position, firing a prominent general guilty of the relatively minor transgression of having disrespectful staffers today would be politically risky, if not untenable.  Truman’s action solidified the appropriate and delicate sense of balance between the presidency and the military, which MacArthur’s increasingly autonomous tendencies had threatened to alter.  This balance is what allows commanders like McChrystal to play an honorable role in the country’s affairs even after they retire, and perhaps more importantly, allows the stars that they wear as general officers to retain the dignity that is so fundamental to military command.

McChrystal handled a bad situation with aplomb.  For his part, MacArthur was a blowhard.  In his memoirs he wrote about the implications of his firing: “Moscow and Peiping rejoiced.  The bells were rung and a holiday atmosphere prevailed.  The left-wingers everywhere exulted.  But in the Far East, there was bewilderment and shock.”  As he always had, MacArthur made it all about himself.  The result of this tendency was that his legacy in the U.S. Army is negligible.  As Tom Ricks has noted, none of MacArthur’s protégés rose to major positions and he is remembered in the Army mostly as an embarrassment.  McChrystal, by contrast, remains—and in my view always will be—a figure respected for his contribution to his country and to the profession of arms, a man who made one mistake but who wasn’t defined by it.  In short, McChrystal has little in common with MacArthur.  He has much more in common with MacArthur’s contemporaries, Marshall, Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton, who are the subject of emulation and adulation to this day.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.


Photo credit: Expert Infantry