President Harry Truman spoke softly—so much so that some staff had to strain to hear him above the sound of White House renovation. "So the staff won't have to read it in the papers, I'm going to tell you that I fired MacArthur yesterday," Truman said.
It was an otherwise routine April 1951 White House staff meeting. But the statement—that a president with mid-20s approval ratings was relieving an American hero general of command in the midst of an unpopular war—was anything but normal. Frank Pace, the secretary of the Army, was in Asia, Truman added, and would tell MacArthur. "I'd kind of like to announce it myself," he added.
The decision was a long time coming. MacArthur, a former Army chief of staff, Medal of Honor winner, had commanded the Southwest Pacific Theatre in World War II, accepted Japan's surrender, and oversaw that country's occupation in the postwar years. When the Korean War broke out, MacArthur was put in command of United Nations forces against the North. MacArthur had mixed sometimes brilliant military strategy with public pronouncements that often bordered on (or flat out were) insubordination, issuing his own foreign policy dictates and trying to push the United States into a broader war with Red China.
Matters came to a head on April 5, 1951. House Minority Leader Joe Martin read a letter he had received weeks earlier from MacArthur discussing the situation in Asia. "Virtually all that he said was bound to provoke Truman," the historian David McCullough later wrote. Chinese nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek should be committed to the Korean war, MacArthur wrote. "Here [in Asia] we fight Europe's war with arms while the diplomats there still fight it with words," MacArthur had written. "If we lose the war to Communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable, win it and Europe most probably would avoid war and yet preserve freedom.... There is no substitute for victory."
Several days of meetings ensued involving Truman's staff and members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, though by all outward appearances, McCullough later wrote, the White House assumed an "unnatural calm." Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall and Secretary of State Dean Acheson urged caution. "If you relieve MacArthur, you will have the biggest fight of your administration," Acheson told Truman. Vice President Alben Barkley and Supreme Court Chief Justice Fred Vinson advocated MacArthur's firing. The president listened to his advisers but kept his own counsel. By Monday, April 9, Truman's advisers, including the Joint Chiefs, concluded that MacArthur must go.
Truman signed the orders and—the age of instant global communications still a half-century in the hazy future—arranged for their delivery to his wayward general. They were transmitted via State Department channels (at Marshall's suggestion—such momentous news would surely leak if sent through the military chain of command) to the U.S. ambassador in Korea, who would in turn give them to Pace. He would then personally deliver them to MacArthur. The news would be publicly announced the following morning.
Glitches immediately started popping up in the communications system. Pace was delayed getting the orders. Meanwhile back in Washington, a rumor surfaced at the Pentagon that a Chicago Tribune reporter was preparing to break the story of a "major resignation" in the Far East. White House aides started panicking—the general couldn't be allowed to quit prematurely. Truman, living at the Blair House while the White House was renovated, was informed late in the evening. ("They caught me in my pajamas," he later said.) He ordered a wire be sent directly to MacArthur informing him. "I wasn't going to let the SOB resign on me," Truman told aide George Elsey the next day. "I wanted to fire him!"
Operators on the White House switchboard started calling reporters at home: There would be a 1 a.m. press conference. By the time White House Press Secretary Joe Short was handing the order out to reporters, Truman was back at Blair House, asleep. He slept well: "The thing you have to understand about me is if I've done the right thing and I know I've done the right thing, I don't worry over it," he said. "There's nothing to worry over."
Few shared the president's certitude. Public reaction was swift and furious. "The reaction was stupendous, the outcry from the American people shattering," McCullough later wrote. Angry Republicans discussed impeaching the president. One Gallup poll showed 69 percent of Americans supported the general. Truman's own approval rating would reach 23 percent that month, and did not rise above the low thirties while he was in office. Of course, time grants perspective, and he is generally ranked as one of the near-great presidents, in part because of his strong assertion of civilian control over the rogue general.
Corrected on April 11, 2014: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated whose firing Vice President Alben Barkley and Supreme Court Justice Fred Vinson; they wanted General Douglas MacArthur fired.