On This Day

douglas macarthur, macarthur korea, macarthur inchon
Army Signal Corps/National Archives
Gen. MacArthur during the Inchon
landings, Sept. 15, 1950.

On This Day: MacArthur Named Commander of UN Forces in Korea

July 08, 2011 06:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On July 8, 1950, President Truman appointed Gen. Douglas MacArthur as commander-in-chief of United Nations forces in the Korean War. MacArthur was removed from his command just nine months later for publicly criticizing Truman’s leadership.

MacArthur Chosen to Lead UN Forces

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In June 1950, communist North Korea launched a surprise invasion of South Korea. Almost immediately, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution condemning the invasion. U.S. President Harry Truman ordered U.S. troops into Korea to enforce the resolution.

As the first U.S. air and naval forces entered Korea, the U.S. and UN discussed how to coordinate their forces. On July 7, two days after first major battle between U.S. and North Korean forces, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 84. It committed UN member forces to a “unified command under the United States of America,” led by a commander chosen by the U.S. It also allowed the commander to fly the United Nations flag during the fighting.

The purpose of the unified command and use of UN flag, wrote Walter H. Waggonner in The New York Times, was to “identify the campaign now being waged against the North Korean Communist invaders more clearly as a United Nations action.” The moves also helped Truman to commit U.S. troops without needing congressional approval for war; under the resolution, U.S. troops were merely “engaging in police work for the United Nations.”

The following day, in what many considered a “foregone conclusion,” according to Waggonner, Truman appointed Gen. Douglas MacArthur, a distinguished veteran of World War I and supreme commander of southwest Pacific forces during World War II, as commander of the UN forces.

The 70-year-old MacArthur had served the previous five years as supreme commander of the Allied Powers, presiding over the surrender and rebuilding of Japan. He would remain in Japan for much of the Korean War, commanding operations from his headquarters in Tokyo.

MacArthur’s Command in Korea

At the start of the war, the UN forces did little to slow the North Korean advance. By the end of July 1950, they had been pushed to a small area around the city of Pusan in the southeastern corner of Korea. They managed to hold off the North Koreans for six weeks before MacArthur launched a daring assault that changed the course of the war.

In July, MacArthur had conceived of an amphibious invasion of Inchon (Incheon), a city on Korea’s west coast located near the Southern capital of Seoul. There were a number of geographic obstacles in Inchon, including narrow channels, fast currents, high seawalls, and large tidal ranges, which restricted the number of days for invasion to three or four each month.

Nearly every other officer and leader in Washington felt that an assault was too risky, but MacArthur managed to convinced them to approve it. Launched on Sept. 15, the Inchon invasion was an overwhelming success: U.S.-South Korean forces recaptured Seoul and cut off North Korean supply lines, allowing UN forces to break out of the Pusan Perimeter and push North.

As North Korean forces retreated north above the 38th parallel separating North and South Korea, MacArthur received permission from Truman to enter North Korea if “no entry into North Korea by major Soviet or Chinese Communist forces, no announcements of intended entry, nor a threat to counter our operations militarily.” UN forces crossed the 38th parallel on Oct. 1, capturing the Northern capital of Pyongyang and pushing north near the Chinese border.

In an Oct. 15 meeting on the remote Wake Island, MacArthur assured Truman that China would not enter the war. On Oct. 25, however, Chinese forces launched effective attacks on UN forces before mysteriously retreating days later.

Undaunted, MacArthur launched an aggression operation on Nov. 24, that he hoped would end the war and have the troops “home by Christmas.” The following day, China launched a large-scale invasion of North Korea that overwhelmed the UN forces, prompting a rapid retreat back across the 38th parallel. “We face an entirely new war,” MacArthur reported back to Washington.

MacArthur’s Dismissal

In early 1951, the war settled into a stalemate along the 38th parallel. MacArthur lobbied Truman to loosen restrictions on him and allow him to fight an all-out war against China. In March 1951, against the wishes of his superiors in Washington, MacArthur demanded that China meet with him to surrender.

He also wrote a letter to Republican Minority Leader Joe Martin that was highly critical of Truman: “It seems strangely difficult for some to realize that here in Asia is where the Communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest … that here we fight Europe's war with arms while the diplomats there still fight it with words, that 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.”

The letter, revealed on April 5, infuriated Truman. On April 11, he relieved MacArthur of his duties as commander. “Full and vigorous debate on matters of national policy is a vital element in the constitutional system of our free democracy,” he declared. “It is fundamental, however, that military commanders must be governed by the policies and directives issued to them in the manner provided by our laws and Constitution.”

MacArthur’s firing shocked the nation. He was greeted as a hero upon his return to the U.S. In a speech before Congress, famous for his statement “old soldiers never die; they just fade away,” MacArthur declared, “War's very object is victory, not prolonged indecision. In war there can be no substitute for victory.”

The Senate conducted an inquiry into the firing. It concluded that Truman had a right to fire MacArthur, but the reasons for it “were utterly inadequate to justify the act.”

Many later historians have supported Truman’s decision. Robert Smith, author of “MacArthur in Korea,” wrote that “deliberately, with complete understanding of what would ensue, MacArthur undertook to sabotage Truman’s effort, in March 1951, to open peace negotiations with the Chinese” and that “no one not blinded by hero worship could overlook the arrogance and contempt with which MacArthur deliberately flouted Truman’s directive.”

Resources for Studying the Korean War

The two sides began negotiations for an armistice in July 1951, but fighting continued for another two years before an agreement was reached. The war finally ended July 27, 1953, with the signing of an armistice that created a demilitarized zone at the 38th parallel.

The peninsula was devastated by the three-year conflict; much of its infrastructure was destroyed and most of its people thrown into poverty. No peace treaty was ever reached, and there has been continued conflict between North and South Korea.

The U.S. Army Center of Military History offers several books, brochures and other publications detailing the Army’s actions in Korea.

The Truman Library has an archive of speeches, memos, correspondence and other documents relating to the Truman administration’s involvement in the Korean War.

The Eisenhower Library holds primary documents related to the Eisenhower administration’s actions in Korea.

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars’ Cold War International History Project holds a collection of primary source documents from Russian archives, including correspondence between Stalin, Mao Zedong and Kim Il Sung.

Life magazine has two slideshows of photos from Korea: The Korean War You Never Knew and Life in the Korean War.
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