Following World War II, the Korean peninsula was divided, supposedly temporarily, along the 38th parallel, with a Russian-allied communist government in the north and a pro-Western government in the south. On June 24, 1950, armies of North Korea flooded across the dividing line, and the Truman administration quickly committed troops to a United Nations effort aimed at pushing the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel.

General Douglas MacArthur, then in charge of the Allied occupation of Japan, assumed command of the United Nations troops, which were soon pushed back to a small perimeter around the southern port city of Pusan. Then, in a brilliant maneuver, MacArthur simultaneously broke out of the Pusan perimeter and launched an amphibious landing at Inchon. Soon UN forces had not only reached the 38th parallel but were crossing it and heading north toward the Yalu River, the boundary between China and North Korea.

MacArthur conceived of the Korean war as a holy war; he kept talking about "unleashing Chiang Kai-shek," then holed up in his island fortress on Formosa, and launching atomic strikes, all of which made Truman, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the other UN countries involved very nervous. For Harry Truman and the Joint Chiefs, Korea was an exercise in containment, but that made it a very frustrating war for many Americans. It meant that in this war the United States was not aiming for total victory, but for more limited, and more ambiguous, results.

There is a tradition in American government that the military is subordinate to the civilian leaders. Generals do not make statements about policy without first clearing them with their superiors. But MacArthur, used to ruling in Japan, ignored the chain of command, and began writing letters about what the United States should do in Korea. He sent a letter to the Veterans of Foreign Wars saying that Formosa would be a fine place to launch an aggressive campaign against China. After the Chinese entered the war -- something MacArthur had assured Truman would never happen -- MacArthur wrote to Speaker of the House Joe Martin saying the United States could only win by an all-out war, and this meant bombing the Manchurian bases. So Harry Truman fired him, and evoked a firestorm of criticism from conservatives who believed Truman to be soft on communism. But there is no question that Truman was absolutely correct. Whether his overall policy was right or wrong, the American Constitution commits control of foreign policy to the president and not to the military. As Truman explained, avoidance of World War III while containing aggression was a difficult line to walk, but that was the policy the United States had decided upon. No soldier, not even a five-star general, could unilaterally challenge that policy without disturbing an essential element of democratic government.

For further reading: Richard Rovere and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The General and the President (1951); John Spanier, The Truman- MacArthur Controversy (1959); Trumbull Higgins, Korea and the Fall of MacArthur (1960).


I want to talk plainly to you tonight about what we are doing in Korea and about our policy in the Far East.

In the simplest terms, what we are doing in Korea is this: We are trying to prevent a third world war.

I think most people in this country recognized that fact last June. And they warmly supported the decision of the Government to help the Republic of Korea against the Communist aggressors. Now, many persons, even some who applauded our decision to defend Korea, have forgotten the basic reason for our action.

It is right for us to be in Korea. It was right last June. It is right today.

I want to remind you why this is true.

The Communists in the Kremlin are engaged in a monstrous conspiracy to stamp out freedom all over the world. If they were to succeed, the United States would be numbered among their principal victims. It must be clear to everyone that the United States cannot -- and will not -- sit idly by and await foreign conquest. The only question is: When is the best time to meet the threat and how?

The best time to meet the threat is in the beginning. It is easier to put out a fire in the beginning when it is small than after it has become a roaring blaze.

And the best way to meet the threat of aggression is for the peace-loving nations to act together. If they don't act together, they are likely to be picked off, one by one....

This is the basic reason why we joined in creating the United Nations. And since the end of World War II we have been putting that lesson into practice -- we have been working with other free nations to check the aggressive designs of the Soviet Union before they can result in a third world war.

That is what we did in Greece, when that nation was threatened by aggression of international communism.

The attack against Greece could have led to general war. But this country came to the aid of Greece. The United Nations supported Greek resistance. With our help, the determination and efforts of the Greek people defeated the attack on the spot.

Another big Communist threat to peace was the Berlin blockade. That too could have led to war. But again it was settled because free men would not back down in an emergency....

The question we have had to face is whether the Communist plan of conquest can be stopped without general war. Our Government and other countries associated with us in the United Nations believe that the best chance of stopping it without general war is to meet the attack in Korea and defeat it there.

That is what we have been doing. It is a difficult and bitter task.

But so far it has been successful.

So far, we have prevented World War III.

So far, by fighting a limited war in Korea, we have prevented aggression from succeeding and bringing on a general war. And the ability of the whole free world to resist Communist aggression has been greatly improved.

We have taught the enemy a lesson. He has found out that aggression is not cheap or easy. Moreover, men all over the world who want to remain free have been given new courage and new hope. They know now that the champions of freedom can stand up and fight.

Our resolute stand in Korea is helping the forces of freedom now fighting in Indochina and other countries in that part of the world. It has already slowed down the timetable of conquest....

We do not want to see the conflict in Korea extended. We are trying to prevent a world war -- not to start one. The best way to do this is to make plain that we and the other free countries will continue to resist the attack.

But you may ask: Why can't we take other steps to punish the aggressor? Why don't we bomb Manchuria and China itself? Why don't we assist Chinese Nationalist troops to land on the mainland of China?

If we were to do these things we would be running a very grave risk of starting a general war. If that were to happen, we would have brought about the exact situation we are trying to prevent.

If we were to do these things, we would become entangled in a vast conflict on the continent of Asia and our task would become immeasurably more difficult all over the world.

What would suit the ambitions of the Kremlin better than for military forces to be committed to a full-scale war with Red China? ...

The course we have been following is the one best calculated to avoid an all-out war. It is the course consistent with our obligation to do all we can to maintain international peace and security. Our experience in Greece and Berlin shows that it is the most effective course of action we can follow....

If the Communist authorities realize that they cannot defeat us in Korea, if they realize it would be foolhardy to widen the hostilities beyond Korea, then they may recognize the folly of continuing their aggression. A peaceful settlement may then be possible. The door is always open.

Then we may achieve a settlement in Korea which will not compromise the principles and purposes of the United Nations.

I have thought long and hard about this question of extending the war in Asia. I have discussed it many times with the ablest military advisers in the country. I believe with all my heart that the course we are following is the best course.

I believe that we must try to limit war to Korea for these vital reasons: to make sure that the precious lives of our fighting men are not wasted; to see that the security of our country and the free world is not needlessly jeopardized; and to prevent a third world war.

A number of events have made it evident that General MacArthur did not agree with that policy. I have therefore considered it essential to relieve General MacArthur so that there would be no doubt or confusion as to the real purpose and aim of our policy.

It was with the deepest personal regret that I found myself compelled to take this action. General MacArthur is one of our greatest military commanders. But the cause of world peace is more important than any individual.

The change in commands in the Far East means no change whatever in the policy of the United States. We will carry on the fight in Korea with vigor and determination in an effort to bring the war to a speedy and successful conclusion.

The new commander, Lt. Gen. Matthew Ridgway, has already demonstrated that he has the great qualities of military leadership needed for this task.

We are ready, at any time, to negotiate for a restoration of peace in the area. But we will not engage in appeasement. We are only interested in real peace.

Real peace can be achieved through a settlement based on the following factors:

One: the fighting must stop.

Two: concrete steps must be taken to insure that the fighting will not break out again.

Three: there must be an end to the aggression.

A settlement founded upon these elements would open the way for the unification of Korea and the withdrawal of all foreign forces.

In the meantime, I want to be clear about our military objective. We are fighting to resist an outrageous aggression in Korea. We are trying to keep the Korean conflict from spreading to other areas. But at the same time we must conduct our military activities so as to insure the security of our forces. This is essential if they are to continue the fight until the enemy abandons its ruthless attempt to destroy the Republic of Korea.

That is our military objective -- to repel attack and to restore peace.

In the hard fighting in Korea, we are proving that collective action among nations is not only a high principle but a workable means of resisting aggression. Defeat of aggression in Korea may be the turning point in the world's search for a practical way of achieving peace and security.

The struggle of the United Nations in Korea is a struggle for peace.

The free nations have united their strength in an effort to prevent a third world war.

That war can come if the Communist rulers want it to come. But this Nation and its allies will not be responsible for its coming.

We do not want to widen the conflict. We will use every effort to prevent that disaster. And in so doing we know that we are following the great principles of peace, freedom, and justice.

Source: Department of State Bulletin, 16 April 1951.

Table of Contents