The Korean War was the first major armed conflict of the Cold War. It tested the commitment of the United States to containment and raised a significant question about the end goal of the U.S. Cold War policy: should it seek only to stop the spread of communism or should it also try to roll back communism? Unexpected developments in the war led to a clash between President Harry Truman and his top general in Korea, Douglas MacArthur, as these documents show.
The war’s origins lay in the troubled division of Korea into South Korea and North Korea following Japan’s defeat in World War II, which brought to an end the Japanese occupation of Korea (1910 – 1945). North Korea was communist; the South anti-communist.
On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces carried out a massive invasion of the South. Soviet leader Josef Stalin had approved of – but had not ordered – the action, but Soviet military aid to North Korea seemed to confirm the prediction of NSC 68 that the communists sought world domination (Document 6). President Truman, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and top-level national security and military officials agreed that the United States and its allies must act immediately to protect South Korea. Although Acheson had suggested in January that the United States would not deploy its military forces outside of the so-called defensive perimeter in Asia (Document 4), he also stated that an attacked nation could rely on the United Nations. American military action was therefore enabled by U.N. Security Council decisions. U.N. forces in Korea included those from the United States and 16 other nations.
A risky amphibious landing at Inchon (September 1950), conceived and commanded by General Douglas MacArthur, turned the tide of battle in favor of U.N. forces, which advanced toward the line of division between the two Koreas, recovering ground lost to the North and then, with the urging of MacArthur, into North Korea itself, eventually approaching the border with China. In response to the U.N. advance, China sent its forces into North Korea (October 1950), causing the U.N. forces to retreat and leading eventually to a stalemate along the original line dividing North and South Korea.
Chinese intervention drastically raised the stakes of the war. If Truman ordered U.N. forces to retreat to South Korean territory, he risked criticism that the decision to invade North Korea was a mistake. But efforts to force a Chinese withdrawal were certain to prolong the war and result in increased U.S. casualties. Aggressive statements by MacArthur calling for a direct attack on China further complicated Truman’s position. Truman decided to relieve MacArthur of his command for insubordination. (The general had defied orders that he clear his public statements with the White House before their release.) Truman announced his decision on April 11, 1951, the day he also delivered this speech (Document 8).
MacArthur did not go quietly. Congressional leaders invited him to address both houses, and the general used the occasion to defend his ideas for winning the Korean War (Document 9). MacArthur famously declared, “In war there is no substitute for victory.” Hailed as a hero, he embarked on a national tour, basking in the cheers of adoring crowds in numerous cities. He briefly flirted with running for president as a Republican but soon faded from public view. Truman’s popularity fell, but in hindsight his decision to protect the chain of command was a wise one. What hurt Truman more was the grinding stalemate of the Korean War. With his approval ratings at an all-time low, he decided not to seek re-election in 1952. The task of ending the war fell to his successor, Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, who brokered a cease-fire in July 1953 that restored the prewar situation: Korea remained divided; a communist regime still held power in the North.
Source: MacArthur Speech, Transcript of General Douglas MacArthur’s Address to Congress, April 19, 1951. Available at https://goo.gl/9m6hFR.
Mr. President, Mr. Speaker and distinguished members of the Congress:
I stand on this rostrum with a sense of deep humility and great pride – humility in the wake of those great architects of our history who have stood here before me, pride in the reflection that this home of legislative debate represents human liberty in the purest form yet devised.
Here are centered the hopes and aspirations and faith of the entire human race.
I do not stand here as advocate for any partisan cause, for the issues are fundamental and reach quite beyond the realm of partisan considerations. They must be resolved on the highest plane of national interest if our course is to prove sound and our future protected. . . .
The issues are global, and so interlocked that to consider the problems of one sector oblivious to those of another is to court disaster for the whole. While Asia is commonly referred to as the gateway to Europe, it is no less true that Europe is the gateway to Asia, and the broad influence of the one cannot fail to have its impact upon the other. There are those who claim our strength is inadequate to protect on both fronts, that we cannot divide our effort. I can think of no greater expression of defeatism.
If a potential enemy can divide his strength on two fronts, it is for us to counter his efforts. The Communist threat is a global one.
Its successful advance in one sector threatens the destruction of every other sector. You cannot appease or otherwise surrender to communism in Asia without simultaneously undermining our efforts to halt its advance in Europe. . . .
While I was not consulted prior to the President’s decision to intervene in support of the Republic of Korea, that decision, from a military standpoint, proved a sound one. As I said, it proved to be a sound one, as we hurled back the invader and decimated his forces. Our victory was complete, and our objectives within reach, when Red China intervened with numerically superior ground forces.
This created a new war and an entirely new situation, a situation not contemplated when our forces were committed against the North Korean invaders; a situation which called for new decisions in the diplomatic sphere to permit the realistic adjustment of military strategy. Such decisions have not been forthcoming.
While no man in his right mind would advocate sending our ground forces into continental China, and such was never given a thought, the new situation did urgently demand a drastic revision of strategic planning if our political aim was to defeat this new enemy as we had defeated the old.
Apart from the military need, as I saw it, to neutralize the sanctuary protection given the enemy north of the Yalu,1 I