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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 felt that military necessity in the conduct of the war made necessary (1) the intensification of our economic blockade against China,; (2) the imposition of a naval blockade against the China coast; (3) removal of restrictions on air reconnaissance of China’s coastal area and of Manchuria; (4) removal of restrictions on the forces of the Republic of China on Formosa, with logistical support to contribute to their effective operations against the Chinese mainland.
For entertaining these views, all professionally designed to support our forces in Korea and to bring hostilities to an end with the least possible delay and at a saving of countless American and allied lives, I have been severely criticized in lay circles, principally abroad, despite my understanding that from a military standpoint the above views have been fully shared in the past by practically every military leader concerned with the Korean campaign, including our own Joint Chiefs of Staff.2 . . .
We could hold in Korea by constant maneuver and in an approximate area where our supply line advantages were in balance with the supply line disadvantages of the enemy, but we could hope at best for only an indecisive campaign with its terrible and constant attrition upon our forces if the enemy utilized its full military potential.
I have constantly called for the new political decisions essential to a solution.
Efforts have been made to distort my position. It has been said in effect that I was a warmonger. Nothing could be further from the truth.
I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me – and nothing to me is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition, as its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless as a means of settling international disputes. . . .
But once war is forced upon us, there is no other alternative than to apply every available means to bring it to a swift end. War’s very object is victory, not prolonged indecision.
In war there is no substitute for victory.
There are some who for varying reasons would appease Red China.3 They are blind to history’s clear lesson, for history teaches with unmistakable emphasis that appeasement but begets new and bloodier war.4 It points to no single instance where this end has justified that means, where appeasement had led to more than a sham peace. Like blackmail, it lays the basis for new and successively greater demands until, as in blackmail, violence becomes the only other alternative. Why, my soldiers asked me, surrender military advantages to an enemy in the field? I could not answer.
Some may say to avoid spread of the conflict into an all-out war with China. Others, to avoid Soviet intervention. Neither explanation seems valid, for China is already engaging with the maximum power it can commit, and the Soviet will not necessarily mesh its actions with our moves. Like a cobra, any new enemy will more likely strike whenever it feels that the relativity of military and other potentialities is in its favor on a worldwide basis.
The tragedy of Korea is further heightened by the fact that its military action was confined to its territorial limits. It condemns that nation, which it is our purpose to save, to suffer the devastating impact of full naval and air bombardment while the enemy’s sanctuaries are fully protected from such attack and devastation.
Of the nations of the world, Korea alone, up to now, is the sole one which has risked its all against communism. The magnificence of the courage and fortitude of the Korean people defies description. They have chosen to risk death rather than slavery. Their last words to me were: “Don’t scuttle the Pacific.”5
I have just left your fighting sons in Korea. They have done their best there, and I can report to you without reservation that they are splendid in every way.
It was my constant effort to preserve them and end this savage conflict honorably and with the least loss of time and a minimum sacrifice of life. Its growing bloodshed has caused me the deepest anguish and anxiety. Those gallant men will remain often in my thoughts and in my prayers always.
I am closing my 52 years of military service. When I joined the Army, even before the turn of the century, it was the fulfillment of all my boyish hopes and dreams. The world has turned over many times since I took the oath at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have all long since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barracks ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that old soldiers never die; they just fade away.
And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty. Good Bye.
- 1. The Yalu River is the border between North Korea and China.
- 2. The Joint Chiefs of Staff are the leaders of each of the military services. Through the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff they advise the president.
- 3. That is, communist China.
- 4. Here MacArthur appears to reference the 1938 Munich conference, where the leaders of France and Great Britain agreed to not block Nazi Germany’s takeover of a portion of Czechoslovakia known as the Sudetenland. The agreement did not, of course, halt German expansionism. During the Cold War, the Munich conference became a metaphor for the danger and folly of trying to appease aggressive nations and leaders.
- 5. That is, don’t leave the war.