MacArthur was a popular hero of World War II. He was appointed as then the commander of United Nations forces fighting in the Korean War on July 8, 1950. MacArthur had previously led the Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific during World War II, and after the war he was in charge of the Occupation of Japan. When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, starting the Korean War, MacArthur was soon given command of the United Nations forces defending South Korea. He planned and executed the amphibious assault at Inchon on 15 September 1950, for which he was credited as being a military genius. When he followed up his victory with a full-scale invasion of North Korea on President Truman's orders, China intervened in the war militarily. A series of defeats compelled MacArthur to withdraw from North Korea.
On December 1, 1950, MacArthur was asked by a reporter if the restrictions imposed on him by the administration on operations against Chinese forces were "a handicap to effective military operations." MacArthur called them "an enormous handicap, unprecedented in military history." Five days later Truman issued a directive requiring all military officers and diplomatic officials to clear with the State Department all but routine statements before making them public, "and...refrain from direct communications on military or foreign policy with newspapers, magazines, and other publicity media."
On March 23,1951 MacArthur issued a communiqué offering a ceasefire to the Chinese. Truman was furious with MacArthur, later stating "I was ready to kick him into the North China Sea, I was never so put out in my life." Truman felt that MacArthur's communiqué, which had not been cleared in accordance with the December directive, had pre-empted his own proposal.
Before relieving MacArthur, Truman considered how previous Presidents like James K. Polk and Abraham Lincoln had dealt with insubordinate Generals. Truman later said that Polk was his favorite president because "he had the courage to tell Congress to go to Hell on foreign policy matters."
On 11 April 1951, President Truman drafted the following order to MacArthur, which was issued under the signature of General Omar N. Bradley:
"I deeply regret that it becomes my duty as President and Commander-in-Chief of the United States military forces to replace you as Supreme Commander, Allied Powers; Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command; Commander-in-Chief, Far East; and Commanding General, U.S. Army, Far East.
You will turn over your commands, effective at once, to Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway. You are authorized to have issued such orders as are necessary to complete desired travel to such place as you select.
My reasons for your replacement, will be made public concurrently with the delivery to you of the foregoing order, and are contained in the next following message, especially with regard to Truman's order to restrict military interaction with the media."
The Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a joint inquiry into the military situation and the circumstances surrounding MacArthur's relief. Not surprisingly, there was some politicization in the process. The inquiry concluded that "the removal of General MacArthur was within the constitutional powers of the President but the circumstances were a shock to national pride."
A national debate has resulted on the question of civilian control of the military. The rising complexity of military technology led to the creation of a professional military, which in turn made civilian control increasingly problematic. The constitution makes the President the Commander in Chief, while it gives Congress the power to raise armies and wage wars. Truman felt justified in relieving MacArthur for failing to "respect the authority of the President" by privately communicating with Congress.
Truman was later quoted on this subject as saying:
"I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the President. I didn't fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that's not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail."