During the Korean War, fought from 1950 to 1953, President Harry Truman and Army General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the United Nations coalition, clashed over the scale of the hostilities. Truman was firm in his commitment to keeping the conflict confined to the Korean peninsula; MacArthur insisted on a full-scale war with China. As a result, Truman fired MacArthur nine months after the war began.
The Korean War
In the aftermath of World War II, the Korean peninsula was split at the 38th parallel into the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, a Soviet-backed communist state in the north, and the pro-Western Republic of Korea in the south. On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces invaded South Korea with the intent of unifying the peninsula. MacArthur, who had led American campaigns in the Southwest Pacific in World War II and had overseen the post-war occupation of Japan, was chosen to command the U.S.-led United Nations coalition deployed to support South Korea.
Truman's Limited War
The Korean War was fought against the broader backdrop of the Cold War, a state of heightened tensions between the United States and communist Soviet Union. For Truman, the Korean War was therefore a mission to curb the spread of communism as many American leaders feared a North Korean victory would pave the way for Soviet conquests elsewhere. Truman, however, wanted to avoid war with communist China. An outright war with the Chinese, he worried, had the potential to erupt into a third World War. Therefore, Truman was determined to wage a "limited war" in Korea.
By October 1950, MacArthur's forces had driven the North Koreans above the 38th parallel. MacArthur then convinced Truman that liberating North Korea was a feasible objective, assuring the president that the likelihood of Chinese intervention was slim. Soon after MacArthur crossed the 38th parallel, Chinese forces invaded and drove the U.N. troops back into South Korea. At that point, MacArthur wanted to bomb China and to enlist the military assistance of the Chinese Nationalists exiled in Taiwan, but Truman refused. In January 1951, China attempted to initiate peace talks. MacArthur responded with ultimatum in which he vowed to cripple China if it did not remove its troops from Korea. MacArthur subsequently criticized Truman's limited war policy in a letter to House Republican Joseph Martin, who shared the general's message with Congress.
Firing of MacArthur
Concerned that MacArthur's unsanctioned actions would trigger a war with China, Truman fired the general for insubordination on April 11, 1951. MacArthur was considered a hero by the American public, however, and so the following day, Truman addressed the nation to explain his decision and justify his policy of limited war. Firing MacArthur, the president argued, was necessary to prevent the conflict from transcending Korea's borders and escalating into a larger, more catastrophic war.
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