MacArthur vs. Truman: was the Constitution in peril?

In his book “Colossus,” Niall Ferguson states that during the brouhaha between MacArthur and Truman, the structure of the United States government and the Constitution itself were in jeopardy, and were saved only by the backroom skills of Truman in robbing MacArthur of support. He never really explains what might have happened but he hints at a coup.

Is this, in fact, a realistic scenario? Could it have happened?

That seems a bit farfetched. There was a Constitutional issue only in regard to MacArthur’s insubordination - if Truman hadn’t acted in accordance with his authority in Commander in Chief, one *might * say that authority to declare war had been ceded to the military.

Certainly MacArthur was far more popular than Truman at that moment, but if there’s any evidence of a coup being plotted I’m not aware of it. Even an attempt at the 1952 GOP Convention to drop Eisenhower as the nominee in favor of MacArthur failed miserably - probably because by then it had become clear that MacArthur had been intent on turning the “police action” into World War III.

I never finished Ferguson’s book, but I remember a bit of this from David McCullough’s Truman.

The Constitutional struggle occurred when MacArthur (following weeks of infighting with the Pentagon) issued a personal statement to the Chinese threatening to either expand the war or to meet with the Chinese to negotiate a cease-fire. This undercut and effectively sabotaged Truman’s own plans for a cessation.

To quote Truman’s Memoirs:

Truman believed in the authority of the President under the Constitution. MacArthur, as he would later declare, believed that a theater commander in the field should be allowed to act independently from the President or any other authority.

Despite this, MacArthur was not immediately fired. He was sent a mild message reminding him not to issue unapproved statements of foreign policy. At the same time, Truman’s approval ratings were abysmal (hovering around 25%).

Truman later claims that he should have fired MacArthur at that moment, but this is where the backroom skills kicked in. Truman meticulously gathered the support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before moving on MacArthur. After getting commitments, Truman pulled the trigger and fired MacArthur.

The real danger of firing MacArthur was a political shitstorm. Truman was universally disliked. MacArthur was a bigger-than-life war hero (with approval ratings near 80%). And when MacArthur was fired, the backlash was immediate and overwhelming. Millions of Americans were upset. People walked off their jobs, flew American flags at half-mast, and even burned Truman in effigy. House Republicans went on a tirade, wanting to impeach Truman, launch a Congressional investigation of his war-handling, and reinstate MacArthur.

And with all this uproar, then MacArthur came home. When he landed in the US, thousands of people turned out to cheer him. His speech in the House of Representatives defending himself resulted in tickertape parades throughout the country.

At this point, I have to diverge a bit from the history to analyze. THIS is the moment where everything was ripe for a potential uprising or “coup”. An unpopular president had just fired a war hero. Judging from the senator’s statement above, there was a palpable sense that the country was ready to forcefully address the shortcomings of Truman. But there was no organized plot to replace Truman with MacArthur.

However, as Ferguson notes, Truman’s brilliance was his careful enlistment of the Joint Chiefs. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committee, the Chiefs refuted MacArthur’s claims that they agreed with his strategy. Damningly, one of the chiefs claimed that MacArthur wanted to get us in the “wrong war, at the wrong plae, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.” Moreover, they all agreed that given MacArthur’s challenge to presidential authority, there was nothing left but to fire him.

This testimony deflated the entire balloon. Republicans backed off their challenge. MacArthur’s popularity waned. And the public resumed their day-to-day business.

  • Peter Wiggen

Now if I could just fire my coding for insubordination. :rolleyes:

It should be noted that that wasn’t the first time MacArthur overreached his authority by speaking for the President. When Hoover sent the army to harry the Bonus Army out of DC proper, MacArthur was specifically told not to cross the river to the shantytown. He did, and cleared the whole thing, then TOLD THE MEDIA that Hoover had ordered it himself and that proved what a good president he was!

MacArthur was a brilliant general, but a loose cannon.

Damningly, one of the chiefs claimed that MacArthur wanted to get us in the “wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”

That wasn’t just any chief. That was Omar Bradley, the 5 star hero of WWII.

I was a dependant kid --army brat–living on an army base in Japan when MacArthur got fired.

There was unbelievable hatred toward Truman at that time. Me too. How could he do that to a hero?

So many years later I have come to realize that Truman was one of our greatest Presidents.

I do recall that as a kid MacArthur was made fun of even in his prime and even on an army base. Stepping off of a pool side and trying to walk on a rubber raft and not falling immediately into the water was called -----------“The MacArthur Walk”.

If you could walk on water or thought you could walk on water you were MacArthur.

Another person who many people don’t realize was involved in this was Harold Russell. Most people know Russell as the WWII vetern who lost both hands during the war and won an Oscar for his role in The Best Years of Our Lives. But Russell was also active in veteran affairs and was the National Commander of AMVETS when Truman fired MacArthur. Russell spoke out publicly in support of Truman’s decision and on how important civilian control over the military was for America.

Interestingly enough, the man who replaced MacArthur, Matthew Ridgeway, lived in this area for years. My history teacher in high school tried to get him to come and speak to our class, but he politely declined.

I’ve also heard that MacArthur was a total mama’s boy and that some military brass broke up an affair MacArthur was having with a Japanese woman by threatening to tell Mama MacArthur. So maybe Truman could have just told his Mommy?


It would have been tough; Mary MacArthur died in 1935.

Oh. Oops. Well, never mind.

OK, someone has to ask: Wasn’t “Seven Days in May” loosely patterned after the Truman-MacArthur confrontation, including the reference to another woman, an Omar Bradley-like character, and assertions of Soviet (rather than Chinese) appeasement?

You’re thinking of Isabel Rosario Cooper, MacArthur’s 16 year old (!) Filipina girlfriend.

And I knew you were joking and probably deserved a whoosh.

But a lot of people forget how old MacArthur was. He was 71 when Truman fired him. Plus he had been living outside of the United States for the previous sixteen years. He was tired and out of touch.

Well, saying that the Constitution was in peril would probably be overstating it quite a bit. For Truman to have let MacArthur’s insubordination go unchallenged would only have emboldened MacArthur, further diminished Truman’s hold on the Presidency, and quite likely have led to World War III, though. Very big stakes, to say the least, but I don’t for a moment think that a U.S. military coup was a real danger.