Even before World War II ended, American strategists had concerns about potential Soviet incursions into other countries. In particular, the State Department thought it critical to keep the Soviets out of Korea – because not only would Korea provide ice-free ports to the USSR, but it would allow them a strategic advantage in relation both to China and Japan.
As Max Hastings reported in his book, The Korean War, less than twenty-four hours after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, the U.S. military was planning to occupy Korea. The Russians of course objected and the U.N. got involved, dividing the country along the 38th Parallel.
North of the line, the Soviets installed the ruthless dictator Kim Il Sung, and south of the line the Americans sponsored its own ruthless dictator, Syngman Rhee. Relations were not good between the two parts of Korea, and by 1949 border skirmishes were frequent. The defeat of the American-sponsored Nationalist army of Chiang Kai Shek by the Communist army of Mao Tse Tung hardened American attitudes and exacerbated fears about the Communists. Thus when Kim Il Sung decided (with Stalin’s express permission) to invade South Korea in 1950, it was only a matter of time before the U.S. went to war.
In the early months of the war, the Americans and South Koreans were nearly driven off the peninsula, but they rallied under the direction of General Douglas MacArthur, who planned and executed a dramatic amphibious landing at Inchon, behind the North Koran lines. The Americans then drove north, captured the North Korean capital, and approached the border of China, which had not yet entered the fighting. Against specific instructions from Truman, MacArthur continued to drive north, provoking a surprise Chinese intervention which turned the tide once again and threatened to push the Americans out of Korea. (This possibility was precisely why Truman had objected.) With his troops retreating, MacArthur tried to get Truman to approve the use of atomic weapons against the Chinese and North Koreans.
On December 24, 1950, MacArthur even submitted to Truman a list of targets he wanted to bomb in North Korea and China, requiring twenty-six atomic bombs.
Fortunately, Truman decided against the nuclear option, but the U.S. had come close. Hastings reports that the military was much more enthusiastic about taking this step than the Truman Administration, and he opines:
…had the Chinese proved able to convert the defeat of the UN forces into their destruction, had the Eighth Army been unable to check its retreat, and been driven headlong for the coastal ports with massive casualties, it is impossible to declare with certainty that Truman could have resisted the demand for an atomic demonstration against China. The pressure upon the politicians from the military leaders of America might well have become irresistible in the face of military disaster.”
Tensions between the two continued to escalate, and on this day in history, President Truman fired MacArthur and replaced him with Gen. Matthew Ridgeway. That night, Truman addressed the nation and explained his actions. He began by defending his overall policy in Korea, declaring, “It is right for us to be in Korea.” He excoriated the “communists in the Kremlin [who] are engaged in a monstrous conspiracy to stamp out freedom all over the world.” Nevertheless, he explained, it “would be wrong—tragically wrong—for us to take the initiative in extending the war… Our aim is to avoid the spread of the conflict.” The president continued, “I believe that we must try to limit the war to Korea for these vital reasons: To make sure that the precious lives of our fighting men are not wasted; to see that the security of our country and the free world is not needlessly jeopardized; and to prevent a third world war.” General MacArthur had been fired “so that there would be no doubt or confusion as to the real purpose and aim of our policy.”
Later, in Plain Speaking, an oral biography of Truman by Merle Miller, Truman recalled the incident.
The subject that made Truman the angriest, Miller said, was MacArthur.
Mr. President, I know why you fired MacArthur, but if you don’t mind I’d like to hear it in your own words.
I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. That’s the answer to that. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the laws for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail. That’s why when a good one comes along like General [George] Marshall, why you’ve got to hang onto them, and I did….
Mr. President, how can you explain a man like that?
I’ve given it a lot of thought, and I have finally concluded… decided that there were times when he . . . well, I’m afraid when he wasn’t right in the head. And there never was anyone around to him to keep in line. He didn’t have anyone on his staff who wasn’t an ass kisser….