On April 11, 1951, President Harry Truman announced with "deep regret" that he had dismissed General Douglas MacArthur as commanding general of U.S. forces in the Korean War. Truman’s decision came after MacArthur repeatedly criticized the president’s policies, advocating a more aggressive strategy even as Truman sought to limit the war. After his announcement, the president faced intense criticism while MacArthur returned home to a hero’s welcome, including an address to a joint session of Congress and a ticker-tape parade through New York City in his honor. However, the controversy slowly subsided as most Americans--and U.S. generals--made it clear that they opposed MacArthur’s military strategy. General Omar Bradley famously said that MacArthur’s policies "would involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy."
James M. Lindsay, CFR’s senior vice president and director of studies, argues that the firing of MacArthur shows that "presidents can be justified in overruling the military advice of even their most decorated generals." That lesson continues to apply today, he says. When President Obama receives recommendations from his generals concerning the war in Afghanistan, he "may accept those recommendations, revise them, or reject them entirely." "That is the meaning of the principle of civilian control of the military," Lindsay argues, "and it’s what the framers intended when they made the president ’commander-in-chief.’"
This video is part of Lessons Learned with James M. Lindsay, a series dedicated to exploring historical events and examining their meaning in the context of foreign relations today.