The recent change of leadership in the war in Afghanistan brings back memories of the last time a general in charge was discharged by the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.

The recent change of leadership in the war in Afghanistan brings back memories of the last time a general in charge was discharged by the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.

On June 24, 1950, President Harry S Truman was at home in Independence for a relaxing weekend, when he received an urgent call from Secretary of State Dean Acheson. It was a Saturday evening and the Trumans were sitting in the library of their home on North Delaware. Acheson’s message began, “Mr. President, the North Koreans have invaded South Korea!” A second call on Sunday morning started the ball rolling and within the hour Truman’s plane took off for Washington from the Kansas City Municipal Airport.

Simply put, the Korean War coming so soon on the heels of World War II was not very popular among the American public and soon became known as “Truman’s War.” Korea had been occupied by Japan since 1910, and following the Japanese surrender in 1945, Korea was divided along the 38th Parallel, with the United States occupying the south and Russians occupying the north.

The invasion at hand was an attempt by Communist North Korea to unite the entire peninsula under a Communist dictatorship. They were supported by Communist China and Russia. Both the United States and the United Nations were in agreement that the spread of Communism had to be halted immediately or it would certainly spread to Europe, and that job initially fell to the very popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

MacArthur grew up as a military brat and was a graduate of West Point Military Academy in the class of 1903. He rose to the rank of brigadier general in World War I and in 1930, he became chief of staff of the United States Army. MacArthur established the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression that put bread on the table of thousands of rural families across America. Shortly after the start of World War II, MacArthur became the Supreme Commander of the Pacific Theater. He was aboard the U.S.S. Missouri and officially accepted Japan’s surrender on Sept. 2, 1945, and oversaw the American occupation of Japan from 1945 until 1951. He led the United Nations command at the beginning of the Korean War and performed brilliantly as he pushed the North Koreans back north of the 38th Parallel.

Everyone in charge agreed that the Korean Police Action should not be escalated into another all out war involving China and the Soviets. However, MacArthur saw it imperative to drive deeper into northern territory than what the politics of the war would allow. As the state department and the Joint Chiefs were in the process of drafting a non-threatening cease fire, their entire offer to negotiate was undercut when MacArthur took it upon himself to negotiate directly with the enemy commander “in the field.” He threatened an all out air and naval attack on Red China. It was, as Truman observed, “a most extraordinary statement for a military commander to issue on his own responsibility.”

MacArthur was certainly removed from command and replaced by Gen. Matthew Ridgway. The whole country, especially World War II veterans, was outraged at Truman and some called for his impeachment.

MacArthur returned stateside to a hero’s welcome and a ticker tape parade in New York. Before Congress, MacArthur made an eloquent speech in his defense and closed with his now famous remark, “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” By the end of the war he had retired to a suite in the Waldorf Towers and Truman was back home in Independence. The war was not settled until after Eisenhower took office.


Reference: A Pictorial Biography of Harry S Truman, by Joseph Gies.

In cooperation with The Examiner, Ted W. Stillwell is available to speak before any club, church, civic, senior, or school groups. These informative and entertaining programs have been well received over the past number of years across Jackson, Cass and Clay counties.

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