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MacArthur Torpedoes Truman’s Peace Initiative in Korea

Excerpt from Korea: The First War We Lost, by Bevin Alexander, pages 405-07

Background: The Chinese entered the Korean War in November 1950 and drove United Nations forces back below Seoul in January 1951. By March 1951 UN troops had advanced back north to about the 38th parallel.

The approach to the 38th parallel gave the Truman administration an opportunity to offer the Chinese a cease-fire. The status quo ante had effectively been restored....President Truman decided to issue a public declaration that the UN Command was willing to consider a cease-fire, and on March 19 [1951] the Joint Chiefs and Secretaries Acheson and Marshall discussed a draft declaration that had been prepared by the Department of State. In the next few days this draft was circulated to some United Nations governments for their reaction and approval.

The American plan again was to offer a cease-fire without prejudicing the U.S. position in regard to Taiwan or the admission of Red China to the United Nations. But the administration and the Joint Chiefs saw a cease-fire as a strong possibility for a political solution in Korea at least and a likelihood that fighting would not resume....

On March 20, the Joint Chiefs alerted General MacArthur as to what was happening with the following message: “State planning Presidential announcement shortly that, with clearing of bulk of South Korea of aggressors, United Nations now prepared to discuss conditions of settlement in Korea. Strong UN feeling persists that further diplomatic effort towards settlement should be made before any advance with major forces north of the 38th parallel. Time will be required to determine diplomatic reactions and permit new negotiations that may develop....”

That is where matters lay. MacArthur knew the United States was seeking a cease-fire and was diligently searching out the views of its allies. The President of the United States was preparing to broadcast a message to the Chinese Communists offering peace and a measure of conciliation. A chance to end the war seemed to be at hand.

Three days later, without notice to anyone in the United States, General MacArthur issued his own statement: it ranks among the most blatant acts in history of a field commander defying the instructions of superior authority and the established policy of the nation he serves.

MacArthur’s statement was released to the public on March 24 Far East time. Besides usurping the authority of the President of the United States, MacArthur put down the Chinese with an arrogant, belittling statement which could only be interpreted by Beijing as a virtual ultimatum threatening extension of the war unless Red China sued for peace.

MacArthur’s message proclaimed that, “even under inhibitions which now restrict the activity of the United Nations forces and the corresponding military advantages which accrue to Red China, it has shown its complete inability to accomplish by force of arms the conquest of Korea.” MacArthur said, however, “the fundamental questions continue to be political in nature and must find their answer in the diplomatic sphere.” MacArthur continued: “The enemy therefore must now be painfully aware that a decision of the United Nations to depart from its tolerant effort to contain the war to the area of Korea through expansion of our military operations to his coastal areas and interior bases would doom Red China to the risks of imminent military collapse....Within my area of authority as military commander, however, it should be needless to say I stand ready at any time to confer in the field with the commander in chief of the enemy forces in an earnest effort to find any military means whereby the realization of the political objectives of the United Nations in Korea, to which no nation may justly take exception, might be accomplished without further bloodshed.”

MacArthur had found a way to torpedo Truman’s peace initiative, and he used it. Truman’s offer could not now be made, especially as a flood of inquiries poured in from allies asking whether U.S. policy had changed.

Although MacArthur disclaimed it, the evidence is preponderant that MacArthur deliberately decided to hazard making national policy on his own. He had argued in favor of expanding the war against China. He knew the Truman administration opposed this course, and he saw the new Truman initiative would close that door. His virtual ultimatum to China was issued only days after he learned of Truman’s plans. The coincidence is too great to ignore.

[Truman, after getting agreement from his senior advisers and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dismissed MacArthur on April 11, 1951, and replaced him with General Matthew B. Ridgway.]

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