Farewell Address to Congress | Study Guide

Douglas MacArthur

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Farewell Address to Congress | Summary & Analysis



General Douglas MacArthur

General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964) was one of the 20th century's most celebrated and controversial military figures. A West Point graduate, MacArthur'smilitary career spanned over five decades. During World War I (1914-1918), which the United States entered in 1917, MacArthur fought on the western front. He was honored twice with the Distinguished Service Cross for extraordinary heroism in combat, the second highest military decoration that can be awarded to a member of the United States Army. He was also a seven-time recipient of the Silver Star, the third-highest military combat decoration that can be awarded to a member of the United States Armed Forces. It is awarded for gallantry in combat..

During World War II (1941-1945), MacArthur served as the commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East. Although initially the Pacific campaign saw many setbacks, MacArthur led the U.S. military to victory, and in 1945 MacArthur himself accepted the Japanese surrender. Following World War II, he oversaw the occupation of Japan from 1945 to 1951.

During the Korean War, a war between North and South Korea that took place between 1950 and 1953, MacArthur led U.S. and UN forces into a series of both defeats and victories during the earliest days of the conflict. His eagerness to engage with China and his belief in the necessity of a resounding victory put him at odds with President Harry Truman (1884-1972), who favored a negotiated peace. MacArthur frequently made public statements defending his perspective and promoting greater military engagement, going directly against Truman's own policies and statements. It is this showdown that led to Truman dismissing MacArthur in April 1951.

MacArthur was known for his brusque manner and keen manipulation of public perception, making the most of the media as a tool for raising morale and projecting American military might. He remains highly controversial due to differing perspectives on his leadership. Some see him as a keen military mind and leader, while others see him as too headstrong and unwilling to defer to presidential authority over the military. Known as much for his ego as for his leadership, he cultivated a sense of celebrity around himself that won him numerous enemies. However, he was an astute leader in war and his success in the Pacific during World War II made him a national hero. He received numerous awards and honors from countries around the world, including the U.S. Medal of Honor, the French Légion d'honneur and Croix de guerre, the Italian Order of the Crown, and the Japanese Order of the Rising Sun with Paulownia Flowers, Grand Cordon.

The Korean War

Following communist North Korea's invasion of South Korea in June 1950, the United Nations appointed MacArthur commander-in-chief of the United Nations Command in South Korea. In this capacity, MacArthur brought the United States into the conflict by committing ground troops against North Korea, and he planned and carried out a successful amphibious invasion (an attack carried out from sea) at Inchon behind North Korean lines in September.

Despite this initial success, however, the war began to turn in October. It became clear that Chinese forces were augmenting North Korean forces, making the war far more complex and the odds far less favorable for the American and UN forces on the Korean peninsula. The importance of MacArthur's success at Inchon began fading as military setbacks began piling up, and eventually MacArthur had to order a retreat of forces.

In early 1951, however, U.S. and UN forces began gaining ground in their attacks on the Chinese. In March, they recaptured Seoul, the capital of South Korea. President Harry Truman became interested in negotiating peace, but soon after retaking Seoul, MacArthur made a declaration demanding that the Chinese accept defeat. Around the same time, Truman received intercepts of conversations with embassies in which MacArthur stated that he wanted to expand the war and bring about direct conflict with China. Although eager to relieve MacArthur of his post, Truman feared that the general's popularity would make the move a political mistake.

In April a congressman read a letter on the floor of the House from MacArthur that seemed critical of Truman's desire for a negotiated peace: "... if we lose the war to communism in Asia the fall of Europe is inevitable, win it and Europe most probably would avoid war and yet preserve freedom. As you pointed out, we must win. There is no substitute for victory."

With this public release, Truman felt he could relieve MacArthur without damaging his own reputation. Truman would later point out that the primary concern regarding MacArthur's behavior was his disregard for civilian control of the military, saying, "I fired him because he wouldn't respect the authority of the president." But Truman's decision to relieve MacArthur backfired; the president's approval ratings sank to just 22 percent, and although a Joint Senate Committee investigation found that he was within his rights to relieve MacArthur, "the circumstances were a shock to national pride."

MacArthur's Farewell Address

On April 19, 1951, MacArthur appeared before a joint session of Congress to deliver his farewell address. He opened the speech by providing his perspective on the changing nature of Asia, which he saw as a rising power that was poised to become a major global player after decades of conflict, colonization, and inequality. He warned that China was in a position to establish itself as a power to rival the Soviet Union and praised Japan's sure footing in the aftermath of World War II. He also encouraged the United States to maintain a presence in the Pacific as a bulwark against communism and as a means to support countries like the Philippines.

MacArthur also attacked the U.S. position in Korea, arguing that he had set out plans that he felt would serve U.S. interests and save lives but had not been supported by the Truman administration. He countered claims that he was a warmonger, stating, "I have long advocated [war's] complete abolition, as its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless as a means of settling international disputes." He went on to make clear, however, that when engaged in conflict, he saw victory as the only acceptable outcome. He argued directly against President Truman's desire for a negotiated peace with China, saying, "Like blackmail, it lays the basis for new and successively greater demands until, as in blackmail, violence becomes the only other alternative."

MacArthur closed his speech by quoting a barrack ballad that says, "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away. ... And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away, an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty."


His farewell address was well received and is one of the most famous military speeches in the modern era. During the address, MacArthur was interrupted 50 times by standing ovations, and after the address, many felt he might run for the presidency in 1952. MacArthur himself was willing to accept the nomination, but he did not want to campaign; as a result, he was not considered.

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