On this day in 1951, a week after President Harry S. Truman had fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur as commander of United Nations forces battling North Korean and communist Chinese forces on the Korean Peninsula, MacArthur received a hero’s welcome as he addressed a joint meeting of Congress.
MacArthur had openly challenged Truman by threatening to attack China directly — a strategy Truman feared would spark a wider war in Asia.
MacArthur’s dismissal for insubordination ended his 52-year U.S. Army career while sparking a political firestorm, raising the prospect that MacArthur could succeed Truman in the White House. At the time, many Americans revered the 71-year-old general for having led a victorious campaign over the Japanese in World War II.
A quarter-million people filled the National Mall and the route from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol, to cheer him. His return to Washington marked the first time he had set foot in the continental United States since 1937.
“Efforts have been made to distort my position,” MacArthur said during his 3,233-word address. “It has been said, in effect, that I was a warmonger. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition, as its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it useless as a means of settling international disputes.”
In what was billed as his “farewell address,” MacArthur cited the reasons why he fell out with Truman over the conduct of the Korean War. The lawmakers interrupted his speech with 50 standing ovations.
The general concluded:
“When I joined the Army, even before the turn of the century, it was the fulfillment of all of my boyish hopes and dreams. The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished, but I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that ‘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.”
In a 1973 interview with Time magazine, Truman said: “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”
MacArthur died at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. on April 5, 1964. He was 84. When his body lay in state at the Capitol, an estimated 150,000 people filed past his bier.