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Senate Hearings on Korea (May-June, 1951)


On April 25, 1951, the Senate unanimously approved a resolution calling for its Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees to "conduct an inquiry into the military situation in the Far East and the facts surrounding the relief" of General MacArthur. As MacArthur biographer D. Clayton James has written, "the so-called MacArthur Hearings constituted the later phase of the Great Debate, since the Far East inquiry proved to be an extension of the arguments over the global priorities and containment strategy of the Truman administration."

Chaired by the widely esteemed Democrat Richard B. Russell of Georgia, the hearings began in the Senate Office Building on May 3 and did not conclude until June 25, well over two million words of official transcript later. From the beginning, they were a partisan affair. The Republicans wanted open hearings, to give access to newsreels and television. The Democrats were anxious, as "TIME" reported, "to keep General MacArthur's thundering rhetoric out of earshot of the microphones and his dramatic profile off the screens of twelve million television sets." In the end, the Democrats had their way, mainly by arguing that open hearings would reveal secrets that might threaten national security. Reporters were forced to make do with censored transcripts of the proceedings, which lagged about an hour behind the testimony.

The opening of the hearings -- and surely the highlight -- was General MacArthur's three days of testimony. Dressed in an understated jacket bare of any medals except his insignia of rank, MacArthur impressed observers with his stamina ("At the end of three days he was just as fresh as when he started.") and bearing ("very dignified and impressive"). One account said that most of the Senators were "utterly dazzled" by his "Olympian manner and finely turned phrases." And while a few were not afraid to ask him tough questions, most Senators were deferential, even apologetic, in their questioning. Lacking a clear agenda, and with Russell required to recognize each Senator in turn rather than focusing on a given topic, the hearings were difficult to follow and even harder to analyze. But despite their disconnected nature, the hearings gave both sides (MacArthur and the Republicans, the Democrats and the Truman administration) ample opportunity to lay out their cases.

Regarding strategy in Korea, MacArthur admitted to no mistakes and reiterated the "decisive" actions he had been advocating since December: naval blockade of Communist China, naval and air bombardment of the Chinese mainland, use of Chinese Nationalist troops in Korea, and Nationalist "infiltrative" operations across the Formosa Strait. MacArthur insisted that following this advice would "bring a decisive end without the calamity of a third world war," and resisted answering "hypothetical" questions from Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and others about what to do if his plan did not work. He emphasized the importance of Formosa (Taiwan), saying "we practically lose the Pacific Ocean if we give up or lose [it]," and also repeated his longheld belief that if we failed to fight Communist expansionism in Asia, it "will roll around to Europe as sure as the sun rolls around."

But as convincing as his freewheeling arguments sounded to many, the general also provided ammunition to those who accused him of exceeding his authority. Many have pointed to the following exchange between MacArthur and Connecticut Democrat Brien McMahon, in which MacArthur may have inadvertently made this very case against himself:\

Senator McMahon: ...If you happen to be wrong this time and we go into all-out war, I want to find out how you propose in your own mind to defend the American Nation against that war.

General MacArthur: That doesn't happen to be my responsibility, Senator. My responsibilities were in the Pacific, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the various agencies of this Government are working day and night for an over-all solution to the global problem. Now I am not familiar with their studies. I haven't gone into it. I have been desperately occupied over on the other side of the world, and to discuss in detail things that I haven't even superficially touched doesn't contribute in any way, shape, or manner to the information of this committee or anybody else.

Senator McMahon: General, I think you make the point very well that I want to make; that the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the President of the United States, the Commander in Chief, has [sic] to look at this thing on a global basis and a global defense. You as a theater commander by your own statement have not made that kind of study, and yet you advise us to push forward with a course of action that may involve us in that global conflict.

Even if he had not exposed flaws in his own reasoning, the parade of witnesses who followed General MacArthur certainly did. Beginning with Secretary of Defense George Marshall, the Administration's witnesses slowly but surely dismantled MacArthur's arguments. Presenting a united front, they denied MacArthur's assertion that, as far as possible courses of action in Korea were concerned, "the position of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and my own, so far as I know, were practically identical." Marshall clearly stated Washington's fear that MacArthur's proposals for taking the war directly to Communist China would risk the loss of America's allies, an expanded war with the Chinese, and "an all-out war with the Soviet Union." Gen. Omar Bradley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, took the insubordination issue head on: "General MacArthur's actions were continuing to jeopardize the civilian control over military authorities."

As MacArthur biographer James has written, "By the time Marshall and the Joint Chiefs were finished, MacArthur's strategic thinking, for the first time in his career, had been torn to shreds not by liberal correspondents or politicians but by the top four officers of the American military establishment." And despite the incredible passions the MacArthur controversy had ignited just weeks before, public interest began to decline rapidly as the hearings dragged on. Although it was not clear at the time what MacArthur's public life might hold, the Senate hearings marked the last time that the "old soldier" would hold center stage, and the beginning of his long, slow "fade away."
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