TRUMAN, Harry S. Typed letter signed (“Harry S. Truman”), as President, to Russ Stewart, Washington, D.C., 26 April 1951. 1 page, 4to, White House stationery (slight stain along left margin), with original White House envelope.
TRUMAN ON THE FIRING OF MACARTHUR: “UNDER OUR CONSTITUTIONAL SYSTEM MILITARY COMMANDERS ARE SUBORDINATE TO CIVIL AUTHORITY”
A powerful statement of principle in the midst of the great political crisis of his Presidency. Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur for insubordination on 11 April 1951. Here the President responds to one of the few letters of support he received for that action, from an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper. It reads in full: “Your letter of the twelfth interested me tremendously, and I also want to thank you for sending me the original of Jacob Burck’s cartoon. I need not tell you that I am grateful for your favorable comments concerning the replacement of General MacArthur and the speech of explanation to the American people. It seems to me that everyone who stops to think should understand that under our constitutional system military commanders are subordinate to civil authority. I am very glad that you wrote me, and your prayerful wishes are appreciated.”
The showdown between President and General was long in coming. In the summer of 1950 MacArthur made an unauthorized speech criticizing the administration's China policy. The general apologized in a face-to-face meeting with Truman on Wake Island in October, during which MacArthur gave assurances that the fighting in Korea was nearly over. The massive Chinese intervention the following month and MacArthur's call for the use of atomic weapons against China strained Truman's patience near to the breaking point. It snapped when MacArthur released a letter accusing the administration of weakness in the face of Chinese communism. Republican Joseph Martin, House Minority Leader, read it on the floor of Congress on 5 April. Even prior to Truman’s decision to fire MacArthur as of March 14,1951 the Gallup Poll had reported the President’s public approval at an all-time low of only 26%. Regardless, with the unanimous backing of The Joint Chiefs and of Truman’s top advisors Acheson, Marshall, Bradley, and Harriman all agreed that MacArthur should be relieved. On April 11,1951 President Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
In his Memoirs, Truman would write that he know knew what he must do about MacArthur: “MacArthur left me no choice--I could no longer tolerate his insubordination…If there is one basic element in our Constitution, it is civilian control of the military…If I allowed him to defy the civil authorities in this manner, I myself would be violating my oath to uphold and defend the Constitution. I have always believed that civilian control of the military is one of the strongest foundations of our system of free government." This letter as far as we know is the only Truman letter on the firing of MacArthur to contain the explanation “that under our constitutional system military commanders are subordinate to civil authority.” It is also the earliest response we know of any other Truman letter on his explanation for relieving MacArthur as this letter to Russ Stewart was sent only 15 days after Truman’s decision. A historically significant Truman letter.