April 11, 2014

“I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was…”

Two famous quotes by President Harry S. Truman are linked to the date April 11.

The first is something Truman said about a historic announcement he made on April 11, 1951.

On that date, Truman announced his decision to fire General Douglas MacArthur, the “Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers” in Korea, for disagreeing with his policy of limiting the expansion of the Korean War.

It was the culmination of a dispute that started the previous year.

In November and December of 1950, Mao Tse-tung (a.k.a. Mao Zedong), the new leader of the Communist People’s Republic of China, sent hundreds of thousands of Red Chinese troops to fight alongside North Koreans against American and South Korean forces.

MacArthur wanted to respond by attacking China, possibly with nuclear weapons.

Truman firmly squelched that idea.

But MacArthur, who’d enjoyed great popularity with the public since World War II and had a huge ego, decided to try to play a game of political chicken with Truman.

In late March, he wrote a letter to Republican Congressman Joseph W. Martin in which he clearly criticized the President’s policy and slyly played the Red scare card.

His letter suggested that China’s intervention in Korea should be met with “maximum counterforce” and said, in an obvious reference to Truman: “It seems strangely difficult for some to realize that here in Asia is where the Communist conspirators have elected to make their play for global conquest.”

As MacArthur expected, Martin made the letter public.

Truman was furious. And, after a series of discussions with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he decided to relieve MacArthur of his command.

On the night of April 11, 1951, Truman officially announced his firing of MacArthur in a special broadcast to the American people.

Truman’s famous quote about that decision came to light years later, in 1974, with the publication of the best-selling book Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman.

The book, by Merle Miller, was based on taped-recorded interviews made with Truman in the 1960s.

In one chapter, Miller provided Truman’s response when asked why he decided to fire General MacArthur.

Truman’s salty answer soon became a famous quote

“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 laws for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”

Of course, there’s another, even better-known quote that’s associated with Truman’s firing of MacArthur.

On April 19, 1951, eight days after he was relieved of duty, MacArthur made a high-profile “farewell address” to a joint meeting of Congress. That speech included the familiar line: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

There’s also a second Truman quotation that’s linked to the date April 11th, but it’s not about MacArthur. It’s Truman’s humorous, oft-cited explanation of the difference between a politician and a statesman.

On April 11, 1958, speaking to the Reciprocity Club in Washington, D.C., the retired president said:

“A statesman is a politician who’s been dead ten or fifteen years.”

To read the background on that famous quotation, see this previous post on This Day in Quotes.

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Further reading about President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur

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