The President and his General: The Parallels and Differences between the dismissals of MacArthur and McChrystal

President Harry Truman dismissed General Douglas MacArthur in 1951

On September 2nd of 1945 General Douglas MacArthur stood aboard the U.S.S. Missouri and accepted the surrender of Japanese forces during the second world war, thus marking it’s end.  Idolized by american culture as a hero of the second world war in the Pacific theatre, it came with much surprise that just six years later MacArthur would be dismissed by President Harry Truman for publicly disagreeing with the U.S. government’s strategy for handling the Korean War.  MacArthur’s dismissal by Truman lead to much debate about whether or not MacArthur should have been relieved of command and even delved into analysis of civilian control of the military itself.

US President Barack Obama meets with General Stanley McChrystal aboard Airforce 1 in 2009

Nearly 60 years later some parallels can be drawn between this event and the recent dismissal of General Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  Therefore, it’s important to analyze and compare the 2 generals, the 2 presidents, and their situations in particular.


  • MacArthur: MacArthur rose to national prominence during the second world war.  However before that he served as superintendent of the U.S.  Military Academy.  From 1930 to 1935 he serves as U.S. Army Chief of Staff.  From 1945 to 1951 he served as Supreme Allied Commander over U.S. forces in Japan.  At the time of his dismissal MacArthur was 70 years old.
  • McChrystal:  McChrystal was deployed to Saudi Arabia as a special operations officer  and finally promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in January of 2001.  He served as a member of the Joint Staff during the beginning of U.S. operations in Afghanistan.  In 2009, President Barack Obama nominated McChrystal to be commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  McChrystal was dismissed Wednesday, June 23rd, 2010 and is 55 years old.


  • MacArthur: MacArthur first criticizes Truman’s Korean war policy by stating, “Nothing could be more fallacious than the threadbare argument by those who advocate appeasement and defeatism in the Pacific that if we defend Formosa we alienate continental Asia”.  MacArthur also later spoils Truman’s chance at a cease-fire with the Chinese by issuing them an ultimatum that demands China surrender directly to him.
  • McChrystal: McChrystal makes his recommendation report to Defense Secretary Robert Gates on U.S. policy regarding Afghanistan suggesting more troops are needed public.  Some see this as an attempt at forcing the President’s hand regarding war policy.


  • MacArthur: MacArthur criticizes Truman’s handling of the Korean War in a letter to the U.S. House Minority Leader.  MacArthur states, “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, and that we have joined the issue thus raised on the battlefield; that here we fight Europe’s war with arms while the diplomatic there still fight it with words; that 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”
  • McChrystal: McChrystal grants an interview to Rolling Stone Magazine and in the article titled, “The Runaway General” McChrystal describes the period during which the administration debated whether or not to increase security forces in Iraq as “painful” and also says the president seemed ready give him an “unsellable” position”.  He also stated he felt betrayed by Ambassador Eikenberry(ambassador to Afghanistan) and mocks U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden.


  • McArthur: President Truman reacts by writing in his journal, “it is of unanimous opinion of all that MacArthur be relieved. All four so advise”.  McArthur is officially relieved from duty by President Truman in April of 1951.
  • McChrystal: President Obama reacts by replacing McChrystal with General David Petraeus, stating “This is a change in personnel but it is not a change in policy”.


  • McArthur: Some in the public are shocked to see McArthur go.  Senator Howard Taft of Ohio goes further than anyone by calling for the impeachment of president Truman, stating, “President Truman must be impeached and convicted. His hasty and vindictive removal of Gen. MacArthur is the culmination of series of acts which have shown that he is unfit, morally and mentally, for his high office. The American nation has never been in greater danger. It is led by a fool who is surrounded by knaves.”
  • McChrystal: General consensus regarding McChrystal’s dismissal seems to favor the President.  Senator John McCain of Arizona reacted by issuing a statement alongside Senators Lieberman(I-CT) and Graham(R-SC) that focused primarily on the man who will replace McChrystal, General David Petraeus.  The statement went on to say, “We applaud the decision of the President of the United States to ask General Petraeus to go serve again in defense of our nation.  We think there is no one more qualified or more outstanding leader than General Petraeus to achieve a successful conclusion of the Afghan conflict.  We praise the service of General McChrystal and thank him for his service to our nation and wish him well, every success in the future.  We are confident that General Petraeus’ leadership will have a very positive effect on the situation in the region.”

While it’s clear that both Presidents dismissed their generals for what they saw as possible conflicts between the military and its civilian control, it’s also clear that McArthur disagreed on war policy with Truman much more than McChrystal disagreed with Obama’s war policy.  In fact, after his dismissal McChrystal stated that he strongly supported the president’s policy in Afghanistan.  While the issue may now be resolved, it’s likely that the debate over civilian control over the military will continue for a long time.



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