General MacArthur: ‘splendid in every way’

By Chris McCarthy

I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me – nothing to me – is more revolting. 

General Douglas MacArthur, 19 April 1951

For those born in the fading years of the Cold War or after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is difficult to appreciate the pervasive atmosphere of fear that lingered in America for decades following the Second World War. The great clash of ideologies was played out in proxy wars mostly in Latin America and Asia-Pacific, but the ever-present threat of nuclear war constantly menaced the American public and the culture of heightened suspicion was exploited, with pernicious consequences, by figures like Senator Joe McCarthy.

These tensions between the First and Second Worlds defined the latter half of the twentieth century and it was the concept of a ‘domino theory’* that underpinned America’s rationale for committing troops to numerous conflicts. The Vietnam War is the best remembered but in 1950 tensions between North and South Korea broke out into a conflict that some, at the time, feared could escalate into a third world war.

American General Douglas MacArthur was appointed Commander of the United Nations forces tasked with reinforcing South Korea against communist North Korea. A decorated soldier who served in World War II as supreme commander of the Allied Powers in the Far East, his appointment was no surprise. In 1951, however, President Truman controversially relieved him of his command after growing increasingly frustrated with what he perceived as the general’s insubordination.

It was in the immediate aftermath of this event, and the broader geopolitical context discussed above, that General MacArthur was invited to speak before both Houses of Congress in Washington, an unprecedented event in American history. The speech covered two themes: it was part commentary on the rising Asian nations that was remarkably prescient for its time, and part explanation of the strategy in the Korean conflict that led to his dismissal. It also served as a farewell address on a distinguished 52-year military career and it is the general’s moments of reflection that make the speech, as William Safire described it, so “devastatingly sentimental.”

MacArthur was renowned for his grandiloquent rhetoric but this address was, by contrast, measured, serious and purposeful. The opening statement elicited a strong round of applause and set the tone for the rest of the speech. The heavy infusion of stirring patriotism was typical MacArthur: 

I stand on this rostrum with a sense of deep humility and great pride – humility in the wake of those great American architects of our history who have stood here before me, pride in the reflection that this forum of legislative debate represents human liberty in the purest form yet devised.

Although he was considered aloof, arrogant, and egotistical, his sense of duty was unwavering: “I address you with neither rancor nor bitterness in the fading twilight of life, with but one purpose in mind: to serve my country.” There might have been little enmity towards his Commander-In-Chief but he clearly considered himself misrepresented over his position during the war. In what he called “efforts to distort my opinion,” he was sharply stung by suggestions from some quarters that he was a warmonger.

In one of the more inventive and memorable descriptions of war, from a man whose entire career had been focused on executing war efficiently, MacArthur rebukes those armchair critics who suggested he was looking for a fight: “I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me – nothing to me – is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition.”

But when abolition is not an option, the only alternative is to bring the conflict to a swift end: “War’s very objective is victory, not prolonged indecision. In war there can be no substitute for victory.” The consequences of defeat, he warned, risked contagion not only in East Asia but on the doorstep of Europe:

The Communist threat is a global one. Its successful advance in one sector threatens the destruction of every other sector. You cannot appease or otherwise surrender to communism in Asia without simultaneously undermining our efforts to halt its advances in Europe.

In an ordered fashion he lay out the military strategy he believed necessary to bring hostilities to an end as quickly as possible. “No man in his right mind,” he stressed, would advocate sending forces into continental China, and he had no intention to. The new situation, however, demanded a drastic revision of strategic planning. The strategy, he insisted, was right and necessary but the political will was lacking and South Korea was “condemned…to suffer the devastating impact of full naval and air bombardment.”

We have grown accustomed to hearing soldiers described as brave, courageous, honourable, and professional men and women. Towards the close of his speech, General MacArthur turned his attention to the soldiers he had recently left and used a curiously inappropriate yet intriguing adjective to describe their character: “I have just left your fighting sons in Korea. They have met all tests there, and I can report to you without reservation that they are splendid in every way.”

Juxtaposed with his imperiousness was a tenderness towards those he was charged to protect. A devoted patriot and brilliant military strategist, he was an exemplar of the self-sacrificing soldier. His closing remarks offered a modest self-appraisal of a distinguished career and provide the speech with its sentimental high point:

I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day [from his time at West Point military academy] 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.


* This was the idea, carried by successive U.S. governments from the 1950s to 1980s, which suggested if one state fell to communism, either through internal nationalist movements or external influence, neighbouring countries were likely to fall in a domino effect.


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