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Constitutional Crisis Averted

May 3, 1951

Senator Richard Russell of Georgia

Consider the dangers for a constitutional democracy of this potentially explosive mixture: a stalemated war, an unpopular president, and a defiant general with a plan for victory and a huge public following. In the somber spring of 1951, Senators Richard Russell and Tom Connally sought to diffuse this brewing crisis by arranging for the committees they chaired—Armed Services and Foreign Relations—to conduct a series of joint hearings.

The subject of their inquiry was General Douglas MacArthur. Three weeks before, on April 11, 1951, President Harry Truman had fired MacArthur as commander of the United Nations' forces in the Korean War. Truman and the mercurial MacArthur had long disagreed about the best way to end the stalemate on the Korean peninsula. MacArthur preferred launching an attack on China; Truman sought diplomacy. When MacArthur publicly criticized his commander in chief, a furious Truman sacked him. Many congressional Republicans considered the popular, decorated war hero to be a potential presidential candidate. After he returned to the United States and delivered his "farewell address" to a tumultuous joint meeting of Congress on April 19, MacArthur rode in a massive parade from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. Two days later, millions turned out to receive the general in a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

Against this backdrop, Senator Russell, as chairman of the joint hearings, conducted the proceedings with great deliberation, providing for a full exchange of views. Realizing that the testimony would include highly sensitive war-related testimony, but also aware of the value of making these discussions quickly available to avoid trouble-causing leaks, Russell arranged a compromise. The joint committee would conduct the sessions in secret, but would release sanitized transcripts every 30 minutes to reporters crowded outside the Caucus Room's heavily guarded doors.

In three days of testimony, which began on May 3, 1951, MacArthur weakened his own case with vague and overstated responses. He observed that his troubles came from the politicians in Washington who had introduced "a new concept into military operations—the concept of appeasement." When MacArthur was asked whether he thought his plan for bombing China might trigger another world war, he observed that this was not his area of responsibility. His case was fatally weakened with testimony from senior military leaders who strongly disagreed with MacArthur's plan. After seven weeks of exhaustive testimony, the public lost interest. By fully airing this dangerous issue, Chairman Russell avoided a political conflagration and brilliantly demonstrated the Senate's proverbial role as the saucer into which the hot tea is poured to be safely cooled.