It Had to Happen

During the first “hot” skirmish of the Cold War, a larger battle brewed between a U.S. President and his General. This lesson will ask students to investigate if MacArthur’s firing during the Korean War was necessary or not and why.

Historical Background

President Harry Truman began US involvement on the Korean peninsula at the end of World War Two as a way to prove he was committed to the idea of containing communism. Korea had been divided at the 38th parallel. Northern Korea was backed by the Soviets, while South Korea was backed by the United States. In June 1950 North Korea, claiming they had been the victim of attacks on its southern border, launched an offensive into South Korean territory. Truman responded by asking the UN to send a peacekeeping force to the region. General Douglas MacArthur was the leader of this peace keeping mission. A decorated three-war veteran MacArthur was a popular and complex character in US history. He and Truman disagreed about the approach to resolve the Korean issue. Ultimately, this very public battle would end with Truman relieving MacArthur of his duties.

This conflict of powerful men in government highlights a theme many presidents have struggled with before and even currently. How does a president keep “control” of the military? What should their relationship be?

Lesson Objective

Students will be able to describe the complicated relationship between civilian and military power from President Truman and General MacArthur during the Korean War by examining primary sources and through writing.



  1. Day 1
  2. Activating Prior Knowledge: In pairs, have students brainstorm Cold War events up to 1950. As students share out record these events on a timeline on the promethean board. Some answers might include, but not limited to: Iron Curtain, Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, Berlin Blockade, USSR gets the bomb, UN, NATO, Warsaw Pact, China falls to the Communist.
  3. Once the timeline is complete ask students to consider which events were US military activities and which were foreign policy/presidential activities. You could have students come to the Promethean to label each event as “FPP” or “MIL”
  4. Students should recognize that most, if not all, activities were foreign policy/presidential and not US military activities.
  5. Ask students to consider why that might be the case and to discuss with a partner.
  6. When sharing out with students it should be able to identify that the Cold War was more a war of words and ideology that a war with armed conflict. Additionally, students should be able to describe how the US policy of containment could lead to military or armed conflict but most efforts to contain communism were threats, avoidance and negotiations.
  7. Examine primary source documents: Direct student pairs to an excerpt from Article II of the Constitution dealing with presidential commander in chief powers. Students will answer the historical thinking skill questions on the sheet (i.e. Why was this document or portion of the document created). Share out.
  8. Student pairs will then consider an excerpt of the National Security Act of 1947. Student pairs will answer historical thinking skill questions on the document sheet (i.e. What does this document tell you about military control).
  9. Next student pairs will examine the Truman Doctrine. They should answer questions related to the docrtrine. (i.e. Does reinforcing/upholding Truman Doctrine, or protecting free nations from invasion, sound like it will require military intervention on behalf of the US? )
  10. Share out to gather thoughts of pairings and clarify any misconceptions.
  11. Day Two
  12. Activating Prior Knowledge: Have students share in small groups their journaling about the Korean War. Next, share out as a class, recording thoughts on the promethean board. Be sure to cover the reason the war started, how the US became involved and how the war ended.
  13. Examine primary source documents: After the introduction about the Korean War, ask students to return to yesterday’s discussion about civilian vs. military control of the armed forces. Include the portion of the Truman Doctrine as well.
  14. Ask students in groups to consider the foreign policy options in dealing with the crisis in Korea. They should make a pro con chart for various scenarios.
  15. Share out and record all possible options on the promethean board. Some answers may include but not be limited to: If the US was to the use the atomic bomb they might be seen as powerful and limiting communism but could also escalate the war and the Soviet Union would become directly involved.
  16. Next, raise the question of who should have the final say in what the policy/action should be?
  17. Direct groups to document packets containing correspondence between MacArthur and Truman, along with Joint Chiefs.
  18. Ask students to consider the importance of studying primary sources and what they can tell us about specific historical events.
  19. Day Three
  20. Activating Prior Knowledge: As students arrive to class, have them mark on promethean continuum line who should be the strong force in dealing with other countries and using another color identify who they believe was most right in the disagreement.
  21. Have students explain to the person next to them why they put their point on the line where they did.
  22. Share a few responses as a group. Be sure responses include: MacArthur’s letter after Wake Island, the “foreign policy of MacArthur’s statement,” the memo regarding speaking to the press and the personal reminder to MacArthur of this memo.
  23. Examine primary source documents: In small groups students should consider the MacArthur firing reaction documents (little man in the white house cartoon, it had to happen cartoon, telegrams of support of MacArthur, telegrams of support of Truman).
  24. What do students feel is the general sentiments among Americans about the firing? Have students give examples for and against. Record these conclusions on the promethean.
  25. Based on their conclusions, who do they feel is the winner in the military vs. presidential power struggle over foreign policy? Is that the person that should have won?


Day 1: Have students read the Basic History of the Korean War handout while interactively journaling. Journaling is a more freeform method of note taking where students can record thoughts and feelings or the internal dialogue they are having with the reading content.

Day 2: For homework students should annotate the Truman/Macarthur documents. They should focus on the relationship between the two men. Another focus point would be the Presidential Power v. Military Power conflict discussed in Day 1.

Day 3: (a) Korean War reading with journaling; and (b) MacArthur and Truman’s response readings with annotations


Students should write a letter to President Truman about the MacArthur firing. Students must take a position either supporting or criticizing Truman for the firing. The letter should show a clear understanding of the events surrounding the firing, as well as be able to argue why either the president or military should control foreign policy. Additionally, students should cite at least two documents from each position in their letter.


“The Learning Network: Teaching & Learning with the New York Times,” The New York Times,

Harry S. Truman Library and Museum.

Library of Congress.

National Archives and Records Administration.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>