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May 3, 1951
Constitutional Crisis Averted

Senator Richard Russell of Georgia
Richard Russell (D-GA)

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 target of their inquiry was General Douglas MacArthur. Three weeks before the hearings began on May 3, President Harry Truman had fired MacArthur as commander of the United Nations' forces in the Korean War. Truman had rejected the general's view that the only way to end the stalemate in Korea was to launch an attack on China. When MacArthur then publicly criticized his commander in chief, a furious Truman sacked him for insubordination. Instantly, MacArthur became a national hero—a potential presidential candidate. After he delivered his "farewell address" to a tumultuous joint meeting of Congress and rode in a massive hero's parade in New York City, senators received two million pieces of mail in his favor.

As chairman of the joint hearings, Senator Russell 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, he arranged a compromise. The joint committee would conduct the sessions in secret, but release immediately-sanitized transcripts every 30 minutes to reporters crowded outside the Caucus Room's heavily guarded doors.

In three days of testimony, 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.

Reference Items:

Fite, Gilbert C.  Richard B. Russell, Jr., Senator from Georgia.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.


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