Excerpt from "Old Soldiers Never Die; They Just Fade Away" Speech, April 19, 1951
Published in Congressional Record, 1951
"When I joined the Army even before the turn of the century, it was the fulfillment of all my boyish hopes and dreams. The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished. But I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day which proclaimed most proudly that—'Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.'"
Before World War II (1939–45), Korea was a colony of Japan. With Japan's surrender ending World War II in August 1945, the Soviet Union and the United States divided Korea into two parts at the thirty-eighth parallel. The North was under Soviet communist influence; the South under the influence of the democratic United States. The North became the Democratic People's Republic of Korea under communist Kim Il Sung (1912–1994). The South became the Republic of Korea led by Syngman Rhee (1875–1965), who had lived in the United States for thirty years. In June 1949, both Soviet and U.S. forces pulled out of Korea. Military disturbances and skirmishes increased as both Kim and Rhee tried to claim leadership over the entire country.
On June 25, 1950, Kim launched a surprise military assault on South Korea, most likely with the knowledge and approval of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1879–1953). If the United States had a presence in Japan, the Soviets wanted Korea.
U.S. president Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53) immediately sought and got a United Nations (UN) resolution to assist South Korea. Eventually, sixteen nations would participate, but the United States was by far the major military contributor. On June 27, Truman authorized U.S. naval and air forces to move to Korea. On June 30, U.S. ground forces were sent. North Korea had already pushed down through South Korea. Truman made General Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964), who had been serving as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Japan since the end of World War II, commander of all United Nations troops in Korea. General MacArthur brilliantly landed troops at Inchon behind North Korean lines, cutting the communist army in two. The North Koreans made a hasty retreat back to the thirty-eighth parallel. MacArthur led UN forces into North Korea and pushed them all the way to the China border. MacArthur did not take Chinese threats of invasion seriously, but China, with two to three hundred thousand troops, pushed MacArthur back to the thirty-eighth parallel. MacArthur insisted the United States should attack China, perhaps targeting specific areas with nuclear weapons. MacArthur said that the Soviets would not enter the conflict and the United States need not worry about them.
Appalled at MacArthur's severe demands, Truman fired MacArthur on April 11, 1951. It was a highly unpopular move with many Americans. When MacArthur arrived in San Francisco, half a million people turned out to meet him. MacArthur then proceeded across the country, greeted enthusiastically by thousands all along the way. He was invited to address a joint session of Congress.
MacArthur spoke to Congress on April 19, 1951. His main themes were anticommunism and the importance of Asia, a point journalist Isaac Don Levine (1892–1981) wrote in an article (see earlier excerpt) made in response to an analysis of the China situation, called the White Paper, written by U.S. secretary of state Dean Acheson (1893–1971), which suggested that the fate of China lay with the Chinese themselves. Several of MacArthur's statements became quite well known, especially, "In war, indeed, there can be no substitute for victory." This sentence seemed to smack at the policy of containment of communism. Apparently, MacArthur would rather see an all-out attack by the military instead of the maintenance of just a strong-enough presence to "contain" the enemy. Near the end of the speech, he quoted a line from an old ballad he had sung as a cadet at West Point: "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away."
Things to remember while reading the excerpt from the "Old Soldiers Never Die; They Just Fade Away" speech, April 19, 1951:
- General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded U.S. troops in the Pacific during World War II, was a larger-than-life, extremely popular war hero.
- President Harry Truman knew that the dismissal of MacArthur would likely cause a firestorm of protest in the United States.
- It was a very special occurrence for a U.S. general to address a joint session of Congress. The previous occasion was by General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890–1969) at the end of World War II in 1945. The speech received maximum media coverage.
Excerpt from the "Old Soldiers Never Die; They Just Fade Away" speech, April 19, 1951
Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, and distinguished Members of the Congress, 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. [Applause.] Here are centered the hopes, and aspirations, and faith of the entire human race.
I do not stand here as advocate for any partisan cause.… I trust, therefore, that you will do me the justice of receiving that which I have to say as solely expressing the considered viewpoint of a fellow American. I address you with neither rancor nor bitterness in the fading twilight of life with but one purpose in mind—to serve my country. [Applause.]
The issues are global and so interlocked that to consider the problems of one sector, oblivious to those of another, is but to court disaster for the whole.
While Asia is commonly referred to as the gateway to Europe, it is no less true that Europe is the gateway to Asia, and the broad influence of the one cannot fail to have its impact upon the other.
There are those who claim our strength is inadequate to protect on both fronts—that we cannot divide our effort. I can think of no greater expression of defeatism. [Applause.] If a potential enemy can divide his strength on two fronts, it is for us to counter his effort.
Efforts have been made to distort my position. It has been said, in effect, that I am a warmonger. Nothing could be further from the truth. I know war as few other men now living know it, and nothing to me is more revolting. I have long advocated its complete abolition as its very destructiveness on both friend and foe has rendered it uselessas a means of settling international disputes. Indeed, on the second day of September 1945, just following the surrender of the Japanese Nation on the battleship Missouri, I formally cautioned as follows:
"Men since the beginning of time have sought peace. Various methods through the ages have been attempted to devise an international process to prevent or settle disputes between nations. From the very start, workable methods were found insofar as individual citizens were concerned, but the mechanics of an instrumentality of larger international scope have never been successful. Military alliances, balances of power, leagues of nations, all in turn failed, leaving the only path to be by way of the crucible of war. The utter destructiveness of war now blots out this alternative. We have had our last chance. If we will not devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door. The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character that will synchronize with our almost matchless advances in science, art, literature, and all material and cultural developments of the past 2,000 years. It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh." [Applause.]
But once war is forced upon us, there is no other alternative than to supply every available means to bring it to a swift end. War's very object is victory—not prolonged indecision. [Applause.] In war, indeed, there can be no substitute for victory. [Applause.]
There are some who for varying reasons would appease Red China. They are blind to history's clear lesson. For history teaches with unmistakable emphasis that appeasement but begets new and bloodier war. It points to no single instance where the end has justified that means—where appeasement has led to more than a sham peace. Like blackmail, it lays the basis for new and successively greater demands, until, as in blackmail, violence becomes the only other alternative. Why, my soldiers asked of me, surrender military advantages to an enemy in the field? I could not answer. [Applause.] Some may say to avoid spread of the conflict into an all-out war with China; others, to avoid Soviet intervention.… Like a cobra, any new enemy will more likely strike whenever it feels that the relativity in military or other potential is in its favor on a world-wide basis.
The tragedy of Korea is further heightened by the fact that as military action is confined to its territorial limits, it condemns that nation, which it is our purpose to save, to suffer the devastating impact of full naval and air bombardment, while the enemy's sanctuaries are fully protected from such attack and devastation. Of the nations of the world, Korea alone, up to now, is the sole one which has risked its all against communism. The magnificence of the courage and fortitude of the Korean people defies description. [Applause.] They have chosen to risk death rather than slavery. Their last words to me were "Don't scuttle the Pacific." [Applause.]
I have just left your fighting sons in Korea. They have met all tests there and I can report to you without reservation they are splendid inevery way. [Applause.] It was my constant effort to preserve them and end this savage conflict honorably and with the least loss of time and a minimum sacrifice of life. Its growing bloodshed has caused me the deepest anguish, and anxiety. Those gallant men will remain often in my thoughts and in my prayers always. [Applause.]
I am closing my 52 years of military service. [Applause.] When I joined the Army even before the turn of the century, it was the fulfillment of all my boyish hopes and dreams. The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished. But I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barrack ballads of that day 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.
What happened next …
Popular protest at MacArthur's dismissal resulted in a U.S. Senate investigation. However, the investigation results did not help his cause. If MacArthur had moved on China, the results could have been devastating for the world. General Omar Bradley (1893–1981), who replaced MacArthur, said an all-out war with China would have been "The wrong war, wrong place, wrong time, wrong enemy." Nevertheless, conservatives believed MacArthur's aggression was just what was needed. Liberal thought was with President Truman—that an aging military man (MacArthur) had gotten out of hand and could have led the United States into a nuclear war if the Soviet Union had jumped in.
The Korean War dragged on until a cease-fire agreement was finally signed in June 1953. U.S. troops would remain in South Korea into the twenty-first century.
Did you know …
- General MacArthur graduated first in his class at West Point in 1903.
- Fifty-four thousand Americans and 3.6 million Koreans were killed in the Korean War.
- One million Chinese were killed or wounded in the Korean War, including the son of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong (1893–1976).
- An official peace treaty was never signed between North and South Korea, only a cease-fire agreement. Korea remained an area of controversy throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
Consider the following …
- Do you think MacArthur would have caused a nuclear war to be unleashed? Why or why not?
- MacArthur delivered his speech eloquently and raised issues about war that still are debated at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Choose a point that interests you and describe how it would be received in various American groups, liberal and conservative, in the twenty-first century.
For More Information
Blair, Clay. The Forgotten War: America in Korea, 1950–1953. New York: Time Books, 1987.
Congressional Record, 1951. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1951.
MacArthur, Douglas. Reminiscences. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.
Manchester, William. American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880–1964. Boston: Little, Brown, 1978.
Peret, Geoffrey. Old Soldiers Never Die: The Life of Douglas MacArthur. New York: Random House, 1996.
United States of America Korean War Commemoration. (accessed on September 10, 2003).