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General MacArthur gives his Farwell address to Congress, April 19, 1951

On April 19, 1951General Douglas MacArthur made a high-profile “farewell address” to a joint meeting of Congress.

Eight days earlier, he’d been fired as the top commander of American forces in the Korean War by President Harry S. Truman, for publicly criticizing Truman’s denial of his request to nuke Red China (in retaliation for sending troops to fight against the U.S. in Korea).

Truman later famously explained: “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President…I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was.”

Today, in hindsight, most people might appreciate Truman’s decision to avoid World War III and affirm the authority of the Commander in Chief.

But in 1951, Truman’s firing of MacArthur was highly controversial and unpopular with the public. MacArthur was well-known and well-liked by most Americans and many believed strongly that the spread of Communism had to be stopped to prevent a domino effect.

Much of MacArthur’s farewell address focused on “the Communist threat.” He ominously warned that if Communism were allowed to spread in Southeast Asia it would “threaten the freedom of the Philippines and the loss of Japan and might well force our western frontier back to the coast of California, Oregon and Washington.”

But it’s the end of MacArthur’s speech that is now most remembered. It includes his famous quote: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

In the poignant closing of his address, MacArthur said:

“When I joined the Army, even before the turn of the century, it was the fulfillment of all of 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. Good-bye.”

As MacArthur noted, the line “old soldiers never die, they just fade away” is not something he coined. It comes from a song that was popular with British soldiers during World War I, called “Old Soldiers Never Die.”

The barracks room song was a parody of the hymn“Kind Words Never Die.”And, unlike the ending of MacArthur’s farewell address, the lyrics of this old Army song are more humorous than schmaltzy.

There are several different versions. Here are the lyrics recorded by the late, great quote and phrase maven Eric Partridge in his Dictionary of Catch Phrases :

       “Old soldiers never die,  
       Never die, never die,  
       Old soldiers never die — 
       They simply fade away. 

       Old soldiers never die,  
       Never die, never die, 
       Old soldiers never die — 
       Young ones wish they would.”

Ironically, that and other early versions of the song poked fun at Army life and at career soldiers and officers like MacArthur.

However, after MacArthur cited the song in his farewell speech, Gene Autry rewrote the lyrics to create a more respectful version that specifically praised the general. The last verse of Autry’s revision gushes:

       “Now somewhere, there stands the man 
       His duty o’er and won 
       The world will ne’er forget him 
       To him we say, “Well done.’”

President Truman had a different reaction to MacArthur’s farewell speech.

When asked about it in one of the interviews recorded in Merle Miller’s biography, 
Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman
 (1974), Truman said it was “nothing but a bunch of damn bullshit!”

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