In war, there is no substitute for victory.”
“The lands touching the Pacific will determine the course of history for the next thousand years.”
The United States, except for the 1991 Persian Gulf War, has not been victorious in war since World War II. Meanwhile, America’s most serious current geopolitical challenges emanate from the Asia-Pacific region. The man who more than sixty years ago spoke the words quoted above presciently envisioned the importance of the Asia-Pacific to America’s future, and understood war perhaps better than any American in history. Perhaps that is why during the past few years historians and biographers have churned out several books dealing with some aspect of General Douglas MacArthur’s life and career.
MacArthur’s first memories were of a three-hundred-mile march of U.S. soldiers from Fort Wingate to Fort Selden, north of El Paso, in 1884. Douglas, age four, was traveling with his father, Captain Arthur MacArthur (who commanded those soldiers) and other family members because the army needed to guard the fords of the Rio Grande River against marauding by Geronimo’s Indians. “The little outpost at Fort Selden,” he wrote in his memoirs Reminiscences, “became our home for the next three years.”
Douglas MacArthur would always view his father as a role model. Arthur MacArthur as a young lieutenant in the Union Army during the Civil War fought at Perryville, Kentucky, where his fellow soldiers “gawked in amazement at [his] courage.” At the Battle of Stones River, his commanding officers praised him for “great coolness and presence of mind” in the midst of battle. He later earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics on Missionary Ridge during the Battle of Chattanooga in southeastern Tennessee, where one of his commanding officers remarked, “he seems to be afraid of nothing.” He continued those heroics during the Atlanta campaign at Kennesaw Mountain, where he suffered wounds to his wrist and chest, and later at the Battle of Franklin in Tennessee, where he was seriously wounded. Arthur MacArthur was only nineteen years old.
Later, Captain Arthur MacArthur in 1883 penned a 44-page memorandum predicting that America’s destiny would be intertwined with the lands and peoples of the Asia-Pacific. “It was,” writes Arthur Herman in his new biography Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior, “a scholarly tour d’ horizon of American foreign policy in Asia.” “The American Republic,” wrote Captain MacArthur in the memorandum, “can never acquire its full complement of riches and power if it permits itself to be excluded from the field of Asiatic commerce.” It is in Asia and the Pacific, MacArthur opined, that the United States “must contend for commercial power and … political supremacy.” He sent the manuscript to his friend, former President Ulysses S. Grant, who sent it to President Chester Arthur. “For both Arthur MacArthur and his son Douglas,” Herman notes, “Asia would be the arena in which their careers would take root and where they would earn their greatest laurels as military commanders.”
After the U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War, now General Arthur MacArthur led America’s military occupation of the Philippine Islands, which included the brutal suppression of Philippine insurgents. General MacArthur subsequently differed over occupation policies with the civilian head of the American government there, William Howard Taft, and was subsequently relieved of command.
The elder MacArthur’s next assignment involved observing the Russo-Japanese War and touring Asia with his aide-de-camp, lieutenant Douglas MacArthur, who had recently graduated at the top of his class from West Point. They visited Japan, China, India, Burma, Ceylon, present-day Afghanistan, Singapore, Java, Indochina, and other Asian lands. Douglas later recalled this memorable tour of Asia:
We were nine months in travel, traversing countless miles of lands so rich in color, so fabled in legend, so vital to history that the experience was without doubt the most important factor of preparation in my entire life … The true historic significance and the sense of destiny that these lands of the western Pacific and Indian Ocean now assumed became part of me. They were to color and influence all the days of my life. Here lived almost half the population of the world, with probably more than half of the raw products to sustain future generations. Here was western civilization’s last earth frontier. It was crystal clear to me that the future and, indeed, the very existence of America, were irrevocably entwined with Asia and its island outposts. It was to be sixteen years before I returned to the Far East, but always was its mystic hold upon me.
Arthur MacArthur reached the rank of lieutenant general, the highest rank in the army. In 1908, he predicted a future war against Japan, and also expressed the belief that war between Germany and the United States was inevitable. He died on September 5, 1912, while addressing the survivors of his Wisconsin Civil War regiment. Douglas later recalled, “My whole world changed that night. Never have I been able to heal the wound in my heart.”
Like his father, Douglas would be drawn to Asia and the Pacific, and much of his own life and career, both as military leader and statesman, would be bound up with that region. But before that, he would undergo a baptism by fire, south of the border in Mexico and, more significantly, on western battlefields of the Great War in Europe.
U.S. trouble with Mexico began in 1913 when Mexico’s president was assassinated and General Huerta assumed control in Mexico City. President Woodrow Wilson dispatched the Navy to patrol Mexican waters and reacted angrily when sailors from the USS Dolphin were arrested by Mexican troops in Tampico. Later, when Wilson learned that a German ship loaded with arms for General Huerta was headed for Veracruz, the President decided to occupy the city with U.S. troops. U.S. Military commanders planned a possible expedition to seize Mexico City and sent Captain MacArthur “to obtain through reconnaissance and other means … all possible information which would be of value in connection with possible operations.”
MacArthur arrived in Veracruz on May 1, 1914, and was sent behind enemy lines to locate possible rail transportation for U.S. troops. After locating rail engines, MacArthur on his return trip ran into trouble. At Salinas, Piedra, and Laguna, he confronted several armed Mexicans and each time succeeded in killing, disarming, or eluding all of them. When it was over, writes Herman, “[h]is shirt showed no less than four separate bullet holes,” but he was unhurt. A fellow soldier wrote to MacArthur’s commander recommending his nomination for the Congressional Medal of Honor. It was the beginning of the MacArthur legend—courage under fire, tremendous bravery, and cool decision-making in the most extreme circumstances. The legend grew during the First World War.
When MacArthur returned to Washington he was promoted to major and assigned to the General Staff. MacArthur’s star in the army was rising, aided by the fact that the army’s commanders were Arthur MacArthur’s men who were incessantly lobbied by his widow—Douglas’s mother—Mary Pinckney Hardy MacArthur, known as “Pinky” and described by Herman as “the single most important person” in Douglas’s life until her death in 1935. Biographer William Manchester concluded that Douglas MacArthur’s “merciless ambition” was fueled by Pinky’s “maternal orders.” When she died, MacArthur wrote to a friend that his mother’s death “has been a tremendous blow to me and I am finding the greatest difficulty in recoordinating myself to the changed conditions … I find myself groping desperately but futilely … I need all the help I can get.” Up to that point, writes Herman, she had been Douglas’s “guide and his anchor.”
It was while MacArthur was assigned to the General Staff in Washington that he first met Franklin Roosevelt, who was President Wilson’s Assistant Secretary of the Navy. War was raging in Europe, and both men worked on pre-war mobilization for a country that desperately wanted to stay out of the conflict. Like MacArthur, Franklin Roosevelt was the son of a devoted and domineering mother who fueled his ambitions even after he was crippled by polio. In the early 1930s, as Mark Perry recounts in The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur, the two men would clash over the military budget—Roosevelt as President and MacArthur as army chief of staff. FDR once called MacArthur the most dangerous man in America, yet he recalled him to duty as war clouds gathered in Europe and the Far East, awarded him the Congressional Medal of Honor after the unsuccessful defense of the Philippines, and named him supreme commander of Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific.
In April 1917, at President Wilson’s urging, Congress declared war on Germany and its allies. But to fight a war you need an army. Major MacArthur, as military assistant to Secretary of War Newton D. Baker, was instrumental in drafting and promoting the Selective Service Act of 1917. He arranged press interviews with the top military brass and issued press releases to help shape the public’s mind about America’s participation in the war. Reporters were impressed with Major MacArthur, and expressed their belief that “Rank and honors will come to him if merit can bring them to any man.”
MacArthur and War Secretary Baker personally urged President Wilson to employ National Guard units to their full capacity, and Wilson agreed. “MacArthur,” wrote William Manchester, “suggested forming a division of units from several states … that will stretch over the whole country like a rainbow.” Secretary Baker agreed, appointing Brigadier General William Mann, who was close to retirement, to head the new division, and naming MacArthur as the new division’s chief of staff, with a promotion to colonel.
In October 1917, the American 42nd Division, dubbed the “Rainbow Division,” sailed for France. Upon its arrival, MacArthur learned about plans to split up the division and vigorously and successfully lobbied Washington and the army’s commander, General John Pershing, to keep it intact. Soon, General Mann was replaced by General Charles Menoher, who later called MacArthur “One of the most efficient, energetic, and talented officers I have ever known.” “MacArthur,” notes Herman, “was a whiz at … paperwork, managing reports and personnel with a skill that earned him” the admiration and devotion of his staff. It was not staff work, however, that MacArthur would be remembered for in the First World War. Instead, repeatedly leading his troops in combat, he would become America’s most decorated officer of the war.
MacArthur earned his first of seven Silver Stars and the Croix de Guerre in February 1918, for his participation with French troops in a trench raid in the Luneville sector along the Meurthe River. “Trench raids,” Herman explains, “were nightmarish affairs … There was no supporting artillery, no accompanying mortars or machine guns to help out, sometimes no weapons at all except a pistol and a brace of hand grenades.” The Germans used flares fired at regular intervals to illuminate “No Man’s Land” at night, making “discreet movement difficult, though not impossible.”
Manchester describes what happened next:
MacArthur … accepted the loan of wire cutters and trench knives from a French lieutenant, and crawled over the parapet with the rest of the [raiding] party. Flares burst overhead, revealing a Journey’s End scene: twisted barbwire strung between weirdly bent poles, shell holes thick with mud, crouched figures advancing stealthily into the wind …
MacArthur’s attire on the raid, Manchester notes, caught everyone’s attention. He wore a barracks cap instead of a steel helmet, a scarf given to him by his mother, a sweater, riding breeches, cavalry boots, and carried a riding crop. This became known, Herman writes, as “the MacArthur Look.”
The fighting during the raid, MacArthur recalled, was “savage and merciless.” MacArthur’s most comprehensive biographer, D. Clayton James, in his three-volume The Years of MacArthur, noted that Allied raiders captured more than six hundred German soldiers, with MacArthur personally assisting in the capture of several of the enemy. General Menoher later told reporters: “Colonel MacArthur is one of the ablest officers in the United States army and also one of the most popular.”
In March 1918, the Rainbow Division moved forward to frontline trenches, and on March 9 MacArthur led his men in the division’s first advance into No Man’s Land in the Salient du Feys. Preceding the advance, French artillery pounded the German positions and the Germans fired back with what Herman describes as “a counterbarrage … that swept over the Rainbow trenches like a tornado of flame.” As the American troops hunkered down amid the firestorm, MacArthur, reminiscent of General Hancock on the third day at Gettysburg, walked the line to steady the men, all the while exposing himself to enemy artillery. When the signal blew to go over the top, MacArthur led four thousand troops into what D. Clayton James describes as “a hornet’s nest of machine guns.” The Americans carried the German trenches, and MacArthur was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his “coolness and conspicuous courage.” Two days later along the same front, MacArthur was injured by German 75 mm and 105 mm shells filled with palite gas. He recovered in a few days and was awarded the Purple Heart. A few days later, MacArthur accompanied Secretary of War Baker on a tour of the front lines and described for him the recent fighting of the 42nd Division. Baker later told news correspondents that MacArthur was “the most brilliant young officer in the army.”
In late March, the Germans opened their last great offensive of the war on the western front, seeking to achieve victory before the American Army arrived in force. General Pershing ordered the Rainbow Division to relieve French troops on the Baccarat line. For the next three months, MacArthur and his men launched frequent trench raids, killing the enemy, taking prisoners, and then returning to their own trenches. The division suffered nearly two thousand casualties, and “[n]o other officer,” writes Herman, “risked life and limb more than MacArthur.” A chaplain in the division, Father Francis J. Duffy, wrote that MacArthur “pushed himself into raids and forays in which, some older heads think, he had no business to be.” In June 1918, MacArthur was promoted to brigadier general.
In mid-July, the Germans launched an offensive near Champagne where for four days, writes Manchester, “the field-gray battalions came hurtling across no-man’s-land” attacking the Rainbow and other Allied divisions. James notes that this was “the first large-scale combat in which MacArthur had ever been engaged,” and “he was usually found where the fighting was fiercest and calm, inspiring leadership was most needed.” He was awarded his second Silver Star, and General Menoher remarked that “MacArthur is the bloodiest fighting man in this army.” “[T]here is no risk of battle that any soldier is called upon to take,” continued Menoher, “that he is not liable to look up and see MacArthur at his side.” French General Henri Gouraud called MacArthur “one of the finest and bravest officers I have ever served with.”
General Ferdinand Foch, the Allied Supreme Commander, ordered an attack on the Marne salient, and the Rainbow Division was assigned to attack German defensive positions on the Ourcq River. “The 42nd’s advance,” writes Manchester, “was heartbreakingly slow.” The enemy held the high ground and used machine guns, poison gas, and aircraft fire to resist the American advance. MacArthur, now also in command of the 84th Division, went without sleep for more than three days and “crawled from dugout to dugout” to coordinate the repeated attacks, earning his third Silver Star. At the village of Sergy, which changed hands more than four times, MacArthur in Reminiscences recalled the scene:
The dead were so thick in spots we tumbled over them. There must have been at least 2,000 of those sprawled bodies.… The stench was suffocating. Not a tree was standing. The moans and cries of wounded men sounded everywhere. Sniper bullets sung like the buzzing of a hive of angry bees.… I counted almost a hundred disabled guns of various size and several times that number of abandoned machine guns.
Herman notes that MacArthur even led his men in a bayonet charge near Sergy, finally taking the village and holding it. MacArthur earned his fourth Silver Star and his second Croix de Guerre.
In September 1918, MacArthur took part in the first independent American operation of the war—the attack on the St. Mihiel salient. D. Clayton James describes the salient as “200 miles in area and sixteen miles in depth … the largest German wedge still embedded in the long western front.” The Germans, James noted, held the salient for nearly four years against repeated French attacks. On September 10, MacArthur was the first man over the top, leading the attack of the 84th Division toward the German lines. His division was supported by tanks led by Colonel George Patton, who later wrote to his family that MacArthur was “the bravest man I ever met.” In less than two days, American forces eliminated the St. Mihiel salient, and MacArthur earned his fifth Silver Star.
MacArthur urged an immediate follow-up to the victory at St. Mihiel, arguing that the Hindenburg Line could be breached by a concentrated attack on Metz, but General Foch favored a greater coordinated offensive near Sedan, with American forces assigned to attack the Meuse-Argonne region.
The Argonne Forest, writes Herman, “formed a natural fortress bounded by two rivers and covered with thick woods and steep ridges, some rising as high as 750 feet above the valley.” One soldier described it as “a bleak, cruel country of white clay and rock and blasted skeletons of trees, gashed into innumerable trenches and scarred with rusted acres of wire, rising steeply into claw-like ridges and descending into haunted ravines, white as leprosy in the midst of that green forest, a country that had died years ago in pain.” Prior to the main attack, MacArthur and his men raided a farm and a village of stone buildings, met with strong resistance, but accomplished their mission suffering fewer than twenty casualties. MacArthur won his sixth Silver Star.
On September 26, the great offensive began but soon halted before the Romagne Heights and the Kriemhilde Redoubt, which was, in Arthur Herman’s words, “broad, strong, and impregnable.” Nestled within the redoubt were two fortified hills or knolls—Hill 288 and the Cote-de-Chatillon. In October, MacArthur was ordered by Major-General Charles Summerall to take the Cote-de-Chatillon “or turn in a report of 5000 casualties.” Herman describes MacArthur’s response:
MacArthur’s smile faded and he stiffened to attention. ‘This brigade will capture Cote-de-Chatillon tomorrow, sir,’ he said in a matter-of-fact tone, ‘or you can report every man in it as a casualty. And at the top of the list will be the name of the brigade commander.’
After three days of frontal attacks, bitter fighting, and enormous casualties, MacArthur’s men took the Cote-de-Chatillon. Summerall recommended him for the Medal of Honor. Instead, he received a second Distinguished Service Cross for “displaying indomitable resolution and great courage in rallying broken lines and reforming attacks, thereby making victory possible.” “On a field where courage was the rule,” the citation read, “his courage was the dominant factor.” In biographer Geoffrey Perret’s judgment, “MacArthur had equaled—in some ways excelled—his father’s feat on Missionary Ridge.”
During the final push toward Sedan, MacArthur would again distinguish himself in leading his troops to take the Meuse heights, earning his seventh Silver Star. MacArthur ended thewar as an army legend. His fellow officers of the Rainbow Division presented him with a cigarette case engraved with the words “Bravest of the Brave.” His conduct during the First World War would have assured his place in history. But he would go on to lead men in two more wars, achieving more and greater battlefield victories, earning more medals and awards, performing lasting feats of statesmanship in Japan, only to be relieved of command in Korea in a controversy that remains unsettled to this day, and unfairly portrayed as a villain who threatened civilian control of the military.
MacArthur next served as superintendent of West Point, where he began the process, against much institutional resistance, of moving the tradition-bound military academy into the twentieth century. He attacked the practice of hazing (as a plebe, MacArthur had been mercilessly hazed), revised the curriculum, developed an honor code, made intramural athletics compulsory, and, in the words of James, “made West Point for three years a mecca for visiting scholars, political leaders, and military experts.” One such expert was General Billy Mitchell who spoke to the students about the future of air power. MacArthur also testified before Congress and urged the legislators to ensure that our armed forces were ready to fight the next war. He had once remarked after reading the Versailles peace terms that it “seems more like a treaty of perpetual war than of perpetual peace.” He also predicted that in the next war “whole populations will fight whole populations.”
In 1930, President Hoover named MacArthur, then age fifty, the Army’s Chief of Staff. It was a four-year appointment, but FDR kept MacArthur on as Chief of Staff for an extra year despite their clashes over the army’s budget. MacArthur repeatedly urged FDR and Congress, and anyone else who would listen, to prepare adequately for the next war, which he envisioned would be “a war of maneuver and movement,” with command of the air being essential for the effective operation of land and naval forces. “In light of what would emerge on the battlefields of the early 1940s,” wrote William Manchester, “his forecasts were remarkably prescient.” After reading MacArthur’s final annual report as Chief of Staff in 1935, the renowned military strategist and historian B. H. Liddell Hart praised MacArthur for his “progressive summary of modern military conditions” and his appreciation of “the changes now developing” in warfare.
In 1933, MacArthur addressed the graduating class at West Point. He criticized the sacrifice of national defense “in the name of economy.” He estimated that “the Army’s strength in personnel and material and its readiness for deployment are below the danger line.” “History has proved,” he told the cadets, “that nations once great, that neglected their national defense, are dust and ashes.” Two years later, he repeated this warning in an address to the veterans of the Rainbow Division in in Washington, D.C. “[T]he most sacred principles of free government,” MacArthur said, “have been acquired, protected and perpetuated through the embodied armed strength of the peoples concerned.” Nations that wish to preserve their independence, wealth, and way-of-life “must keep alive [their] martial ardor and be at all times prepared to defend [themselves].” He decried the efforts of pacifists to disarm America and to entrust its security to international institutions. “The springs of human conflict,” he stated, “cannot be eradicated through institutions but only through the reform of the individual human being. And that is a task which has baffled the highest theologians for 2,000 years and more.” “We all dream of the day when human conduct will be governed by the Decalogue and the Sermon on the Mount,” he continued, but “as yet it is only a dream.” He quoted Dionysius: “It is a law of nature, common to all mankind, … that those that have greater strength and power shall … rule over those who have less,” then remarked that world history “bears ample testimony” to the “truth and wisdom” of those words. “From the dawn of history to the present day,” he lamented, “it has always been the militant aggressor taking the place of the unprepared.” He then reviewed the history of peoples and civilizations that fell to stronger-armed aggressors because of unpreparedness. He finished with a warning: “Let us be prepared, lest we, too, perish.”
No policymakers in America were listening. Indeed, MacArthur’s warnings, like those of his distant cousin Winston Churchill across the Atlantic, fell on deaf ears, and the world suffered its most destructive war as a consequence. Like Churchill, MacArthur was viewed as dangerous and called a warmonger. Like Churchill, though in a different manner, he would be called upon to rectify the shortsightedness of the democratic appeasers.
As war broke out in Asia and Europe, and U.S.-Japanese relations deteriorated, FDR recalled MacArthur to active duty to lead the effort to defend the Philippines. (In the late 1930s, after serving as U.S. military advisor to the Philippine government, MacArthur retired from active duty and became Field Marshal of the Philippine Army). MacArthur’s task was impossible given the state of American unpreparedness and the meager resources the U.S. was prepared to devote to the defense of the islands. War plans called for prioritizing the European theater of operations, a decision MacArthur would criticize throughout the war. Japanese forces attacked the Philippines on December 8, 1941, and MacArthur’s army soon retreated down the Bataan peninsula. MacArthur, his wife and young son, and his staff stayed in the Malinta tunnel on the island of Corregidor.
MacArthur’s decisions or lack thereof in the early stages of Japan’s attack continue to be debated by historians, mostly to MacArthur’s detriment. MacArthur himself rarely, if ever, admitted to mistakes or poor judgment, but at the very least this was not his finest hour. Historians, however, have paid less attention to MacArthur’s direction and coordination of the Bataan retreat, which William Manchester judged “a classic of its kind,” General Pershing called “a masterpiece, one of the greatest moves in all military history,” and Japan’s general staff called “a great strategic move.” Geoffrey Perret noted that the Bataan retreat “became one of the classic operations studied in detail by postwar students at the Command and General Staff School.”
On Corregidor, MacArthur was fearless. Like Churchill during the London blitz, MacArthur frequently exited the protections of the Malinta tunnel to observe Japanese bombers doing their deadly work. Philippine President Quezon called him reckless, but MacArthur responded that it was “necessary that at the right time a commander take chances because of the effect all down the line, for when they see the man at the top risking his life, the man at the bottom says, ‘I guess if that old man can take it, I can, too.’” Quezon later said: “On the Rock of Corregidor, Douglas MacArthur was a rock of strength and a source of inspiration for all who fought by his side.” “In this war, as in the last,” writes biographer Perret, MacArthur “did not believe there was an enemy bomb or bullet with his name on it.”
Despite his protests, MacArthur was ordered by the President to escape to Australia, where MacArthur believed there would be an army waiting for him to lead back to the Philippines to reinforce his troops on Bataan and Corregidor. After a hazardous boat ride to Mindanao and flight to Australia, MacArthur uttered his famous pledge, “I came through, and I shall return.” But as Arthur Herman points out, “Washington had no strategy for the Philippines … There were no plans for relief, no plans for a countermove, no plans for anything beyond trying to send an occasional ship or sub through the ever-tightening Japanese blockade.” MacArthur was furious. Perhaps in part to assuage his anger, and to give America a hero to admire in the face of adversity, Roosevelt awarded MacArthur the Medal of Honor.
His return to the Philippines would take more than two years, as he led U.S. forces in the Southwest Pacific to seize the huge island of New Guinea from Japanese control, and wage war on the Solomon and Admiralty Islands, the Bismarck Archipelago, and their adjacent seas. Walter Borneman’s new book MacArthur at War presents the fighting in New Guinea and describes MacArthur’s leadership in vivid and interesting detail. It was there, Borneman writes, that MacArthur first became “the hero who rallied America and its allies when they were at a low ebb and to become the symbol of determined resolve so desperately needed in the grim months of 1942.” It was there, writes Manchester, that MacArthur demonstrated his gifts “as a strategist [and] architect of warfare.” It was there, Mark Perry writes, that MacArthur, with the assistance of a talented group of loyal subordinates, “coordinated the most successful air, land and sea campaign in the history of warfare.”
In September 1944, with the New Guinea campaign over, MacArthur walked the beaches of Morotai, gazed northwest toward the Philippines, and remarked, “They are waiting for me there. It has been a long time.” On October 20, 1944, Douglas MacArthur fulfilled his promise by returning to the Philippines. He had to fight the Navy and his superiors in Washington to get there. The Navy wanted all resources devoted to its central Pacific campaign with the goal of taking Formosa (Taiwan) and using it as the staging ground for the invasion of Japan’s main islands. MacArthur used both strategic and political arguments to finally persuade FDR to back his Philippine campaign. When he landed at Leyte Gulf, he strode up to a microphone and memorably said:
People of the Philippines, I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil.… Rally to me. Let the indomitable spirit of Bataan and Corregidor lead on.… Rise and strike … Strike at every favorable opportunity. For your homes and hearth, strike! For future generations of your sons and daughters, strike! In the name of your sacred dead, strike! Let no heart be faint. Let every arm be steeled. The guidance of divine God points the way. Follow in His name to the Holy Grail of righteous victory.
The fighting in the Philippines was much tougher and bloodier than MacArthur predicted, especially in and around Manila. Japanese forces fiercely defended the city building-by-building, city block-by-city block. “The fighting was savage, even primitive,” notes Arthur Herman. It was “one of the epic urban battles of the Second World War.” Manila was virtually destroyed and more than 100,000 civilians lost their lives. Bataan and Corregidor were retaken, and U.S. prisoners of war were liberated. In a ceremony on Corregidor at the fortress, MacArthur said, “I see the old flagpole still stands. Have your troops hoist the colors to its peak, and let no enemy ever haul them down.”
MacArthur was chosen by FDR to plan and lead the invasion of the two main islands of Japan, Kyushu and Honshu. Neither the U.S. naval blockade nor the massive firebombing of Japan’s major cities had resulted in a Japanese surrender. America had suffered nearly 70,000 casualties, including more than 12,000 deaths in the fighting to take Okinawa. MacArthur estimated American casualties in the planned invasions of Japan at close to a million. But he also believed that Japan was near collapse and an invasion might not be necessary. In the event, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan to surrender.
On August 30, 1945, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Pacific landed unguarded and virtually unprotected at Atsugi airfield near Yokohama. Winston Churchill called this gesture by MacArthur the single most courageous act of the war. On September 2, MacArthur formally accepted Japan’s surrender on board the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
For the next five years, MacArthur was the sole ruler of Japan, subject to directives and oversight from Washington, which became more frequent and limiting of his power in the last years of the occupation. “Douglas MacArthur,” writes Herman, “was now the most powerful American in history.” He governed Japan, oversaw six major military commands in the Pacific, and was supreme commander of nearly two million troops. Seymour Morris, Jr., in his book Supreme Commander: MacArthur’s Triumph in Japan, recounts MacArthur’s accomplishments. He purged Japanese militarists, prosecuting some for war crimes. He disarmed the country’s military forces, ordered the destruction of weapons, and confiscated chemical warfare supplies. He oversaw emergency food and medical assistance programs which saved up to three million lives. He instituted lasting political reforms that transformed Japan from an imperial militaristic power into a stable, peaceful democracy. It was, Morris concludes, “the greatest feat by America’s greatest general.”
MacArthur had one more war to fight. On June 28, 1950, North Korean forces surged across the 38th Parallel in a surprise attack on South Korea. We know now that both Stalin and Mao approved of and supported the North Korean invasion. The Cold War had turned hot. President Truman ordered MacArthur to defend South Korea and persuaded the United Nations (the Soviet Union was absent and Communist China was not a member) to join in the armed resistance. MacArthur was placed in command of U.S. and UN forces. The swift and seemingly unstoppable communist offensive pushed American, UN and South Korean forces to a narrow defensive perimeter near Pusan. MacArthur, now age 70 and still fearless, toured the front lines for eight hours. It was then that he conceived the Inchon landing.
The daring and hazardous amphibious landing at Inchon, behind the enemy’s lines, would be MacArthur’s military masterpiece. To accomplish it, he overcame the doubts or resistance of virtually every U.S. military leader consulted, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At a meeting at his headquarters in Japan, with two of the Chiefs present, MacArthur listened patiently as army, navy, and marine officers raised multiple objections to his plan. When it was his turn, MacArthur compared his plan to land at Inchon to Wolfe’s surprise landing on the Plains of Abraham that led to the British victory over Montcalm’s forces in the French and Indian War. He would recapture Seoul, cut off the enemy’s supply line, and send the remaining communist forces reeling north across the 38th Parallel. “I can almost hear the ticking of the second hand of destiny,” he said. “We must act now or we will die … Inchon will succeed and it will save 100,000 lives.” “We will land at Inchon,” he concluded with a flourish, “and I shall crush them.”
Washington reluctantly and half-heartedly approved MacArthur’s plan. In the end, the Inchon landing of September 15, 1950, accomplished everything MacArthur said it would. Seoul was recaptured, enemy supply lines were cut, U.S., UN, and South Korean forces broke out of the Pusan perimeter, and communist forces retreated north across the 38th Parallel. Inchon, writes Geoffrey Perret, placed MacArthur “among the other military immortals.” U.S. Admiral Bull Halsey called it “the most masterful and audacious strategic stroke in all history.” British historian Robert Harvey describes it as “one of the swiftest, boldest and most decisive military triumphs in history.” MacArthur received congratulatory messages and praise for Inchon from Winston Churchill, George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, Carl Spaatz, John Foster Dulles, and the British and American chiefs of staff, among others. Even President Truman, no fan of MacArthur’s, told the general that, “No operations in military history can match … the brilliant maneuver which has now resulted in the liberation of Seoul.”
Herman points out that after Inchon, “[e]very critic was struck silent; every doubter was now eager to win [MacArthur’s] approval.” MacArthur was authorized to cross the 38th Parallel, defeat North Korean forces, and reunify the Korean peninsula. Defense Secretary George Marshall sent MacArthur a personal note advising him to feel “unhampered strategically and tactically to proceed north of the 38th Parallel.” Concerns about possible Chinese or Russian intervention were tossed aside by most political and military leaders, including MacArthur.
When Chinese forces intervened en masse in October–November 1950, MacArthur rightly argued that the U.S. and UN faced an entirely new war. Herman, in his new biography of the general, puts the lie to the widely accepted notion that it was MacArthur’s actions near the Chinese border that provoked the Chinese intervention. Chinese leader Mao Zedong, he writes, was committed to the war “the moment the first Americans set foot in the Korean peninsula” in July 1950.
Herman also shatters the widely believed myth that MacArthur disobeyed the direct orders of the President after the Chinese intervention. To be sure, MacArthur disagreed with political restrictions placed on his tactics and strategy, and sometimes made his sentiments public. But he obeyed every directive and order from Washington even though he believed those directives and orders deprived his forces of the means to victory.
In the end, the growing chasm between MacArthur and Washington policymakers that resulted in his dismissal was the decision in Washington to wage war without seeking victory in Korea. That was anathema to MacArthur and the military tradition he exemplified. It would be repeated in Vietnam with disastrous results. “Indeed,” explains Herman, “in many ways, the American military tradition since the Korean War has involved a conscious turning away from the MacArthur model.” The MacArthur model, Herman continues, “accepts casualties as inevitable and high casualties as sometimes necessary; it sees a soldier’s primary role as fighting and killing the enemy, not winning hearts and minds … until the fighting is over and the enemy has lost.” Given what has happened more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, Herman writes, “it seems debatable whether the U.S. military, and the world, is truly better off for rejecting the MacArthur model.”
As Robert Harvey notes, even in the context of the Korean War, Washington’s policy of caution and limited war did not result in an end to the war. “More were to die before the war ground inconclusively to a stop in July 1952 than had been killed during the whole of MacArthur’s command. A quick victory might well have saved these men’s lives.” Had MacArthur been allowed to win, moreover, millions of Koreans would have been spared the terror and squalor inflicted by the North Korean communist regime; a regime that continues to repress its own people and that threatens the world with nuclear weapons. “History has largely swallowed President Truman’s version of events [in Korea],” writes Robert Harvey, “and a popular image of MacArthur lingers as the half-crazed anti-communist … who nearly started the Third World War, spurned his President’s orders and even contemplated the nuclear bombing of China. The truth … was very different.”
After his dismissal, MacArthur returned home to a hero’s welcome, while President Truman grew more and more unpopular as the war settled into inconclusive carnage. The general famously addressed a joint session of Congress on April 19, 1951. That address is largely remembered for his line that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” but its substantive parts included a powerful vision of the geopolitical importance of the Asia-Pacific region that bears reading today.
“While Asia is commonly referred to as the gateway to Europe,” MacArthur explained, “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.” “The communist threat,” he continued, “is a global one … You cannot appease or … surrender to communism in Asia without simultaneously undermining our efforts to halt its advance in Europe.” Asia, he continued, contained half the earth’s people and nearly sixty percent of the earth’s natural resources. We were witnessing, he said, “a shift in the world’s economic frontiers” and the United States must reorient its policies accordingly.
America’s victory in the Pacific, MacArthur stated, shifted our strategic frontier to embrace the entire Pacific Ocean. “We control it,” he explained, “… by a chain of islands extending in an arc from the Aleutians to the Marianas.” From that island chain, “we can dominate with sea and air power every Asiatic port from Vladivostok to Singapore and prevent any hostile movement into the Pacific.” “With naval and air supremacy and modest ground elements to defend bases, any major attack from continental Asia toward us or our friends of the Pacific would be doomed to failure.” To hold this “littoral defense line in the western Pacific,” MacArthur continued, we must hold “all segments thereof.” Any major breach of the island chain, such as the loss of Formosa (Taiwan), would doom our position in the Pacific and potentially push our western frontier back to California.
China, MacArthur warned, is a new and dominant power in Asia whose interests temporarily coincide with those of the Soviet Union. (Here, MacArthur glimpsed a future Sino-Soviet rift). But for now, China demonstrated the “same lust for the expansion of power which has animated every would-be conqueror since the beginning of time.” The United States must win the war in Korea, he said, and add the Korean peninsula to Japan, the Philippines, and Formosa as outposts of the free world in Asia.
In an address to the American Legion Convention in Miami, Florida, on October 17, 1951, MacArthur reiterated that in the Pacific, the U.S. and its allies “maintain an island defense chain off the coast of continental Asia which must be preserved inviolate at any cost.” To maintain that position, he continued, we must “retain undisputed control of the seas, to secure undisputed control of the air.”
In a speech to the Mississippi legislature in March 1952, MacArthur reviewed the events in Korea and China and envisioned what the loss of continental Asia would mean for U.S. security. The Sino-Soviet bloc would strive for “global omnipotence, with the hope of ultimate domination over the seaborne commerce of the world. Beyond Asia, Africa would then be exposed to Communist hordes dominating the Indian Ocean area, and Europe would come under real threat of invasion.” “The first line of freedom’s defense,” he intoned, “is not the Elbe, not the Rhine, but it is in Korea on the Yalu.” Here, MacArthur echoed the geopolitical warnings of Alfred Thayer Mahan, Halford Mackinder, and Nicholas Spykman: control of the major power centers of Eurasia could lead to dominant land power being married to dominant sea power and, in Mackinder’s words, “the empire of the world would then be in sight.”
Richard Nixon in his interesting post-presidential book Leaders, noted that in his conversations with MacArthur in the 1950s and early 1960s, “[n]early always MacArthur’s comments got back to Asia.” Nixon believed that criticism of MacArthur by America’s foreign policy establishment stemmed in part from the clash between an Atlanticist worldview and MacArthur’s vision of an Asian-centered geopolitics. Americans, Nixon wrote, are beginning to appreciate the wisdom of MacArthur’s prediction that “the history of the world for the next several generations may well be dictated by the men and women of the Orient.”
The revival of interest in Douglas MacArthur, manifested by the recent spate of books about his life and career, is a welcome development. As Arthur Herman notes, “the great debate that MacArthur launched during the war in Korea, on what constitutes victory and why, persists to this day. So does his belief in the future of Asia and America’s role in that part of the world.”
William Manchester calls Douglas MacArthur the greatest man at arms this nation has produced. Geoffrey Perret ranks his generalship in American history second only to Ulysses S. Grant. Arthur Herman in his new biography reaches beyond MacArthur as warrior and concludes that he rivals Winston Churchill in leaving a personal stamp on twentieth-century history. But the last word belongs to British historian Harvey who writes simply but profoundly that MacArthur “bore the stamp of greatness. He was the last American hero.”
Books about MacArthur discussed in this essay:
Arthur Herman, Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior (Random House, 2016)
Walter Borneman, MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific (Little, Brown, 2016)
Seymour Morris, Jr, Supreme Commander: MacArthur’s Triumph in Japan (HarperCollins 2014)
Mark Perry, The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur (Basic Books, 2014)
Robert Harvey, American Shogun: General MacArthur, Emperor Hirohito, and the Drama of Modern Japan (Overlook, 2006)
Geoffrey Perret, Old Soldiers Never Die: The Life of Douglas MacArthur (Random House, 1996)
William Manchester, American Caesar (Little, Brown, 1978)
D. Clayton James, The Years of MacArthur (3 vols, Hougton Mifflin, 1970)
Douglas MacArthur, Reminiscences (McGraw Hill, 1964)
Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century, America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War, and Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War. He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Orbis, Joint Force Quarterly, the University Bookman, The Diplomat, the Asian Review of Books, the New York Journal of Books, Strategic Review, American Diplomacy, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and the Washington Times. He is an attorney and an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University.
Sempa surveys several recent books showing a revival of interest in the life, career, and wisdom of General Douglas MacArthur.