- Michael Schaller
MacArthur, Douglas (26 January 1880–05 April 1964), commander of the Southwest Pacific Area Theater during the Second World War, supreme allied commander in occupied Japan, and commander of U.S. and United Nations forces during the first ten months of the Korean War, was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, the son of Arthur MacArthur, a soldier, and Mary Pinckney Hardy. He was raised on a series of army posts in Texas and the Southwest. Like his father, a decorated Civil War veteran who eventually became one of the U.S. Army’s highest ranking officers, Douglas chose a military career. After graduating from West Point with highest honors in 1903, he served as an engineering officer in the United States, in the Philippines, and in Panama, eventually joining the War Department general staff in 1913. He also took part in the 1914 occupation of Veracruz, Mexico, by U.S. Army forces.
Following American entry in the First World War in April 1917, MacArthur fought in France with the 42d Division in the Champagne-Marne, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne campaigns. His aggressiveness, bravery, and unusual flair earned several decorations, much publicity, and promotion to the rank of brigadier general. Following the armistice, he briefly commanded American occupation troops in Germany.
In 1919 MacArthur began a three-year term as a reform-minded superintendent of the military academy at West Point. During the 1920s he spent two tours of duty in the Philippines, earning promotion to major general in 1925. While serving in the Philippines, MacArthur became a close friend of Manuel Quezon. On the basis of his social relations with such elite Filipinos, MacArthur proclaimed himself an expert on “Oriental psychology,” a claim he frequently cited when others criticized his ideas. In 1922 he married Louise Cromwell Brooks, a wealthy socialite. The marriage ended in divorce seven years later; the couple had no children.
President Herbert Hoover (1874–1964) appointed MacArthur army chief of staff in 1930, a post he held through 1935. The depression severely limited military appropriations, and MacArthur spent most of his energy trying to preserve the nucleus of a modern fighting force amidst budget cuts. His reputation was severely tarnished in July 1932 when he supervised the army’s violent dispersal of several thousand peaceful World War I veterans, the so-called Bonus Marchers, who had gathered in Washington, D.C., to appeal for early government pensions. Despite his friendship with Hoover, his espousal of conservative values, and the widespread criticism resulting from the rout of the demonstrating veterans, MacArthur was retained by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as army chief of staff. Although Roosevelt voiced criticism of the general’s conservative ideas and privately described MacArthur as one of the “three most dangerous men in America,” they cooperated closely in establishing the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the first and most popular New Deal relief programs. Throughout the New Deal period, MacArthur received all of his promotions with the approval of Roosevelt.
In 1935 MacArthur stepped down as chief of staff to become military adviser to the Philippine Commonwealth government, led by President Manuel Quezon. For the next six years, assisted much of the time by Major Dwight D. Eisenhower, MacArthur labored to develop a Filipino army capable of protecting the country from Japan. In December 1937 he retired from the U.S. Army but continued working as a private military adviser to Quezon. That same year he married Jean Faircloth during a brief trip to the United States, his only visit until 1951. They had one son.
Despite his optimism and energy, a chronic lack of money, equipment, or a well-defined mission led to MacArthur’s failure to organize an effective Filipino defense force. Scarce funds and growing skepticism in Manila and Washington about the Philippines’ ability to resist Japan led most American military planners to disparage MacArthur’s effort. By the summer of 1941 he felt despondent and planned to return to the United States as a private citizen. Japan’s aggressive moves in Southeast Asia, however, including its occupation of French Indochina, and President Roosevelt’s desire to do something to deter Japan, thrust MacArthur back into the limelight.
On July 26 the War Department recalled MacArthur to active duty at the temporary rank of lieutenant general. As commander of U.S. Army forces in the Far East, he presided over both regular American army troops in the Philippines and the Filipino forces he had trained. MacArthur, like Roosevelt and Secretary of War Henry Stimson, hoped this command, assisted by a large number of advanced B-17 bombers and the Asiatic Fleet, would either deter or defeat any further Japanese thrust in Southeast Asia. Convinced that no invasion would come before April 1942, MacArthur boldly predicted that his forces would “crush Japanese troops on the beaches” if they dared approach the Philippines. Japan’s assault on 8 December 1941 shattered this illusion.
Japanese airplanes attacked the Philippines about nine hours after the debacle at Pearl Harbor. Despite the prior warning, MacArthur and his subordinate commanders were no better prepared than their Hawaiian counterparts. In the initial wave, the Japanese destroyed most of the American air force around Manila. Two weeks later Japanese troops landed on Luzon virtually unopposed. American and Filipino troops hastily withdrew to the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island, where they fought under siege until April 1942.
Although the American public received heroic press reports about the resistance to the Japanese invaders, many top military and civilian officials questioned MacArthur’s competence. They were appalled by the loss of his air force and later by his initial endorsement of Quezon’s proposal to “neutralize” the Philippines by negotiating a truce with Japan. MacArthur’s decision in February 1942 to accept a $500,000 personal payment from Quezon led some officials in Washington to charge he accepted a bribe.
Following orders from Roosevelt, on 17 March 1942 MacArthur, his family, and his staff left Corregidor via PT boats and later airplanes for an arduous journey to Australia. Following his arrival, Roosevelt appointed MacArthur commander of the Southwest Pacific Area Theater (SWPA), one of two Pacific war theaters. Although Roosevelt and General George C. Marshall, army chief of staff, privately criticized MacArthur’s performance in the Philippines, they approved awarding him a Congressional Medal of Honor. Marshall justified the award as an effort to “offset any propaganda by the enemy,” while Roosevelt described it as “pure yielding to congressional and public opinion.” The White House hoped to counter Republican demands for a “Pacific first” strategy by granting MacArthur a Pacific war theater, even one secondary to the Pacific Ocean Area Theater commanded by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz.
Promoted to the rank of full general by the time he reached Australia and took command of SWPA, MacArthur devoted himself during the next thirty months to fulfilling his pledge, “I shall return [to liberate the Philippines].” The effort began with a counteroffensive in New Guinea in the summer of 1942 and continued with a number of successful amphibious operations during 1943 and 1944. American and Australian units in SWPA took control of all New Guinea, the Admiralties, western New Britain, and Morotai—all envisioned as stepping stones to the Philippines.
Throughout this period MacArthur complained that Roosevelt and the Joint Chiefs of Staff starved his operations, giving preference to both the war in Europe and the central Pacific drive under Admiral Nimitz. “Some people in Washington,” he told his staff, “would rather see MacArthur lose a battle than America win a war.” He countered with public criticism of the Joint Chiefs and exaggerated accounts of his own accomplishments, often filtered through anti–New Deal newspapers and members of Congress. Possibly to press Roosevelt to support his claims, MacArthur tacitly encouraged an ultimately abortive effort by conservative Republicans to nominate him for president in 1944. Nevertheless, as in their earlier relationship, Roosevelt seemed unconcerned by MacArthur’s politics and approved his promotion to five-star General of the Army in 1944. The following spring MacArthur became commander of all American army forces in the Pacific. As a result of his genuine achievements in the Pacific war as well as his excessive public relations effort, in later years many Americans credited him with Pacific victories won not only by his forces, but by the navy and marines under separate command.
Recent assessments of MacArthur’s campaigns during World War II call into question his claim that he accomplished much with minimal resources. In fact, from mid-1942 on he controlled far more extensive resources than the Japanese. Until the invasion of the Philippines in October 1944, his casualties remained low in part because the Joint Chiefs prevented him from carrying out several dangerous operations. His own theater played only a supporting role, subordinate to the navy, in defeating Japan.
In autumn 1944 Roosevelt and the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved a major invasion of the Philippines. MacArthur anticipated crushing Japanese forces quickly, cutting Japan’s links to Southeast Asia and thereby forcing Tokyo to surrender quickly. The operation failed to achieve its promised results. Fighting in the Philippines continued right up until August 1945 when the use of atomic bombs and the entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific war made the campaign irrelevant. The ten-month battle for the Philippines devastated the islands and resulted in some of the Pacific war’s highest casualty rates, but it had little effect on Japan’s decision to surrender.
Nearly all biographers agree that the most positive period of MacArthur’s professional life coincided with his service as occupation commander in Japan. President Harry Truman privately derided the general as “Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat, Five-Star MacArthur” and complained that only political pressure from Republicans led him to send the war hero to Tokyo. However, MacArthur proved well suited for the job of overseeing the restructuring of America’s wartime enemy.
Working under guidelines developed in Washington, the “Allied” occupation was virtually an American monopoly. The general, widely referred to by his acronym SCAP (supreme commander for the Allied powers), presided over a complex process of demilitarizing and democratizing an authoritarian state. Occupation authorities administered policies and implemented reforms in both military and nonmilitary affairs. Although policies for Japan were technically to be formulated by the U.S. government and its wartime Allies, MacArthur usually ignored the Allies and often informed Washington of actions only after they had taken place.
Under the supreme commander’s direct if autocratic leadership, the SCAP bureaucracy supervised the demobilization of millions of Japanese soldiers and sailors, conducted a limited purge of militarists and extreme nationalists from public life, promoted the growth of a trade union movement, encouraged an effective land reform, championed women’s legal rights, restructured the education and police systems, and made a tentative effort to control the nation’s dominant business combines, the zaibatsu.
MacArthur was especially proud of imposing an American-written constitution in 1947. It incorporated liberal western political forms, such as universal suffrage, and abolished Japan’s right to maintain armed forces or conduct war. Observers noted, however, that democratic forms did not automatically assure democracy. The decision by both Truman and MacArthur to preserve a modified emperor system blocked a complete democratic change. Japan’s prewar conservative political parties, along with most bureaucrats, largely escaped the purge and quickly mastered the new system. Political parties financed by large business enterprises dominated Japanese politics during the occupation and have continued to for nearly all the period since.
Neither MacArthur nor other American policy makers found it easy to cope with the virtual collapse of the Japanese economy. Initially, Japan was expected to emerge from American control as a modest industrial power alongside a revitalized China and Southeast Asia. However, civil war in China and anticolonial uprisings in Southeast Asia confounded Washington’s hope that a stable, pro-American China would replace Japan as a U.S. regional proxy. The likely victory of the Chinese Communists, coupled with deteriorating Soviet-American relations in Europe, led Washington to reassess Japan’s importance. By 1948 the Truman administration initiated a “reverse course,” a policy centered on rebuilding Japan’s industrial base while holding back on further social reform.
MacArthur, despite his personal conservatism, resisted pressure to reverse occupation reforms. He had decided to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 1948 and considered Washington’s new interest in Japan really an attempt to undermine his status and accomplishments as occupation commander. The general stubbornly resisted the new agenda despite demands from the Truman administration. Ironically, MacArthur hoped to win credit from liberal Americans for his belated support for an antimonopoly program in Japan. Following the general’s defeat in several Republican presidential primaries early in 1948, he abandoned his candidacy and accepted the so-called reverse course in Japan. With Truman returned to the White House, MacArthur relinquished effective control of economic policy in Japan to emissaries from Washington.
During 1949 and 1950, MacArthur emerged as a leading critic of the Truman administration’s China policy. Even as the president and Secretary of State Dean Acheson tried to limit American support for the crumbling Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang) government of Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi), MacArthur warned in both secret dispatches and public statements that a Chinese Communist victory would endanger all Asia. When Chiang established a rump government on the island of Taiwan in 1949, the general urged Truman to protect the island and develop it as a base for future attacks on the Chinese mainland. MacArthur focused his attention so much on Taiwan that he advocated withdrawing American military forces from South Korea in 1948 and opposed any U.S. commitment to defend the government of South Korean strongman Syngman Rhee.
The outbreak of fighting in Korea on 25 June 1950 led MacArthur to dramatically change his assessment of American security priorities in East Asia. In spite of his earlier misgivings about the value of the South Korean regime, he advocated committing U.S. ground troops to Korea on 30 June, as soon as it became clear that the collapse of South Korean forces would result in a quick North Korean victory. Between 27 June and 30 June, President Truman resolved to defend South Korea and shield Taiwan from attack, and he named MacArthur commander of U.S. forces fighting on the Korean Peninsula. In July the president appointed MacArthur head of the United Nations military command, composed mainly of American troops.
From July 1950 on, MacArthur consistently pressed for a full commitment of U.S. military power to the Korean conflict. His forceful personality convinced the reluctant Joint Chiefs of Staff—who feared that the operation risked the safety of nearly all the nation’s combat-ready troops—to authorize a daring amphibious counterattack behind enemy lines at Inchon on 15 September 1950. Its success resulted in the rapid defeat of most North Korean forces south of the 38th parallel (which divided the two Koreas) and the recapture of Seoul, South Korea’s capital. Securing the 38th parallel fulfilled the original war aims of both the United States and the United Nations.
At this point, however, the Truman administration decided to expand the war by entering North Korea, destroying its government, and unifying the peninsula. Even though MacArthur vigorously supported these goals, he came into increasing conflict with civilian and military leaders in Washington because of his public calls to widen the war by assisting Chinese Nationalist forces on Taiwan in attacking the Chinese mainland. During a visit to Taiwan at the beginning of August and in a message to the Veterans of Foreign Wars a few weeks later, MacArthur demanded that Truman help the Nationalists land in China in order to relieve pressure on Korea, weaken the Beijing government, and turn back the Communist threat throughout Asia. These calls contradicted the ongoing efforts of Truman and Acheson to separate the Korean conflict from the Chinese civil war and risked, in their opinion, bringing Chinese Communist or even Soviet forces into the Korean War.
During September and October 1950, as MacArthur’s forces pressed northward toward the North Korean–Chinese border along the Yalu River, the general minimized the danger of provoking Chinese intervention. At the Wake Island Conference on 15 October he assured a nervous Truman that the Chinese threat to intervene if U.S. forces moved into North Korea was a bluff. Even if they did so, he declared, they would easily be crushed by superior American power. Privately, in words to his staff, MacArthur appeared to savor the prospect of Chinese intervention in the Korean War as it would provide a justification for American attacks on China and greater assistance to Taiwan.
Despite the general’s assurances to Truman, Chinese “volunteers” undertook a massive intervention in Korea at the end of November, just as MacArthur prepared to announce military victory in the campaign. During December 1950 and January 1951, the Chinese pushed U.S. forces south of the 38th parallel in a costly and humiliating retreat. Describing the situation as an “entirely new war,” MacArthur blamed his battlefield problems on restrictions against attacking China. He rejected the administration’s idea of seeking an armistice that merely restored the prewar boundary along the 38th parallel. Nor did he agree with the views of Truman and most military officials that expanding the war in Korea would make Western Europe, America’s top security priority, more vulnerable to Soviet attack. The general insisted that his unique mastery of what he called “Oriental psychology” enabled him to dismiss the dangers of provoking a world war.
As MacArthur issued increasingly shrill warnings of imminent defeat, the Joint Chiefs of Staff discovered that he routinely exaggerated the danger to his troops and fought the war more vigorously in press releases than on the battlefield. In contrast to his dire predictions of defeat unless he received permission to attack China, battle lines stabilized near the 38th parallel in March 1951. That month, just before President Truman planned to present a cease-fire proposal to North Korean and Chinese leaders, MacArthur sabotaged the effort by issuing a public demand that Chinese forces surrender at once to him or risk attacks upon their homeland.
On 5 April Republican congressman Joseph Martin released a letter sent to him earlier by MacArthur in which the general endorsed Martin’s charge that Truman was guilty of appeasement and responsible for thousands of American deaths. There was, the letter insisted, “no substitute for victory.” By calling for a wider war whose dimensions and consequences could not be gauged and by openly attacking the president, MacArthur sealed his fate. Some evidence suggests that the general actually hoped to goad Truman into firing him so that he could escape responsibility for the earlier battlefield reverses and the emerging stalemate in Korea. In any case, on 11 April 1951, after getting the approval of nearly all his senior military, diplomatic, and political advisers, an angry Truman relieved MacArthur of all his military commands.
MacArthur returned to a hero’s welcome in the United States. The public outpouring reflected many things besides agreement with his call for a wider war. As the last major commander of the Second World War to return home, MacArthur symbolized the great victories in that struggle, which had united, rather than divided, Americans. The general made a dramatic speech to Congress on 19 April 1951 in which he falsely denied advocating that American troops be used to fight China but advocated, nevertheless, a wider war to assure military victory. He closed his address by citing the words from an old army song: “Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.”
Clearly, the old general did not expect to fade away. He testified for several days during spring 1951 before congressional panels, trying to persuade the legislators of the wisdom of his strategy. However, nearly all senior military commanders refuted his call for a wider war. In the memorable words of General Omar Bradley, a conflict with China would involve the United States in the “wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and against the wrong enemy.” The public, which adored the general’s sense of the dramatic, never voiced much interest in widening the Korean War.
MacArthur tried to recover momentum by making a series of nationwide speeches denouncing both Korean War strategy and the liberal domestic policies of the Truman administration. His hyperbolic, partisan attacks soon bored the public, and interest in his message faded when Korean armistice talks began late in the summer of 1951.
MacArthur tried to rekindle interest in his candidacy for the presidency by delivering the keynote address at the 1952 Republican nominating convention. The delegates cheered dutifully but then nominated another war hero, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. A disappointed MacArthur abandoned politics and dropped out of public life.
In 1952 MacArthur accepted the largely honorary position of board chairman of Remington Rand, later Sperry-Rand. He made occasional speeches but lived a generally secluded life in New York City. Shortly before his death in Washington, D.C., he published a memoir, Reminiscences, and from his hospital bed warned President Lyndon Johnson against committing troops to a land war in Asia, a war he felt would be unwinnable and unpopular. Following a state funeral in Washington, D.C., he was buried in Norfolk, Virginia.
MacArthur left an ambiguous legacy. Admiration for his World War II victories, supervision of occupied Japan, and eloquent rhetoric on the themes of duty, honor, and country must be tempered by his performance during the Korean War. His public challenge of civilian authority and accusations against the Truman administration contributed to the appeal of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy’s charges that Communist subversion undermined American security.
The Douglas MacArthur Papers are in the MacArthur Memorial Archives in Norfolk, Va. Secondary sources include D. Clayton James, The Years of MacArthur (3 vols., 1970–1985); Carol M. Petillo, Douglas MacArthur: The Philippine Years (1981); and Michael Schaller, Douglas MacArthur: The Far Eastern General (1989). See also, William McLeary, ed., We Shall Return: MacArthur’s Commanders and the Defeat of Japan (1988).
- Acheson, Dean Gooderham (11 April 1893–12 October 1971), lawyer and secretary of state
- Bradley, Omar Nelson (1893-1981), military commander
- Eisenhower, Dwight David (14 October 1890–28 March 1969), U.S. Army general and thirty-fourth president of the United States
- Hoover, Herbert Clark (1874-1964), engineer, philanthropist, and thirty-first president of the United States
- Johnson, Lyndon Baines (27 August 1908–22 January 1973), thirty-sixth president of the United States
- MacArthur, Arthur (1845-1912), army general
- Marshall, George Catlett, Jr. (31 December 1880–16 October 1959), soldier and statesman
- Martin, Joseph William, Jr. (1884-1968), Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives
- McCarthy, Joseph (1908-1957), U.S. senator
- Nimitz, Chester William (1885-1966), admiral
- Quezon, Manuel Luis (1878-1944), first president of the Philippine Islands
- Roosevelt, Franklin Delano (30 January 1882–12 April 1945), thirty-second president of the United States
- Stimson, Henry Lewis (1867-1950), cabinet member and statesman
- Truman, Harry S. (08 May 1884–26 December 1972), thirty-third president of the United States