“Today the guns are silent. A great tragedy has ended.” MacArthur signs the Japanese unconditional surrender, September 2, 1945. Wainwright and General Arthur Percival, commander of the defeated British garrison at Singapore, stand behind him. Admiral William Halsey in cloth cap can be seen standing beyond MacArthur; General George Kenney stands at the right. U.S. Army Signal Corps
Your guidepost stands out like a tenfold beacon in the night: Duty, Honor, Country.
—DOUGLAS MACARTHUR TO WEST POINT CADETS, MAY 12, 1962
For Filipinos and Japanese, MacArthur’s death was a day of national mourning. His state funeral in Washington, D.C., on April 8 and 9 was as grand and solemn as any president’s, with 150,000 people filing past his bier as it lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda before traveling to Norfolk, Virginia, for final burial. When Jean died in 2000, at age one hundred and one, she was laid to rest beside him, the couple together again at last.
Among the many tributes to pour in in 1964 was, ironically but fittingly, MacArthur’s own to himself. His Reminiscences was published just months after his death. Although the book was an instant bestseller, the reaction from critics and historians was largely negative. The title of the review in Harper’s was “Egoist in Uniform.” In it the reviewer concluded, “He was always his worst enemy, and his autobiography will add nothing to his reputation. He should be remembered by his deeds, not his words.”
But would he be?
The great figures in history live on as legends, which historians and biographers revisit from time to time. Sometimes they bring new evidence to light that forces a reexamination of why he or she made some important decision, or chose to ignore a crucial factor that might have influenced that same decision, for better or worse. But more often they bring their own prejudices and assumptions to the subject, which enables them to rewrite the legend in a new positive or negative light.
Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Napoleon, even MacArthur’s nemesis Harry Truman: all have gone through this reexamination process. Certainly MacArthur belongs in that exalted company; but how have historians dealt with his legend, and how has the making of the legend obscured the truth, and the man, underneath?
In 1945 the MacArthur legend was of a storybook hero and military genius who towered over America’s other living war leaders, almost over the memory of FDR himself. It was a legend largely manufactured by the press during the crisis in the Philippines, and not a little by MacArthur himself. Of course it ignored certain mistakes, blunders even, that MacArthur had made during that campaign, and mistakes later in New Guinea as well as during the retaking of the Philippines. It also discounted the contributions made by others, such as George Kenney and Daniel Barbey, to MacArthur’s success. Yet it also sustained the nation during one of its darkest times, in the months following Pearl Harbor. As the war proceeded, the MacArthur legend only gathered strength until when war broke out again in June 1950, America saw him as the obvious choice to reverse the tide of battle and bring its forces to victory once again—not only once but twice when the Communist Chinese unexpectedly intervened.
Then in April 1951 something happened that shook that legend to its foundations. America’s greatest war hero found himself dismissed by America’s least popular president, in the midst of a war that most Americans believed could turn global at any time, and at the high tide of a campaign that seemed on the brink of final victory. Truman and his supporters needed to show that firing MacArthur was not only desirable but inevitable, that the general had brought this on himself, and that his reckless actions had endangered not only the course of the war in Korea but the nation itself.
And so, almost from the moment he was dismissed from command in Korea, the attacks on his reputation began, the goal being to justify both President Truman’s action and the Truman policy in Korea. Works like The General and the President, coauthored by Democratic Party stalwarts Richard Rovere and Arthur Schlesinger, propounded the dubious thesis that MacArthur’s behavior in Korea constituted not only an attack on the principle of civilian leadership over the military but even an attack on the Constitution itself. They also raked over his record in World War Two, looking for ways to imply that recklessness, misjudgment, and incompetence were the hallmarks of MacArthur’s entire career. The “Dugout Doug” myth took hold once again, as did the “man on a white horse” charging the Bonus Marchers. The story of his escape from Corregidor in the dead of night became embellished until it seemed he had left his command almost in defiance of the president’s orders, instead of in obedience to them—and the bitterness that many Bataan veterans felt toward what they saw as an act of betrayal and cowardice became the narrative that explained MacArthur’s actions from the moment bombs fell on Clark Field.
As time went on, historians like Stanley Falk and Gavin Long came to question virtually every decision MacArthur made in World War Two, including the decision to liberate the Philippines at all. The myth that his dramatic splashing ashore on Leyte was staged, even rehearsed, became so widely accepted as fact that the MacArthur Memorial had to publish a short book refuting it. I have even been asked if it’s true that the reason MacArthur chose to land first at Leyte rather than Luzon was that he had a mistress living in Tacloban.
Then came attacks on MacArthur’s record in the American occupation of Japan by Cold War revisionist historians like Michael Schaller, who cast “the American shogun” as an arrogant autocrat more obsessed with battling Communists and left-wingers than with building a democratic Japan. In the aftermath of Vietnam, MacArthur’s reputation as commander in Korea sank to new lows, as well, as every move he made—including Inchon—was largely dismissed as either incompetent, ill-conceived, or (as in his refusal to take the possibility of massive Chinese intervention seriously) divorced from reality. Even otherwise sympathetic biographers like Clayton James and William Manchester were affected by the negative consensus. Both would treat MacArthur’s war in Korea as the nadir of his career, and his famous speech to the joint session of Congress as a matter of embarrassment rather than triumph.
By the 2000s the impulse to debunk the MacArthur legend would even include questioning his record in World War One, with historians hinting that the cluster of medals he carried away from that conflict owed more to old-boy-network connections than to actual skill or valor on the battlefield.
That cumulative negative judgment is not only unfair but distorting of his larger significance both as military leader and as American hero. In the end, the flaws that detractors pointed out sprang from the same larger-than-life frame as the virtues that admirers celebrated. The same man who could make some of the most monstrous mistakes in the history of American arms was also capable of some of the most inspired. The man whose vanity and thirst for adulation knew almost no bounds was also capable of touching acts of charity, and unshakable courage under fire.
His spectacular successes were always haunted by his equally spectacular failures, while the sacrifices he imposed on his soldiers would be questioned and requestioned even during his lifetime. Some would never forgive him, including many in his profession. Indeed, in many ways, the American military tradition since the Korean War has involved a conscious turning away from the MacArthur model of leadership: that of the charismatic, even glamorous, supreme commander, aloof and all-knowing, who demands unquestioned obedience from his men and unlimited freedom of action from his superiors, including his commander in chief. It’s a Napoleonic model that MacArthur shared with George Patton as well as George Pershing and his own father. It’s one that 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—at least, as in MacArthur’s experience with Japan, until the fighting is over and the enemy has lost.
Above all, it is a military tradition that resolutely refuses to embrace any war strategy that does not include a plan for final victory. The post-MacArthur military has proven more willing to operate without that precondition, despite the so-called Powell Doctrine; it’s certainly more mindful of minimizing combat deaths, both the enemy’s and its own. Yet after the experiences of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, it seems debatable whether the U.S. military, and the world, is truly better off for rejecting the MacArthur model—not to mention the example of today’s Korean peninsula, where soldiers are still occasionally killed along the DMZ and the threat of North Korean nuclear-armed ballistic missiles hangs over all of East Asia.
MacArthur’s reputation as a war leader has suffered, compared to men he thought of, and often treated, as junior subordinates, such as Marshall and Eisenhower and Ridgway. Even his success at Inchon is more often treated as a matter of luck than brilliant vision and flawless operational planning. Nonetheless, the most trenchant chronicler of MacArthur’s military mistakes, Australian historian Gavin Long, has had to acknowledge MacArthur’s “courage, his patriotism, his ability to inspire his subordinates and others,” including Australians and his fellow Americans in 1942, and millions of Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, and other Asian nations during and after World War Two. And no one ever doubted his sense of duty to flag, service, and country—although in the end it led him to challenge a sitting president to a duel of wills, and to trigger what seemed to be a political crisis in the midst of war.
Probably nothing has contributed as much to the decline of MacArthur’s reputation as his confrontation with Truman over Korea—a confrontation that has been as much misrepresented by historians, even military historians, as it has been misunderstood. As we have seen, there is very little in MacArthur’s actions that can be characterized as deliberate disobedience, let alone a challenge to civilian leadership of the military.* At the very most, MacArthur can be accused of insubordination: publicly criticizing a policy and strategy he was actually carrying out even though he thought it (to paraphrase Omar Bradley) the wrong strategy at the wrong time in the wrong war. Yet the reaction from the White House, which had seen him proven more right than wrong throughout the Korean conflict, was one of rage, even panic.
The turning point should have been the meeting between MacArthur and Truman at Wake in October 1950. It should have been the moment when both men could put aside their separate agendas and find a way to communicate more directly on what really mattered: how to win in Korea. Instead, both men—and here MacArthur is as much to blame as Truman—looked for ways to score off the other, and to express their mutual distrust (twenty years later, Truman was still at it, with his disingenuous version of what happened, and what they said to each other, in Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking). The result was a tragedy, not just for America but for Korea and East Asia. The meeting at Wake ranks as one of the great missed opportunities in history.
Yet even after Wake, the possibility of coordination, if not cooperation, between Washington and Tokyo GHQ still loomed. But instead, Washington was prepared to fire MacArthur and was looking for an excuse to do so—just as MacArthur, we now know, had braced himself to be dismissed. The White House found the excuse it was looking for, with Congressman Martin’s release of a letter that had been a private communication, and which MacArthur neither knew about nor had endorsed. But in the end these were irrelevant trifles. The Republican congressman’s action was merely a pretext, first for a Truman administration eager to rid itself of a general who presence reminded everyone of strategic decisions that, in hindsight, looked foolhardy; and for a general who sensed he had nothing left to contribute and for whom it was, as he remarked to Jean, time to go home.
Nonetheless, in the long view, for all his faults and his virtues, both as a soldier and warrior, MacArthur has to stand apart. No one served his country longer as a military commander, and certainly none loved his profession and its way of life more. It is safe to say that MacArthur’s life transcended the profession in which he served. Of all Americans, only Franklin Roosevelt left so personal a stamp on the history of the twentieth century—and none over so many years, including in three global conflicts. Taken as a whole, the only other world figure who begins to compare is his distant cousin, Winston Churchill. Both men shared many of the same virtues and many of the same faults, including a willingness to take risks that nearly torpedoed both men’s careers. Indeed, without Truman’s dismissal, MacArthur’s name might loom as large in history as Churchill’s—just as, if one or two events in 1940 had turned out differently, an entire publishing industry of Churchill hero worship might not exist.
In sum, MacArthur’s life reveals three aspects of the man that stand out from the legend and require acknowledgment.
The first is the degree to which Douglas MacArthur’s story was also his father’s. Arthur MacArthur was not only the mentor and personal inspiration for his son’s career. The old general’s basic stance on how to win wars and then win the peace; how to uphold the values of duty, honor, and country; and how America’s destiny lay westward to the Pacific and Asia, all underlay Douglas MacArthur’s most fundamental beliefs and attitudes.
The second is the degree to which his life was decisively shaped by the women in his life, beginning with his mother. Mary Hardy, Louise Brooks, Jean Faircloth, even Isabel Rosario Cooper: all revealed different aspects of the inner man that he otherwise kept hidden from view. The self-doubting son, the chivalrous romantic lover, the spouse in need of unconditional love and support: these were the other sides of Douglas MacArthur that the women in his life exposed to view, if only in private.
He was not the first famous general who appeared so stern and impervious in the presence of other men, but was in fact the most comfortable and relaxed, even vulnerable, in the presence of women. England’s Duke of Wellington, Horatio Nelson, and even Andrew Jackson shared the same characteristic. It was in fact, perhaps, a part of MacArthur’s Victorian nineteenth-century temperament—and one which modern biographers find the most baffling but which, in many ways, is the easiest to understand and even admire. It would even surface in his pride in what he considered the most important of all his reforms in Japan: securing the vote for women.
The third was MacArthur’s brilliance as a grand strategist—perhaps the most incisive the American military has ever produced. As a general and military commander, he had peers, even superiors. But as a thinker about the purpose of war, and the conduct of the strategy underlying America’s military campaigns from World War One to Korea and beyond, it’s hard to point to an equal. Some may disagree with the conclusions MacArthur came to, as with his Pacific-first strategy in World War Two and on the Cold War and Korea. As a combination of vision, intellectual reach, and innovative thinking, however, they are unique.
It was MacArthur who pioneered the concept of all-arms combined operations in World War Two; who showed how to coordinate ground operations with an overall maritime strategy in the Pacific; and who illustrated how to transform a war-fighting army into a peacekeeping force in postwar Japan. Above all, it was MacArthur’s belief that “there is no substitute for victory” that persists as the most basic lesson in the history of American warfare—although too often it has proved the hardest for politicians to absorb.
Indeed, 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.
“Today we stand on the threshold of a new life,” MacArthur once told an audience soon after he returned from Korea. “Its limits are as broad as the spirit and imagination of man.” As soldier, statesman, and supreme commander, MacArthur’s lifelong goal had been to secure that future, both for America and for its allies. In its pursuit, MacArthur’s actions were never immune from criticism, but no one can doubt that his motives were always noble.
* The closest MacArthur came to contradicting declared policy was in his March 21 directive offering to meet with his Chinese counterpart to arrange an end to the fighting. Yet as he states in his memoirs, he drew up the memorandum before he learned that there was another peace plan in the offing—one that his March 21 communication supposedly disrupted (no evidence, incidentally, currently supports that latter contention).