“I have returned.” Douglas MacArthur and entourage wading ashore, Leyte Island, the Philippines. October 20, 1944. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
General Douglas MacArthur was confident he was the best soldier in history, and most of the world agreed. There were plenty of reasons. He had graduated 1st in his class at West Point in 1903 and served in three wars. Fearless and reckless, the egotistical MacArthur put himself on the frontlines of battle and not without notice. He earned numerous medals, including nine silver stars and the coveted Medal of Honor for his defense of the Philippines after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His bravery was without question, but some say MacArthur’s finest qualities were his skills at grandstanding and stretching the truth.
A five-star general, MacArthur served as the Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army and then was called out of retirement to be the Commander of the Pacific Theater during World War II. A self-promoter, he dramatically said, “I will return” when ordered to leave the Philippines, which was under attack from Japan. Two years later, with the winds of war changing, MacArthur arranged a documentary crew to record his historical return, later that day saying, “I have returned,” forgetting it was the United States Navy and Army that got him there. Nonetheless, America loved it, and Americans cheered with pride when it was MacArthur who presided over the unconditional surrender of the Japanese.
As Military Governor of occupied Japan, MacArthur helped guide the struggling country to set up a democratic government and instituted a new Constitution that allowed more civil liberties and expanded Japanese women’s rights, including voting rights. Next to Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur was the most famous soldier of the 20th Century, and his name was even tossed around as a potential Presidential candidate in 1952. When the war in Korea broke out in the early 50s, MacArthur was the easy choice to become the Supreme Commander of all UN forces, but not everyone was pleased.
The outspoken General never shied away from public comment, prompting Eisenhower, who in his early career had been MacArthur’s former aide, to say, “I studied dramatics under him for five years in Washington and four years in the Philippines.” About MacArthur’s history of disobeying orders and reckless behavior, Franklin Roosevelt said, “he was one of the two most dangerous men in America.” Aware of his critics, General MacArthur relentlessly trudged along, confidently ignoring the dissent, knowing that the same critics also praised his military genius.
Still, MacArthur was sure of his own greatness, not just because of his accomplishments; he felt he knew best about war, particularly the Korean one, writing, “There is no substitute for victory.” MacArthur allowed his letter to be widely published. It was, however, contrary to the stated mission of Truman’s Administration and the United Nations that the Korean conflict would be of limited scope. There would be no victor, perhaps just a realignment of interests. An all-out war against the communist would certainly escalate into World War III. MacArthur’s letter was viewed as an implicit attack on the Truman administration for not pursuing an all-out victory in the Cold War. In his daily journal,Truman wrote “the last straw.” On April 11, 1951, President Harry Truman fired the impertinent MacArthur for insubordination.
The public was stunned. The front page headline of the New York Times stated, “MacArthur Relieved of All Posts.” In disbelief and shock, anger was growing in America and it was directed at Harry Truman. The public was clear in its support for MacArthur and its dislike of Truman. The general supposedly said, “I didn’t think the little bastard had enough guts to fire me.” Despite his abrupt end, upon his return to the States, General MacArthur was treated as a conquering hero and given a ticker tape parade. Congress honored him further by requesting his presence, where he received a long-standing ovation and 30 rounds of raucous applause. Many in attendance had tears in their eyes as he finished his farewell speech, “Old soldiers never die. They fade away.” Truman was also fading away, ending his Presidency as the most unpopular President in history. He appeared to be the villain spoiling the career of an American icon. Many felt that Truman could not measure up to the great man he fired.
In MacArthur’s testimony to the Senate, the fired General could publicly detail his grievances with Harry Truman’s position on a limited war in Korea. He was angry that Truman would not allow him to expand the war and invade China. He even named certain cities he wanted to bomb; and was certain that by taking the offensive, the communist threat in Korea would be over, and he was certain the Chinese were using all their firepower. General MacArthur assured the listening senators that our military was more than capable of handling threats from both the Chinese and Russians and protecting our homeland, all at the same time. And he assured them that the Joints Chiefs of Staff agreed with him. That was not true. General Omar Bradley, The Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff and also a five-star general, set the record straight. He testified that MacArthur was misguided and further stated, “In the opinion of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this strategy would involve us in the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy.” Suddenly, MacArthur’s credibility began to slip, and the American public was confused over who was telling the truth.
On the matter of MacArthur’s testimony to Congress, the public was left with just that – uncertainty. That uncertainty likely dashed any chances of MacArthur’s Presidential ambitions; although he never seriously indicated an interest, his circle of supporters seemed to vanish. MacArthur became Chairman of the Board for the Remington Rand Corporation and lived in a suite in the Waldorf Astoria in New York. He was still in demand as a speaker, but there was that cloud over his honesty; his character and reputation were questioned. The American public was just not sure about MacArthur.
At his death in 1964, he had a state funeral, flags were at half-mast, and a long list of military and political figures spoke to MacArthur’s career in eulogizing his greatness, but the shadow continued to persist. A year after his death, Harry Truman admitted that he regretted not firing MacArthur earlier. Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery, the highest ranking British officer and Commander of the “Desert Rats” operation in North Africa during the war, saw things differently about MacArthur saying, “I always considered him to be the greatest soldier produced by the United States in the Second World War.”
Finally, in the early 1970s, the secret testimony that was redacted during the 1950 Senate hearings with MacArthur and the Joints Chiefs of Staff was unsealed. MacArthur had led the committee to believe that the United States had endless resources to expand the war into communist China and that the Chinese had extended all their military resources in their effort to help the North Koreans. These two specific points were flatly rejected by the Joints Chiefs of Staff.
The testimony kept from the public painted a dire situation if we had tried to invade China. Our Air Force was already using nearly 85% of its total capacity in the war with Korea and was so stretched it had little left to expand into China; General Vandenberg of the U.S. Air Force stated, “Our air force is a shoestring air force.” “To escalate against China,” he continued, “even if only from the air, would be reckless in the extreme. MacArthur’s assertion that “China is using the maximum of her force against us,” Omar Bradley responded that MacArthur’s claim was quite misleading. The Chinese were not fighting all out, not by a great deal. “They have not used air against our front line troops, against our lines of communication in Korea, our ports; they have not used air against our bases in Japan or against our naval air forces,” said Bradley. Of course, in MacArthur’s world, he was always right, and everyone else was wrong. MacArthur knew that his argument for the invasion of China was not a good strategy, but that apparently did not matter.
To his grave, MacArthur likely never had regrets about his decisions, right or wrong; in the Korean War controversy, Harry Truman had wanted to save lives and get Americans home. Invading China was a bad idea, and untold Americans would have died if MacArthur had his way. General MacArthur had wished for victory, and, at any cost, including potentially inciting another World War, or, possibly a nuclear war.
Dwight Eisenhower summed up his old boss, saying, “MacArthur could never see a sun, or even a moon for that matter, in the heavens, as long as he was the sun.” It was all about him for MacArthur, who even required his wife to address him as General.
All leaders have flaws; their greatness often blinds us from noticing their imperfections. MacArthur had his faults, but there was greatness, too. Re-thinking General Douglas MacArthur’s place in history is a subject that will continue to be debated.
Library of Congress
New York Times