General MacArthur and Truman: The End of the World?

June 16, 2023

"I have returned." Douglas MacArthur and entourage wading ashore, Leyte Island, the Philippines. October 20, 1944. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

“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.

General Douglas MacArthur accepting the unconditional surrender from the Empire of Japan. 1945. Courtesy – Library of Congress.

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.

President Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

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.

President Harry Truman wearing General MacArthur’s hat.
Cartoon shows an insignificant-looking President Truman wearing an oversize military hat. The cartoon, drawn shortly after Truman met with General Douglas MacArthur at Wake Island during the Korean War, appears to suggest that the President was not qualified for the job of Commander in Chief. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

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.”

United States General of the Army Douglas MacArthur shakes hands with US president Harry Truman at the Wake Island Conference, seven months before Truman relieved MacArthur from command. Courtesy of Harry S. Truman Library.

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
Smithsonian Magazine
New York Times
National Archives

More about Allen Cornwell

Allen Cornwell is a self-employed business owner and an adjunct American History professor at a small college. He lives in rural Virginia and enjoys history, sports, old movies and visiting all types of museums. Cornwell has had a number of American history articles published and he earned his M. A. degree in American History from Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be contacted at:

    1. I’m sorry but this General has never impressed me! Why was he whisked away when the Philippines were under attack and all his men there were left to die? Then when the fighting has finally ended he’s back! That doesn’t show bravery to me! President Truman was right to fire him.

    1. I read that MacArthur was really miffed when Truman made the decision to drop the atomic bombs rather than risk many American lives in a land invasion of the Japanese home islands. It would have been MacArthur’s crowning glory to lead that invasion but it never happened. If the land invasion had been authorized, the war could have lasted another year or more and many more American lives would have been lost. Truman made the right call.

    1. Oh he goes ashore after all the fighting is done !! Patten was the better man !!!

    1. Even though my middle name is Douglas, my dads choice, I think General George Smith Patton was the best WWII General!

    1. MacArthur was all about MacArthur. Like Custer, he was a legend in his own mind .

    1. Small fact : he graduated West Point first in class.
      This famous film – he ordered a retake! They all slogged in the water a second time!

    1. Why were his Army and Air forces caught so off guard on December 8th, when he’d had 8-10 hours of notice that Pearl Harbor had been attacked? Any other General would’ve been court-martialed like Walter Short was.

    1. He had this shot done 3 or 4 times before he liked it !! Just another Custer!⚓

    1. Well he helped lead our forces defeat the Japanese. And we as a country should be thankful.

    1. Patton was non stop balls to the walls.

    1. That was a photographic setup for publicity purposes. We needed a hero

    1. Thomas Keil Read about the Bonus marchers in 1932. MacArthur was sent by Hoover to crush the protest. He did so eagerly. His two assistants? Patton and Eisenhower.

    1. These silly comments ignore the probability that a Japanese capture of America’s top general—and a likely public trial and perhaps an execution—would have been a highly demoralizing event early in the war. And why sacrifice a capable general who went on to lead a successful military campaign, just because you want him to go down with his men?

    1. From what I have read about him, he was an awful leader

    1. A great American general in the Philippines.

    1. Say what you want about Doug, but his father, Gen. Arthur, was a real soldier who genuinely cared about the local Philippinos and did his best to set up a Republic in the Philippines despite Congressional shenanigans…

    1. Probably true. Otherwise he would have said we have returned

    1. He remained out of the country for a total of 25 years with his career.

    1. MacArthur was a legend in his own mind with a huge ego.

    1. There are many comments here, after the battles are fought it Easy to sit around and say it should have been this way or that. It is called Monday Quarterbacking.

    1. So many of our international problems would be minuscule today if we had stayed the course to fight Fascisism.

    1. Anyone who names his kid Arthur MacArthur, you have to wonder about

    1. You won’t find men like that today in this country

    1. MacArthur craved publicity. This photo was staged to enhance his public image.

    1. How many lives did he sacrifice needlessly for this photo op??

    1. Love him, hate him! He was still one of the most decorated soldiers in the US.

    1. Had the government listened to General Patton during WWII and General McArthur during the Korean War, we would not be having the problems we’re having today with Russia and China.

    1. A great soldier I salute him.and thank him for his courage and service.

    1. Egotistical, fame hunter, argumentative, silly pipe and continuous photo ops.

    1. Well McArthur got to lead the rebuilding of Japan which went well. He was a man of action and decisiveness which is to his credit. He did screw up in Korea to end his career

    1. MacArthur was a HERO Truman was a pacifist. General McArthur would have defeated North Korea, then Vietnam may have never have happened

    1. Remember what he did to the WWI vets when they gathered in D.C. wanting assistance

    1. It is estimated that 3% of everybody on earth died during the second world war, about 85 million people.

    1. Old Soldiers never die; they just fade away! He did not help in Korean War

    1. His two head staff officers, Almond and Sutherland, weren’t fun to deal with, either, I read.

    1. As a young boy I wanted to watch Howdy Doody but the adults had to watch the war on TV the Korean War was very dark and scary. Remember we were handicapped then by politicians just like Vietnam costing many American lives, General McArthur wanted to end it quick but he was fired so consequently that war has never ended. We haven’t won a war since Korea !

    1. Not I have returned. Should have been we have returned.

    1. Dugout Doug. Gladly accepted the Medal of Honor while doing his best to deny (successfully until after the end of WW2) Jonathan Wainwright his. Had Wainwright died in a POW Camp, it’s likely he wouldn’t have received one.

    1. Unless you  have been in contact yourself, especially   especially officers sending men to certain death, you may not understand🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸

    1. Storming the beach. Not a single one of these brave officers has a firearm. Its because 0f the 40,000 brave infantry that stormed the beach ahead of these cowards

    1. He was not what they portrayed him to be. He was weak and not a strategist! He’s the clown that after General Patton took a town, told him to leave so that the British would look like they did I it! A..kisser was all he was!

    1. Records show he hated Marines there were many times when Marines earned the MOH and he would not recommend it because he would say that’s what they are suppose to do and acted like it was no big deal, however if it was the army doing less he would give it out. Screw macarthur.

    1. McArthur was a joke that got thousands of people killed

    1. Most of his problems started after he ordered his troops to kill the Bonus March Veterans, protesting in DC. After ordering the Veterans to be shot, Hoover didn’t want McArthur around the Capital, especially during an election. McArthur was hired by the Philippines Government to become the Generalissimo and his agreement was he could only be paid in Gold, at 200,000 yr. He had stashed most of his gold in a cave, and would retrieve it after he abandoned his 80,000 American Troops. McArthur abandoned his troops and after collecting his gold along, with all his Field Grade subordinates, abandoned his post. Where 80,000 American Troops would be captured and set on the Bataan Death March where most died, before being starves in POW Concentration Camps.
      It is still the greatest Military loss in American History.

    1. MacArthur captured the Japanese codes early in the war and kept them for his own use, easily causing the deaths of thousands of Americans, not the behavior of a patriot.

    1. Brendan Varley that is a stark accusation, why would he keep the codes?

    1. Sharon Mccord it’s in his biography. Why! Because Mac Arthur was out for himself. He was a general since WW1. His mother went to West Point with him. She lived at a hotel outside the post, the entire time he was there. He was a very conflicted human.

    1. Brendan Varley you did not explain how he profited and it killed service men?

    1. For his own advantage, by not sharing it, he allowed American forces to attack unnecessary islands.

    1. Yeah, he returned….at the cost of 16,000 dead and 50,000+ wounded & missing.

    1. MacArthur was a wana-be who had no guts. Patton was a soldier who led from the front. The greatest military leader our country ever had.

    1. No doubt, Patton was good but got sacked by the man that worked as McArthur’s assistant….Gen. Eisenhower.
      And yes, he was given a command later on.

    1. Eisenhower was never McArthur’s assistant. Eisenhower was the commander In Europe. McArthur was one of his General’s. Patton’s punishment was considered a farce by the Germans who thought he would lead in the Normandy invasion. I believe we all were fooled. Later Patton was the reason we won with his aggressive style

    1. The facts and the testimonies of his troops attest that he was a hero. He was admired and respected even by his enemies. But internally in the USA, especially the politicians of the deep establishment, even today in the year 2023, they attack him confident that he cannot defend himself, because he is already resting in peace.

    1. My dad was there….hated MacArthur

    1. Never should have left…… should have been a pow with wainwright…. imo

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