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Liberator, Deadbeat, Warmonger: The Many Faces of General Douglas MacArthur

To some, he was a hero. To others, he was the American Caesar.
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Up to this present moment, the very name of Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines still elicits positive reactions. MacArthur is synonymous with freedom from Japanese rule and of giving the Philippines its (formal) independence. He is cited often as a great general, a wise commander who fulfilled his promise of “I shall return” before leaving for Australia via submarine. But beyond this overly hagiographic narrative is a more complicated MacArthur.

Far from the untainted valor that he exuded during the Second World War, those outside the Philippines view MacArthur in a very different light, one that ranges from appraisal to dismissal. What they have in common however is the consensus that MacArthur is a larger-than-life character, a figure with many qualities and flaws, as well as his own share of skeletons in the closet. This colorful personality of MacArthur led to a historian bestowing a title so fitting to his entirety: that of the American Caesar.

To know why he earned such a reputation, it is necessary to take a trip down memory lane, and unravel the psyche of a man who is considered one of the most controversial officers to serve in the United States military.

Photo courtesy of Ray-Ban.
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MacArthur, the Veteran-Killer

From his early childhood onwards, MacArthur’s career as a soldier was more or less predetermined. Born and raised in a military family that served the U.S. for generations, Douglas belonged to a highly esteemed and even aristocratic lineage. This may explain his familiarity with military life and his quick rise through the ranks.

World War I is the first major conflict where the United States reaped the benefits of a major struggle, leading to a sudden postwar boom. American popular culture through modernist literature and jazz was all the rage in war-torn Europe, and for a time, it seemed that the memories of the war would fade. But then came the Great Depression, which almost wiped the savings and investments of people overnight across the world. The social and political effects of this economic crash resulted people supporting extremist parties like the Communists, Socialists, Fascists and Anarchists.

In 1932, thousands of WW1 veterans gathered in Washington. Calling themselves the Bonus Army, they demanded for compensation that the government had deprived them for so long. As the days went, the lack of government response made the demonstrators furious, and they started to clamor for further political reforms. Fearing that the Bonus Army would become a radical force of subverting the State, President Edgar Hoover ordered a suppression of the march and the arrest of its leaders and participants. Scores of men fell before the trucks and tanks of their own government.

The one who supervised the affair was none other than Douglas MacArthur. Now a senior officer in the ranks, MacArthur saw nothing but the fulfilment of restoring order, in spite of managing to kill his own brothers in arms. It was quite ironic that he actually met with one of the veterans that he had become friends with back in France, only to shoo the person off, never to be seen again.

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MacArthur, aka Dugout Doug

Owing to his father’s prestige, MacArthur was able to easily integrate within the Philippine elite. The Filipino politicians, especially Manuel Quezon, had showered him with praise, including his appointment as adviser of the Philippine Commonwealth Army, mines in Baguio, a luxury suite in Manila, and the rank of field marshal. It is therefore such a comedy what transpired under his leadership.

As late as 1941, Philippine defenses against Japanese invasion were lacking and inadequate. The ordinary soldiers had low pay and little motivation. Many were equipped with artillery and rifles which dated back to the First World War. Despite the efforts to modernize and to synchronize this rearmament under the “War Plan Orange” directive, the Philippines was still woefully ill-prepared.

This would demonstrate itself during the Japanese assault in December of 1941. Overrunning the installations that MacArthur had erected, the Japanese pursued a combined arms approach to warfare, with emphasis placed on fast-moving troops and airpower as the spearhead of the attack. Deciding that resistance in Manila would mean the destruction of the city, MacArthur recommended to Quezon that it should be an open and demilitarized city. While this technically meant that the invaders would maintain a calm posture since there were no longer any military garrisons, it also left Manila at the mercy of the occupiers.

Holed up in Bataan and with reinforcements nowhere in sight, MacArthur and the Commonwealth government decided to flee. This would earn him the title “Dugout Doug” from the Australians; a man who barked instructors at the comfort of his bunker, while abandoning his men to the enemy when the self-preservation instinct kicked in. Such an action by MacArthur earned him the ire of the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, who commented that MacArthur was nothing more than a coward. Before he left, he was said to have promised to come back.

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Fast forward to 1944, the Americans had landed once more in the Philippines. But contrary to the popular imagery of the Americans defeating the Japanese, much of the country had been set free by guerillas either independent of or affiliated with the US. The most famous of these groups was the nationalist Hukbalahap, who not only demanded independence, but also land reform for the betterment of the conditions of the workers.

Once the Japanese were out, MacArthur was influential in sentencing the major Japanese officers to death for their tenure in the country, while also agreeing with Manuel Roxas that the collaborator trials must be limited. He stood by when Roxas deprived the Hukbalahap representatives of their seats, and during the death of so many labor leaders, which all but made the conditions for an insurgency to emerge, an insurgency that continues up to this day.

Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps Officer Gaetano Faillace/Wikimedia Commons.
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MacArthur, the Reformer and Deserter

During the occupation of Japan by the Allied powers from 1946 to 1952, MacArthur was appointed as the commander of the Allied forces stationed in that nation. His role was so immense and so integral that he was known as the “White Shogun.” Under his leadership, he lobbied for the shielding of the Imperial family from war crimes, dismantled the old zaibatus, and was instrumental in the adoption of a new Japanese Constitution to limit the monarchy as figureheads, with authority given to the Parliament.

A reason why MacArthur had succeeded in Japan is due to his appreciation for and his caution in dealing with Japanese political and cultural figures. While enacting progressive measures and enticing the Japanese to adopt them, he left most of the foundations of Japanese society intact. He knew that too much disruption would create resentment. He also knew that the policy of deindustrialization would work against the Allies’ interests as they feared the Soviet expansion into Asia.

While anti-communist in tone and in orientation, MacArthur saw the communist governments of China and North Korea not as mere puppets of the Kremlin. He correctly estimated that the North Korean leadership would try to unify the country, which it attempted in 1950 through the Korean war. Due to his seniority and experience, MacArthur was given the command of the United Nations forces there, leading them to victory after victory.

But his flaws got the better of him when he thought of crossing the Yalu river, the border that separates Korea from China. Assuming that the UN crossing of the Yalu was a violation of national sovereignty, the Chinese troops would push back MacArthur’s army to the 38th parallel, thus inaugurating a long and cruel stalemate. Amidst the carnage, MacArthur conceived of dropping nuclear weapons in Manchuria to stall the Chinese and send a message to the Beijing leadership.

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But here, his luck would run out. President Harry Truman was furious at MacArthur’s handling of the war in Korea. When he got his chance to boot him out, he did so over Macarthur’s comments on nuclear weapons. With just a stroke of pen, the career of this general would come to an end.

MacArthur, a Complicated Man

A part of why the fame of MacArthur in the Philippines and Japan still exists is because of his conduct in these lands, and partially because of the veneration that the respective elites of the countries still have for him. But beyond the pomp and highlight, his colleagues considered MacArthur as nothing more than a pop star, a darling of the press. President Harry Truman, the boss who fired him over the Korean affair, said that he did not understand how the U.S. Army could "produce men such as Robert E. Lee, John J. Pershing, Eisenhower and Bradley and at the same time produce Custers, Pattons and MacArthur."

In addition, when President Lyndon Johnson met wit William Westmoreland in 1966 at the height of the Vietnam War in 1966, he told him: "General, I have a lot riding on you. I hope you don't pull a MacArthur on me." By contrast, MacArthur is also known to have predicted that the Soviet Union would not lose to Nazi Germany in 1941, when a lot of Western generals thought that it could be done, and his rumination that Asia would be the future of much of the world to come after both World Wars. For this, he can be called a visionary in a flawed sort of a way.

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History has often confined itself to the celebration of “great” figures without highlighting their fallibilities. And it does society an injustice to present history and the men who made it in black and white, reducing the complexities and nuances of the past into footnotes and generalizations. As heroic as MacArthur is portrayed, he was a much more complicated and flawed man underneath.

Photo by Lt. Ralph Estep—Army/U.S. Department of Defense/Brittanica.

References:

Bautista, A. (1952). The Hukbalahap Movement in the Philippines, 1942-1952, University of California.

Daniels, R. (1971). The Bonus March: An Episode of the Great Depression. Greenwood Publishing.

Manchester, W. (1978). American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964. Little, Brown and Company.

Morton, L (1953). The Fall of the Philippines. Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army.

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