General Douglas MacArthur is somewhat of a problem for American historiography, being rated by many as one of the great geniuses of the American military, but being accepted by most as a vainglorious megalomaniac, whose belated sacking was the only possible solution to his rampant disdain for his elected masters. As usual, the reality is somewhere between.
Douglas MacArthur was from an American military family that had done much to expand the American empire. His father was a General, and an important figure in the conquest of the Philippines (he was briefly Governor-General), and in beating their independence movement into submission. MacArthur senior was one of the wave of American imperialists who incorporated Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, the Philippines, and selected parts of central America and the Chinese coast, into the American imperial expansion, after they had run out of territory to ‘liberate’ from the American Indians. Douglas MacArthur's early life experience was little different to that of the son of a British General or Governor in India or Africa.
MacArthur knew that he was born to rule, and born to greatness. Part of the reason he knew this, was that his mother repeatedly told him so. In fact when he went to West Point, she moved into an apartment nearby to supervise, and spent the next decades harassing every public officials she could think of to improve his chances of recognition and promotion.
A good Sample of MacArthur’s attitude to the world is taken from his early attempt to win himself a Congressional Medal of Honour. As a minor liaison in one of the repeated American interventions in Central American affairs - at Vera Cruz - he recommended himself for the medal on the basis of an incredible sounding adventure he had undertaken supposedly for useful military purpose (and without orders or permission). The mythology of this rampage through enemy territory on a hand pumped rail cars, while single-handedly shooting it out and emerging victorious from several conflicts, has been uncritically accepted by far too many people. Historian Jack Galloway, writing a book about the relationship between McArthur and his senior Australian commander General Blamey during the Second World War (The Odd Couple: Blamey and MacArthur at War), employed professional athletes to try and attempt a similar feat with a hand cart to the one MacArthur claimed. They found the whole thing impossible, and concluded that the story was at least partially, if not completely, fantasy.
MacArthur posed with his Great War troops very efficiently, and apparently led them with actual elan. The very flamboyant troop leader apparently inspired his men, and achieved fairly significant results. They were not significant enough to impress General Pershing, who refused to add his name to the list of those to be promoted Brigadier, and was seemingly appalled and disgusted when MacArthur’s mother apparently managed to influence the promotion anyway and wrote him a thankyou letter for the supposed recommendation. (He was only given a brigade the day before the Armistice, and ran it for a mere 10 days after fighting ceased.)
MacArthur rose to the position of Chief of Staff of the army in the 1930s, but failed to impress many in the political establishment with his suitability for the role. His use of troops during Washington protests was not well received, and his attempt to sue journalists for libel fell apart when they threatened to call his Eurasian mistress as a witness. He had to pay the costs. (He was already divorced for 'failing to provide'.) He was soon moved on by a very unimpressed Roosevelt administration, and gratefully took up the opportunity to become the military leader of the national forces of the Philippines. (The Philippines in the 1930’s had its own parliament within the US Empire while training to get full independence later – this makes it approximately the equivalent of India in the British Empire at the same time). He did of course demand rank that he felt suitable to his noble character. For several years, he was able to flaunt the rank and title of Field Marshal, despite the fact that Philippine forces would have been hard put to assemble more than a few very weak divisions. At the start he was still being paid as a Major General in the US Army as well, but they retired him in 1937.
He may well have faded from history, as a colourful if unreliable junior officer whose delusions of grandeur had grown too great, except the intervention of World War Two in the Far East. Even then, he should have been quickly discarded into the waste bin of history, had only his own actions being taken into account. His grandiose plans to defend the Philippines on a broad front, fell apart completely. His air force was destroyed on the ground, despite the clear warnings that have been sent to him after Pearl Harbor. His troops collapsed in the field, and only a portion of them made it through a retreat to a small, fortified peninsula, called Bataan. Frankly, they only held out on this peninsula, and on the nearby fortified island of Corregidor, for as long as they did because they were of no threat at all to the Japanese expansion, and they were left to rot on the vine while the assault troops took care of the more urgent matters in the Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, the Pacific Islands, Burma, and New Guinea. When the Japanese could finally spare the attention for a serious assault, the position crumbled quite quickly.
This ignominious failure in the field was frankly a far worse performance than that of the various other military leaders whose careers did not survive the disasters. Lord Gort’s handling of the British expeditionary Force in France, General Percival’s failures in Malaya, General Fredendall in North Africa, and Gen Lucas in Italy, all failed less disastrously than MacArthur. And he failed in the one place where he had years to prepare his troops and his strategy. The man should have been cashiered, and never seen leading troops ever again. Instead he finally got his Congressional Medal of Honor.
What saved MacArthur was his unrivalled ability with propaganda. He far surpassed his nearest allied military rivals General’s Patton and Montgomery. In fact he could be more closely compared to Joseph Goebbels, both in ability, and in veracity. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin would have acknowledged their equals in the ability to tell a big lie. The lengths his propaganda team went to put his earlier fantasies to the pale. The American public were bombarded with stories about valiant defenders, and glorious victories. Not only were the Japanese dying in their thousands, and being shot out of the sky, but their battleships were being sunk apparently at will by MacArthur’s vastly outnumbered but indomitable forces. For an American public receiving a steady diet of failure and disaster in the Pacific and Atlantic, MacArthur was presented as a shining beacon of steadfast endurance and indomitable will. What a crock. His troops referred to him as 'Dugout Doug'.
Nonetheless he managed to pitch himself in such a way that his surrender would have been a disaster to American morale. MacArthurs name was trumpeted, by a politically partisan Republican press as much as by his own HQ bootlickers, as the most heroic individual since David faced Goliath. Unlike his own field commander Gen Wainright, or Gen Perceval in Malaya, there was no chance that McArthur would go down with the ship. Other generals might go into captivity with their men, but McArthur, or at least the myth of MacArthur, had to escape. His American superiors ordered him to Australia.
There was a problem in this for President Roosevelt and General Marshall. MacArthur’s popularity was so great, that there was a serious move in Congress to bring him back to America and put him in command of all American armed forces. This was theoretically the position that the President was supposed to hold in the American system, and would definitely have outranked the far junior Chief of Army Staff Marshall. Neither regarded McArthur with anything more than disdain, both considered he had failed dismally in the Phillipines, and both needed him as far away as possible. Fortunately for them, an inexperienced and panicky Australian government under Prime Minister John Curtin appealed for American aid. Not being able to send much of any use at the time, and not believing that Australia was facing much of a genuine threat, Roosevelt and Marshall were pleased to offer them MacArthur instead. Like the equally difficult Joseph Stillwell (on whom another post later), it would be a pleasure to have such a loose cannon as far away as possible. Meanwhile the Curtin government was happy to accept him, as they viewed him as a convenient “suction pump” for reinforcements.
MacArthur’s relationship with his Australian ‘allies’ has filled many books on its own. He quickly had the Australian government so trained to heel that it completely ignored the advice of its own military (even those generals who had fought successfully against the Nazi’s in North Africa were treated as unimportant by a government busy fawning over a man clearly more gifted at propaganda than leading troops). MacArthur even managed to get his supposed ‘Ground Forces Commander’ – the Australian Blamey – despatched to isolation at the front. (Curtin later admitted that in his ignorance he had not realized that the commander of the national military forces cannot afford to be supervising a brigade on the front line.) MacArthur then refused to have an integrated HQ, insisted on all divisional heads being from his 'Bataan Gang', and manipulated deployments to ensure that Americans would never fight under Australian command.
MacArthur worked out fairly quickly that he had been expelled to a backwater, and attempted to fight back against his superiors (alwys a far more worrisome enemy to Doug than the Japs). With hardly any American troops available (except for a single division not suitable for front-line service), he was fortunate to discover that the Australian Army was more than capable of winning battles. For the next two years he was to build his reputation as the person fighting hardest against the Japanese on the abilities of these troops who he refused to acknowledge. Buna, Gona, Nadzab, Lae, Salamis and Finsdschafen were the Australian victories that made him a winner again. To the Australian soldiers in the field, the code became very clear. Any radio announcement that said ‘American troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur’ meant just that. However far more common was the line ‘Allied troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur’, which actually meant Australians. Not that this attitude was restricted to his allies. A good example of how MacArthur treated his own officers was when he offered one of his American generals (Eichelberger) that if he won a very dicey situation, McArthur would actually go to the extent of releasing his name to the press! This was the highest honour MacArthur could conceive, and reveals what lack of recognition those who served under him would usually receive.
Much is made, by the ignorant, of MacArthur’s achievements at this stage. Much is ignored about use inability to understand the situation, or to make allowances for what was actually happening on the ground. The dreadful hand-to-hand fighting across the Stanley range in New Guinea saw helpful comments from his headquarters about blowing up the passes with dynamite. Considering that this was terrain where soldiers had to crawl on their hands and knees, the fact that neither he nor any of his headquarters lackeys actually went to have a look is damning. (Note: Blamey, also fighting for his political life, committed the same solecism.) MacArthur also repeatedly boasted that could he get American troops onto the ground, their natural superiority would give them easy victory over the Japanese. Inevitably, the green American troops who eventually arrived ground to a halt quickly, and had to be rescued by the more experienced Australians.
MacArthur is given great credit for what is called the ‘island hopping’ campaign. This did in fact bypass various Japanese garrisons on the way back to Japan. It was not actually his idea, as his early plans clearly reveal that he planned to slog past each garrison. Fortunately a lack of resources, particularly shipping, means that more intelligent planners suggested a better alternative, and he was happy to take credit for it. The bypassed Japanese garrisons, with virtually no logistical support and no transport, could be happily left to rot on the vine (in the same way his own troops had been at Bataan and Corregidor). In fact many of them were reduced to spending their available time trying to farm to support their own needs, and played no further role in the war. MacArthur did have the sense to follow this advice, and was a big enough media presence to act as the suction pump necessary to make it possible. So certainly he influenced developments. This is a long way from crediting him with any brilliance.
The re-conquest of the Philippines was not on the agenda for the United States Chiefs of Staff. Their preferred option was to bypass the place, and head on to the island of Formosa (Taiwan). They considered this not only a superior island hopping strategy, and one that would get them closer to Japan, but also a lethal blow to Japanese shipping routes, and a brilliant opportunity to reopen the supply lines to China. MacArthur of course, had promised to return to the Philippines. In the end, his perspective would win out. This is the single most impressive result of his propaganda campaign over several years.
Interestingly, it is here that I actually identify signs of the superior strategic and geopolitical ability in MacArthur. The plans of the United States Chiefs of staff were the simplistic straight-line approach that they wanted to use in Europe. They were paying no attention to the political effects of cleaning up the mess, and re-establishing stable government in the areas that needed liberation. Field Marshal Alan Brooke, the British Chief Imperial General Staff, mentions several times in the course of his diaries about the war that he wished he had been dealing with MacArthur in Washington instead. He recognized some of MacArthur’s weaknesses, but held that he was the only one of the senior Americans who had a clear strategic understanding. It would be fair to suggest that had McArthur been in Marshall’s position, the Allies would have a least liberated Czechoslovakia and as many of the other East European capitals as they could at the end of the war, rather than handing them over to the Soviets in the good-natured stupidity of ignorance that saw Eisenhower refuse to make any efforts whatsoever. MacArthur’s presence in Washington would have made any post-war entente a much different thing.
The liberation of the Philippines did for American prestige, what the failure to liberate Malaya didn’t do for British prestige. The Americans were restored after the ignominious defeats. (It is interesting to note that a British fleet was circling off the coast of Malaya even before the Japanese surrendered, but that it could not invade because McArthur was still technically responsible for Malaya. The plan was that he was to hand this responsibility over to Mountbatten, but he managed to put this off until the chance for the British to regain their prestige had been lost. I would suggest that this may be another example of MacArthur’s conscious geopolitical planning.)
MacArthur had been so successful at setting himself up as the great hero that he was to be the one who would be given the opportunity to command of the invasion of Japan. Fortunately for the troops under his command, that never happened. MacArthur had never been a very good at commanding troops on the ground, and had relied on subordinate generals to take care of that minor detail for him. It is horrible to imagine what might have happened had he actually supervised personally. There is no recognizable tactical flair to his handling of larger forces, and his handling of his subordinates had always been miserable.
Instead, a President who despised him (and feared him as a potential Presidential challenger) and a Chief of Staff who wanted him as far away as possible, agreed to make MacArthur de facto dictator of a defeated Japan. And here, the entire world can be grateful that this man was given the position rather than the more the geopolitically ignorant American commanders who predominated in the European, African, Asian and Pacific theatres. Here, finally, there was a genuine advantage to MacArthurs refusal to ignore the orders from those in Washington who he considered to be ignorant buffoon’s. (Such as the Presidents he served under.)
McArthur, whose childhood had seen him inhale the principles of imperial government at the feet of a colonial administrator - his father - was the ideal person to administer post-war Japan. He completely ignored all the stupid instructions about degrading the Emperor (which would only lead to trouble), or about setting up a republic rather than a constitutional monarchy. He was very well aware that if he wanted a quiet and peaceful administration, American imperial arrogance was not the way to go. (The State Department later admitted that the only thing they could think of which might punish him for completely ignoring them was to cut off his access to the press!) Possibly, his understanding of history was great enough that he realized that the entire problem with the post Great War peace Treaty at Versailles was that this sort of ignorant idealism had guaranteed future problems. Instead, MacArthur played the pragmatist, and can be given almost sole credit to the magnificent Japanese miracle that followed.
Unfortunately for him, MacArthur now believed his own press. When a new crisis arose in Korea, MacArthur knew he was the man to handle it. He managed to assemble enough troops to mount a successful amphibious operation at Inchon to restore the situation, and he and his commanders had enough experience to know that you bypass the front lines and cut the lines of supply. Finally he was demonstrating the skills that would make a useful front-line general. By contrast however, his self-righteous nobility now meant that he felt it unnecessary to pay any attention to the inferior sheep trying to limit his vision. He ignored all instruction from his military superiors, and treated the orders of his President with contempt. There was no choice but to sack him before he started a Third World War. Truman said, “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son-of-a-bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three quarters of them would be in jail.” Bradley (now Chief of Staff - I will do a post on him later) just called him a megalomaniac.
This then is the challenge of analyzing MacArthur. He was a pompous bastard to his troops and to his subordinate generals, and an insubordinate self-righteous arrogant insufferable pain-in-the-arse to his superiors. He was a complete and utter failure as commander of the Phillipines national defences, and an appalling disaster as a manager of allies. He failed whenever he came near a battlefield, and succeeded only when good generals won battles for him - in which case he treated them and their men with contempt and refused to acknowledge them. (When Eichelberger's staff tried to recommend him for a Medal of Honor it was no surprise that MacArthur refused.) It is not possible to imagine any front line soldier in possession of the facts ever desiring to serve under such a person.
On the other hand, he was the closest thing to a strategic thinker that the Americans possessed, and his geopolitical knowledge and understanding during the war possibly came second only to Churchill (certainly above that of the arch manipulator Stalin). Although he was a disaster in direct command, he almost certainly had the ability to organize the actual outcome of the war from a Washington desk far better than did Marshall or Roosevelt. There can be absolutely no shadow of a doubt that some of the ancient European capitals that Marshall and Eisenhower happily left to the tender mercies of the Soviets would have been on the NATO side of the Iron Curtain had MacArthur been in Washington. Perhaps his megalomania would have got him into trouble here to, but the fundamental clarity of his vision at this level could hardly have caused bigger post-war issues than the mess but was actually delivered. Probably Roosevelt or Truman would have found it necessary to sack him anyway, but certainly it would have been an interesting ride.
But the vital point is his attitude to defeated nations, and his brilliance at converting them too loyal allies. Only the very best military leaders in history have been able to achieve this successfully. Alexander the Great, Charlemagne, the Dukes of Marlborough and Wellington, and very few others. The whole world should be grateful that it was Douglas MacArthur, an American not caught up by the fantasy of American democracy, who converted one of the oldest and proudest imperial states into a modern and loyal constitutional monarchy. For that, and that alone, it is almost possible to forgive the rest of the MacArthur myth, and accept him as one of the great captains of history.
The reality though, this is not the stuff of great generals. MacArthur was a brilliant imperial administrator and Governor, with great practical insight and vision when it came to dealing with defeated states on fair terms. But it is not possible to call him a good general.