Douglas MacArthur: The Strategist Onstage

  By M.P. Benedict, January 2006; Revised
Douglas MacArthur
Douglas MacArthur

Thirty years ago, William Manchester wrote a biography of Douglas MacArthur entitled American Caesar, in which he attempted to portray the general as a man of action, somewhat in the mold of the legendary Roman.  The title was perhaps unfortunate, for the appellation, Caesar, has never worn well on an American soldier.  But MacArthur was a remarkable man - intelligent and flawed; considerate to a defeated Japan, but also vindictive to fellow officers.  A skilled administrator and a brilliant strategist, he was also vain and theatrical; at once self confident and self important.

The general was conscious of "duty, honor, country," concepts learned and accepted at West Point during his college days, but he could treat shabbily able subordinates like Dwight Eisenhower, and attempt to justify his disregard of the policies and orders of his last commander in chief, President Truman.  Caesar crossed his Rubicon in Italy; MacArthur was stymied by his in Korea.  This brief article cannot aspire to be a full account of either the man or the soldier, but can merely attempt to peak others' interest in the "American Caesar."

General of the Army, Douglas MacArthur, actually had two army careers.  The first was distinguished, but relatively uneventful, and might have meant no more for him than a page in an official army history, or an article in the West Point alumni directory.  The second made him one of the greatest and most successful commanders of modern times.

MacArthur was born of a military family, his father having been awarded the Medal Of Honor in the American Civil War, and rising to lieutenant general, one of the most senior officers of the army at the turn of the century.  He was bred to arms at military schools and at West Point, where he graduated in 1903 at 23 years old, and first in his class.  His first posting was the Phillipine Islands, where he served four tours of duty before World War II and which he grew to love as a second home.  He would return during the war, in a theatrical and very effective manner, to liberate them from the Japanese.  

His first army career spanned 34 years, from his commissioning in 1903, to his retirement on December 31st, 1937.  It was not without accomplishment, but was essentially a peace time soldier's career.  He had advanced to command a division in France at the very end of World War I; was superintendant of West Point, 1919-1922, where he began long needed reforms against strong opposition from entrenched academic interests, and, along with earlier duty stations, was chief of staff 1930-1935.  In the latter year, President Franklin Roosevelt, who disliked MacArthur and saw him as a potential political rival, offered him the chance to return to his beloved Phillipines as commander and military advisor to the Phillipine president, Manuel Quezon, in advance of projected Phillipine independence.  The general, approaching retirement age, accepted, and, by so doing, removed himself from Washington and from army and navy officers who viewed those islands as both indefensible against any future Japanese aggression, and as strategically meaningless.  Upon his retirement, MacArthur retained his position as military advisor to Quezon, having accepted the rank of field marshal in the as yet non-existent Phillipine army.  There may have seemed a comic opera quality to this last event, but it disgusted other U.S. officers assigned to the Phillipines, particularly Eisenhower, who remained with the general as a staff officer, and who later maintained that he had "studied acting" under him for years.  Thus, a soldierly and workmanlike career seemed over.

However, with ongoing Japanese aggression on the Asian mainland, and the acknowledgement that Japan could not do without the raw materials and food stuffs from southeast Asia, Douglas MacArthur, with his cobb pipe and his field marshal's baton, was a resource of which the U.S. army was in need.  As tensions between Japan and the United States grew, in July, 1941, he was recalled to duty as commander of U.S. army forces in the Phillipines.  The second career, a notable one of ten years, had begun for a soldier already 61 years old.

After Pearl Harbor, undermanned, poorly equiped and with no illusions as to his strategically hopeless position, MacArthur and General Jonathan Wainwright conducted a defense near Manila, on Bataan and Corregidor, that lasted from December, 1941 to May, 1942.  MacArthur had been ordered out of the Phillipines by Roosevelt in March, and had been evacuated by torpedo boat and then by air to Australia to assume supreme command of allied forces in the southwest Pacific.

It was from the end of 1942 that MacArthur's strategic ability can be recognized.  Primarily with a handful of tough, courageous Australian divisions, and at that time only two inexperienced American divisions, and initially with minimal naval support, operations on New Guinea were undertaken.  The Japanese drive into the Solomon Islands and on New Guinea was an attempt to isolate Australia from communications with North America.  MacArthur saw it essential that Japan be stopped in New Guinea in the new year, the navy and marine infantry having blunted the Japanese on Guadalcanal in the Solomons earlier in 1942.  New Guinea is relatively close to Australia and shorter lines of communication and supply from secure depots were helpful in conducting operations.  In the event of a need to withdraw, a more secure route was available.  After the advance of the Japanese over the Stanley mountains in New Guinea was stopped, they were repeatedly outflanked in 1943 and into 1944 by amphibious operations along the island's northern coast, and by airborne drops at key points to be secured by Allied troops, keeping them in constant retreat while increasing American naval strength was used to isolate and bypass the large Japanese naval and logistics base at Rabaul in nearby New Britain.  Japanese forces were driven northwest further away from their base of support, and their lines of supply were being severely strained. 

During his many years in the Phillipines, Douglas MacArthur had long interacted with naval officers who had been stationed there, and he knew much of their strategic thinking and operational concerns...things that helped him in planning and conducting combined operations.  Certainly, as arrogant and self confident as he was, MacArthur chafed at the secondary role he had to play in what was, essentially, a naval war, but he was the right soldier for the job.  There were, however, fewer opportunities for him to demonstrate his theatricality.  Strategic concepts can be very impersonal, but MacArthur's concern for the fate of the Phillipines was both genuine and reflected a need for self gratification.  All his acting talent was needed to lobby for his next campaign.

In keeping with Army and Navy Department thinking that the Phillipine Islands were strategically unimportant and that they should be bypassed and isolated, proposals were put forth that wrote them out of any further major war plan.  Instead, forward positions, such as Iwo Jima and Okinawa, would be secured from where strategic bombing of Japan could be conducted, and the invasion of the Home Islands would be prepared.  The Phillipines could be sacrificed again as in 1942.  MacArthur, impassioned and theatrical, would have none of that.  The Phillipines, America's Asian charge for which independence was projected, must be liberated.  As he had promised upon being ordered out of the islands in 1942, MacArthur would return.

Having convinced the President over military objections, the Phillipines were invaded in October, 1944.  The landing on Leyte, cutting the islands in half, isolated over 100,000 Japanese troops in the south on Mindanao, and the northern island of Luzon was cleared, liberating Manila, including a large number of American and Allied civilian internees.  MacArthur had fulfilled his promise...and the signal corps cameras recorded him wading ashore in his Phillipine field marshal's cap.  As it happened, in attempting to counter the American invasion of the Phillipines, the Japanese threw into the campaign all the naval forces they could, and the result in the two actions at Leyte Gulf was the virtual destruction of most of the effective Japanese surface fleet.  The Phillipine campaign, by resulting in the elimination of Japanese naval power as a factor, assisted in the securing of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in February and April of 1945, and the dawn of the nuclear age ended the war four months later.  Not long before the Japanese surrender, Douglas MacArthur, along with three other generals, including Dwight Eisenhower, was promoted to the new rank of General of the Army....equivalent to the rank of field marshal that had so fed his vanity. 

MacArthur's insistence on careful staff planning and a concern to keep the casualties of his troops as low as possible characterized his campaigns.  Boldness in execution, using the new Allied amphibious capabilities, marked a new way of conducting operations over widespread distances, and often with minimal logistical support close by in the early stages of the war.  Staff efficiency and operational boldness acted as force multipliers in the New Guinea campaign when Japanese strength was still substantial.  That experience and the success of combined operations with the navy also paid dividends in 1950 at Inchon early in the Korean War.

As commander of occupation forces in Japan after its surrender, General MacArthur inaugurated steps at democratization and efforts to begin reconstruction.  As in Europe, these things were seen as vital to counter possible future Soviet Russian moves in Asia.  His administration attempted to recognize and accommodate Japanese custom and formality, to respect tradition, including the Emperor, and MacArthur personally prohibited any retribution against any Japanese citizen.  His administration accomplished some uneven social and political changes, but it was a start, and the long term results have been favorable.

MacArthur's last years in public life were mixed.  They included the brilliant amphibious invasion at Inchon in 1950, outflanking and collapsing North Korea's invasion of the south.  But in 1951, after Communist China had come into the war, MacArthur strenuously advocated strategic bombing of Chinese targets inside their borders, not excluding atomic weapons.  In an increasing dispute over this with President Truman, the general was relieved and retired again at age 71.  He returned to the United States, still controversial, but with enormous popularity and flamboyant to the end in a memorable address to the Congress that was both patriotic and self serving.  Recalling his background at West Point, he stated that "the Long Grey Line" had never failed the United States; that the motto long after called to the soldier "Duty, Honor, Country."  And then the "old soldier" faded away...into history, and no small measure of greatness.


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