- Historic Sites
My Search For Douglas MacArthur
An overheard remark sent the author off on a years-long quest to discover the truth about a man whose power to inspire both rage and reverence has only grown after his death
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
MacArthur, dressed in his fanciest uniform and wearing every medal right down to his marksmanship badges, mounted a white horse to lead his troops along Pennsylvania Avenue. His men drove the hapless marchers out of the District with bayonets, sabers, rifle fire, and tear gas. Not satisfied with that, MacArthur turned on the main Bonus Army encampment, at Anacostia Flats, and attacked the marchers’ wives, sweethearts, and children too.
It was a scandalous act, made even more appalling by claims that Hoover had twice ordered him not to enter the Anacostia Flats camp but that MacArthur had arrogantly defied his Commander in Chief. Many saw the man as a fascist bully just itching to seize control of the government one day.
In the late 1930s he went to the Philippines to oversee the buildup of American defenses there and created a Philippine Army. When the Japanese attacked in December 1941, his Philippine Army collapsed. Worse still, MacArthur allowed his most potent weapon, a force of thirty-five B-17 bombers, to be caught on the ground by Japanese bombers. He escaped to Australia and redeemed himself by leading American forces to victory in the Southwest Pacific. His advance from Australia back to the Philippines culminated in September 1945, when he took the surrender of Japan aboard the battleship Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay.
His five and a half years running the occupation of Japan were considered by some—and probably by MacArthur himself—to be his greatest achievement. He did not impose military rule, as had been done in Germany; instead he simply indicated to the Japanese government what he desired, let them write the laws, and trusted them to carry them out. The Japanese were allowed, that is, to govern themselves, and much of what he achieved was done by hints, by suggestions, by mutual understanding between ruler and ruled.
His most famous contribution, but one for which he chose to claim no credit, was getting the Japanese to write an explicit renunciation of war into their new constitution. MacArthur did not see his greatest hope realized—for a Japan that abandoned Shintoism and was converted to Christianity—but he handled the Japanese so skillfully that many, possibly most, revere him to this day.
When war broke out in Korea in June 1950, American forces and their South Korean allies were nearly destroyed by the invading North Korean army. Just as it seemed American troops would be driven off the Korean peninsula, MacArthur reversed the situation by pulling off one of the greatest feats in military history. He made a landing two hundred miles behind the victorious North Korean army, cut its supply lines, and destroyed it as a fighting force.
Then he advanced into North Korea, intending to unify the entire peninsula under a pro-Western government, but the Chinese intervened. Catching his forces widely spread and complacent, they took MacArthur by surprise, inflicted a massive defeat, and routed his troops out of North Korea. MacArthur sought to reverse this debacle by recommending that China be attacked with nuclear weapons, leaving Harry Truman no option but to fire him to avoid triggering World War III.
The fervent reception that greeted the general when he came home could not disguise the fact that his fifty-two-year career in the Army had ended in humiliation. Following his death in 1964, MacArthur’s reputation continued its roller-coaster ride, but the overall trend was down, down, down. An enterprising young scholar, Carol Petillo, revealed that shortly before escaping from the Philippines, he had received a five-hundred-thousand-dollar gift (roughly three million dollars today), from his old friend Manuel Quezon, president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines. It was a payoff that looked suspiciously like corruption. Military historians such as Stanley Falk and Eric Larrabee meanwhile claimed MacArthur’s wartime campaigns contributed virtually nothing to the victory over Japan. A book based on interviews with Harry Truman presented MacArthur as a fraud and a charlatan. In recent years articles in the Washington Post have accused him of “mutiny” and racism. A book published last year even charged him with treason.
It is now possible to say almost anything to MacArthur’s discredit, and no matter how absurd or implausible the assertion, there is an excellent chance that it will be accepted without question. This is so despite the continuing popularity of William Manchester’s 1978 biography American Caesar , which hails MacArthur as the greatest soldier in American history.
In the mid-1980s, while researching my book A Country Made by War, I found myself following MacArthur’s path once more as I explored American battlefields in France. I traveled along the valley of the Marne and visited the ground near Rheims where MacArthur’s outfit, the Rainbow Division, had fought its first major battle.