Douglas MacArthur commanded a division in World War I, a majority of Allied troops in the Pacific Theater in World War II, and all of the UN forces in Korea. He easily ranks as one of America’s greatest, albeit most controversial, generals. Those who served under MacArthur either loved or despised him, but all, including his enemies, honored his strategic brilliance, his mastery of amphibious warfare, and his ability to achieve victory with a minimum of casualties.
MacArthur was born into a military family in Little Rock, Arkansas, on January 26, 1880. his father, Arthur, earned the Medal of Honor during the American Civil War and served in the Spanish-American War and the Philippine Insurrection. The younger MacArthur, with the assistance of his mother, who played an influential role in his future military career, gained an appointment to West Point. MacArthur graduated at the top of the class of 1903 and received his commission as a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers.
Early assignments included tours in the Philippines and Japan, where he served as an aide to his father, now a major general, accompanying him as an observer of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-05. Back in the United States in 1906, MacArthur briefly acted as a military aide to President Theodore Roosevelt. As a captain, MacArthur accompanied the Punitive Expedition that occupied Vera Cruz, Mexico, in 1914.
In 1916 MacArthur joined the War Department staff as the head of the Bureau of Information. During this time, he greatly impressed Secretary of War Newton D. Baker when he presented plans for the activation of National Guard units to fight along with the regulars in the event the United States became involved in World War I. When the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, MacArthur assisted in the formation of a multistate infantry division formed from National Guard units. When the Forty-second “Rainbow” Division sailed for France, Colonel MacArthur was its Chief of Staff.
By September 1917, MacArthur commanded a brigade in the Forty-second and in the final days of the conflict took command as the war’s youngest division commander. MacArthur, who professed the belief that the enemy could do him no personal harm, led his men from the front, constantly ordering them to “advance with audacity.” He disdained the protective steel helmet, did not carry a gas mask, and went “over the top” unarmed except for a riding crop. By the time of the armistice, he had earned four silver stars for his bravery and the praise of General John Joseph Pershing, who said, “MacArthur is the greatest leader of troops we have.”
MacArthur remained in Europe on occupation duty until June 1919, when he accepted the position of superintendent of West Point. At thirty-nine, the youngest officer in that position in the history of the academy, MacArthur modernized its procedures and curriculum, which had changed little in decades. MacArthur left the academy in 1922 for another tour in the Philippines and in 1930 assumed the duties of army chief of staff in Washington, with the rank of general. Despite the fiscal restraints caused by the Great Depression, MacArthur lobbied for advancements in both the air and tank corps.
In October 1935, MacArthur transferred back to the Philippines for what he thought would be his final tour of duty, assisting the Filipinos in organizing and training their military prior to their independence. He retired on December 31, 1937, but remained in Manila with the rank of field marshal in the Philippine army and continued to advise the Filipinos.
Because of the increased aggression of Japan, the U.S. War department recalled MacArthur to active duty on July 26, 1941, as commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East, with instructions to prepare the Philippines against possible Japanese invasion. MacArthur believed in neither the Japanese desire nor their ability to attack the Philippines, and even with nine hours’ warning after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he did not alert his force. As a result, the Japanese air assault destroyed most of his air fleet, and their December 22 land invasion forced the Americans and Philippine forces onto the Baatan Peninsula and the fortified island of Corregidor.
MacArthur frequently exposed himself to enemy fire to keep up the morale of his small army, but it was helpless in the face of the Japanese advance. Reluctantly following direct orders for President Roosevelt, MacArthur and a few members of his staff fled Corregidor on March 11, 1942, via a torpedo boat. Upon arrival in Australia, he received the Medal of Honor and made his famous statement “I came through and I shall return.” The Philippines held out until May before surrendering. It would take MacArthur two years to fulfill his promise.
Because of rivalries between the U.S. Army and Navy, MacArthur shared command of the Pacific with Adm. Chester William Nimitz, but the two agreed on strategy and cooperated fairly well. Employing a series of island-hopping campaigns that bypassed many Japanese strongholds, the Allies advanced toward Japan. MacArthur’s coordination of land, air, and sea forces produced successful amphibious operations, and his ability to determine when and where to strike next won victory after victory. On October 20, 1944, MacArthur waded ashore on Leyte and declared, “I have returned.” In the battle for the Philippines, the Japanese lost 192,000 soldiers compared to only 8,000 American casualties.
Throughout the war in the Pacific, and indeed for his entire career, MacArthur exhibited brilliance in strategy and efficiency in the use of manpower and other resources. His boldness and audacity overwhelmed his enemies, and his commanding presence motivated his soldiers and won him admiration at home.
In December, MacArthur advanced to the rank of general of the army and assumed command, the following April, of all U.S. Army Forces in the Pacific. On September 2, 1945, at age sixty-five, MacArthur accepted the surrender of Japan aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay. He remained in Japan following the surrender and provided the dominant influence in that county’s introduction to constitutional government and recovery from wartime destruction. Many in Japan referred to the general, who had gained the respect and affection of his former enemies, as the “uncrowned emperor.”
Appointed as the commander of the U.s. Far East Command in 1947, MacArthur was in that position when North Korea invaded the South on June 25, 1950. Although again taken by complete surprise, MacArthur transferred fighting units to Korea and took command of all UN forces on July 9. The Americans had barely slowed the North Korean advance around the Pusan perimeter when MacArthur, against the advice of almost everyone, launched an amphibious assault at Inchon on September 15. The landing proved and unqualified success, cutting off the North Korean invaders and forcing them into a retreat that turned into a rout.
By October the Allies were deep into North Korea and ready to declare the war won when China intervened and pushed the UN forces back down the peninsula. MacArthur advocated blockading the Chinese coast and bombing targets within China itself, possibly with atomic weapons. He also proposed bringing in Nationalist Chinese troops from Formosa to support the United Nations. None of these options proved popular within the American government, and when MacArthur turned his opinions into demands, President Harry Truman relieved the general of his command on April 11, 1951.
MacArthur returned to the United States for the first time since 1937. The largest crowd in New York’s parade history, estimated at more than 7 million, welcomed him home. Congress, in a rare honor, invited him to address a joint session. MacArthur concluded his speech with the unforgettable line “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” At the conclusion of the speech, Cong. Dewey Short, educated at Harvard and Oxford, cried out in the House chamber, “We heard God speak here today. God in the flesh, the voice of God.”
But MacArthur did indeed mostly fade away. He moved into New York’s Waldorf-Astoria and, except for participation on several large corporation boards and the occasional speech, remained in seclusion. He delivered his most memorable remakes, words that summarized his life of military service, to the cadets at West Point in a 1962 speech entitled “Duty, Honor, country.” MacArthur, eighty-four, died on April 5, 1964, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and was buried in Norfolk, Virginia.
MacArthur remains unique among American and world military leaders. He is rarely compared to any other commander, and an exact portrait is difficult at best to compose. Vain, egotistical, arrogant, and often petty, MacArthur never admitted to, or apparently even suspected, his person shortcomings and referred to himself only in the third person. He is one of the few American military leaders to challenge directly the authority of his civilian commander in chief. Handsome and distinguished, MacArthur nonetheless required photographers to take their pictures from a low angle to make him appear taller and more majestic.
Regardless of his personal foibles, MacArthur established himself as one of the great World War II and postwar generals by defeating the Japanese in the Pacific and by saving South Korea from their northern invaders. Only Winfield Scott had a longer direct influence on the development and advancement of the U.S. Army than MacArthur, who served as a general officer and a dominant military leader from World War I to the nuclear age and the cold war. Although controversy surrounds any discussion of MacArthur, few disagree that he is one of modern history’s most influential and best-known commanders.