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The Paradoxical General

Douglas MacArthur

By Sara E. Wilson | HUMANITIES, May/June 1999 | Volume 20, Number 3

"He is not just unlike other men, he is unlike most soldiers," says Geoffrey Perret, a biographer of General Douglas MacArthur. "There is an element in MacArthur’s temperament that is really that of the writer, the poet, the artist who has somehow ended up in uniform. He believed only a handful of people really counted in history. And his role in life was to be one of that handful of people."

A new NEH-supported film, MacArthur, explores the dichotomy of this man who served as a general in three wars. It airs May 17 and 18. The images are vivid: MacArthur wading ashore in the Philippines in World War II, MacArthur aboard the USS Missouri accepting the Japanese surrender, MacArthur riding through New York in a blizzard of tickertape.

The general was the consummate military man: courageous under fire and brilliant at strategy. His surprise attack at Inchon in Korea stands as a work of tactical genius. Yet, he was also the man who ignored his superior officers and challenged three presidents.

"MacArthur is one of the great figures of the twentieth century. He strode across the world stage like Churchill and Roosevelt," says Austin Hoyt, the writer, director, and producer of the film.

As MacArthur’s former aide, Faubion Bowers, puts it, "He was a tremendously great man, with tremendously great weaknesses."

The desire to capture those two sides of MacArthur is what inspired Hoyt. The film, part of The American Experience series, portrays the general in his complexities—brave, honorable, patriotic, egotistical, paranoid, contemptuous of authority.

"If you understand what his mother and father said to him as a kid, everything else falls into place," Hoyt argues.

MacArthur’s father, Arthur MacArthur, was himself a general and had been a Union hero during the Civil War. His mother, Mary Pinckney Hardy, known as "Pinky," was a Southern belle from Norfolk, Virginia, who was ostracized by members of her Confederate family when she married Arthur MacArthur. As Douglas MacArthur remembered it, his father’s constant message to his children was "We were to do what was right no matter what the personal sacrifice might be. Our country always came first." Every night at bedtime throughout his childhood, young Douglas heard his mother’s admonishment: "You must grow up to be a great man—like your father and Robert E. Lee."

Born in 1880, Douglas MacArthur spent his early childhood on army posts in the West. With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, his father was promoted to brigadier general and dispatched to the Philippines, where he eventually became military governor. Douglas, who was forbidden by his parents to enlist in the war, stayed behind and entered West Point. His mother moved into a hotel not far from the Academy to keep watch over her son and his career, as she would for the next four decades.

Graduating from West Point at the top of his class, MacArthur headed to an assignment in the Philippines. It was there that his father had made a lifelong enemy of William Howard Taft, a federal judge at the time and later to be President. Taft had been sent to the American colony to prepare it for civilian rule; when Arthur MacArthur as military governor made clear he thought the islands weren’t ready, the exasperated Taft got him reassigned. And when Taft became Secretary of War, he stepped in again, blocking the senior MacArthur’s ambition to be made army chief of staff. Arthur MacArthur died in 1912.

The slight was one that Douglas MacArthur would never forget. His first chance for military glory came in World War I when he became chief of staff of the army’s Forty-second "Rainbow" Division. Disdaining helmet or gas mask, MacArthur led his men into no-man’s-land wearing a scarf made by his mother. His bravery in the battles that followed earned him sixteen medals, including seven Silver Stars, two Distinguished Service Crosses, and two Purple Hearts. He failed, however, to win the highest military award, the Medal of Honor, which he took as a slight by the American Expeditionary Force commander, General John Pershing.

MacArthur’s achievements earned him the coveted peacetime job of superintendent of West Point. He was by all accounts unorthodox. He gave allowances to cadets; he curtailed hazing; he encouraged them to write poetry—departures that rattled the faculty. His mother served as his official hostess there until 1922; that year he married Louise Cromwell Brooks.

By the end of the decade MacArthur had achieved his father’s ambition and become army chief of staff. In Washington, he was soon in controversy. The brouhaha involved his handling of the "Bonus Army," a group of thousands of unemployed World War I veterans who descended on Washington to demand payment of a bonus promised by Congress. When President Herbert Hoover said he wanted the marchers out of the city, MacArthur’s troops drove them across the Anacostia River and burned their huts. Some aides said Hoover expressly directed MacArthur not to cross the river; others said the general never got the order. Historian Michael Schaller says of the incident, "I think that he was someone who could not see that things were not black and white. There weren’t just good and evil, and his inability to look at shades of gray was one of his greatest failures."

MacArthur had as contentious a time under succeeding presidents. He opposed Franklin Roosevelt over the cutting of the military budget to fund programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps. And when columnist Drew Pearson criticized him, MacArthur sued Pearson for libel, contending that the journalist had ridiculed him as "dictatorial, insubordinate, disloyal, mutinous, and disrespectful of his superiors at the War Department." However, after MacArthur learned that Pearson was in the possession of letters between the general, now divorced, and a Scottish-Filipino starlet, MacArthur paid Pearson $15,000 to get the letters back before the liaison became public and his mother found out.

Tired of MacArthur’s outspokenness, FDR shipped him back to the Philippines to upgrade the islands’ defenses. Honors and money were bestowed upon him by the government of the Philippines. He was even named field marshal of the Philippine army, a title that his aide, Dwight Eisenhower, found "ridiculous." It was during this assignment in the Philippines that MacArthur’s mother died. The general told a friend that he found himself "groping desperately, but futilely."

In 1937, he married Jean Faircloth, twenty years his junior; a year later, at age 58, he became a father. The son was named Arthur.

Though MacArthur’s personal life was going well, his career was not. Believing that MacArthur was too aggressive, FDR decided that it was no longer necessary for MacArthur to serve as U.S. military adviser. MacArthur took retirement, but he remained in the Philippines, paid by its government as a military advisor.

In July of 1941, as the Japanese advanced into Chinese and Vietnamese ports, FDR reactivated MacArthur. On December 8 of that year, within hours of the attack at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombed Clark Field near Manila as well, destroying most of the U.S. planes in the Philippines. By Christmas, MacArthur had retreated to the island of Corregidor, where he continued to direct the withdrawal of seventy thousand American and Filipino troops to the Bataan Peninsula. With him were his wife and son.

As the president of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon, prepared to evacuate by submarine, he offered to take Jean and Arthur with him, out of harm’s way. MacArthur declined. "My wife married a soldier. My son is the son of a soldier." In the end, Army Chief of Staff George Marshall asked FDR to personally order MacArthur to retreat to Australia.

"I shall return," he promised. The words became a rallying cry for an American public desperate for heroes. A newsreel called MacArthur "Civilization’s champion, symbol of the stout heart, the dauntless spirit, the unflagging courage of America on the march."

It took two-and-a-half years for MacArthur to keep that promise. But keep it he did, wading ashore at Leyte, in the Philippines, on October 20, 1944.

With the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945, Japan surrendered, and MacArthur was selected to accept the surrender aboard the USS Missouri. "It is my earnest hope, and indeed the hope of all mankind," MacArthur said, "that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past, a world founded upon faith and understanding."

In the film, journalist Frank Tremaine calls the shipboard surrender "the most dramatic, most moving ceremony" he ever witnessed. "MacArthur conducted that ceremony with extreme dignity, with carefully chosen words, but at no point said anything that could be interpreted as gloating, interpreted as baiting a beaten enemy."

MacArthur directed the occupation of Japan from 1945–1950, instituting such reforms as female suffrage, freedom of the press, workers’ unionization rights, and ownership of land for peasants. He ordered his staff to write a new Japanese constitution in a week’s time—one that protected civil liberties and greatly limited the traditional power of the emperor. The policies were directed from Washington, but MacArthur implemented them.

"MacArthur’s personality served U.S. interests in Japan because the Japanese respected that imperious attitude," Hoyt comments.

Back in the United States, MacArthur’s popularity and his image as a war hero made him a contender for the Republican nomination for president in 1948. His campaign, which was run from Japan, flagged after a poor showing in the Wisconsin primary in April.

When conflict broke out in nearby Korea in 1950, he was once again called to field duty. The seventy-year-old MacArthur called it "Mars’ last gift to an old warrior." American and South Korean combat forces were in retreat from the advancing North Korean army, outnumbered three to one, and, in some cases, twenty to one. In a brilliant move, MacArthur turned the situation around. He ordered an amphibious attack behind enemy lines at Inchon on a high tide that would carry his landing ships over the sea walls. General Omar Bradley considered it the riskiest plan he ever heard. It worked.

The First Marine Division landed on September 15 and took Inchon. Additional troops followed.

These forces and the northward-moving U.N. forces from Pusan formed a pincer and, in two weeks’ time, drove the North Korean forces back across the thirty-eighth parallel. U.S. President Harry S. Truman authorized troops to pursue the fleeing forces across the demarcation line, but warned MacArthur against an incursion into China.

Nevertheless, Chinese troops began pouring in on the North Korean side. With more than a quarter of a million Chinese soldiers engaged, Truman was concerned that this isolated conflict would escalate into another world war. He approved in principle a cease-fire at the thirty-eighth parallel, dividing the peninsula north and south.

MacArthur thought otherwise. He taunted China openly and his letter to a congressman, which became public, suggested that Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese forces in Formosa could be brought into the war to fight the Communists.

Truman responded by firing MacArthur, a move that enraged the general’s supporters. The decision was so unpopular that some communities across the country lowered their flags to half-staff.

The general was invited to address a joint session of Congress. He told his audience, which included 30 million television viewers, that "In war, indeed, there can be no substitute for victory. There were some who, for varying reasons, would appease Red China. They were blind to history’s clear lesson, for history teaches, with unmistakable emphasis, that appeasement begets new and bloodier war." He also declared that the Joint Chiefs agreed with his position, a claim the Joint Chiefs immediately denied. This speech became famous for the line: "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away."

The tickertape parade for MacArthur in New York afterward was grander than the one for Dwight Eisenhower at the end of World War II. But in the ensuing months popularity for MacArthur and his views on Korea had diminished. By the 1952 Republican Convention, American attention had turned to Eisenhower.

MacArthur spent his last years quietly in New York, where he was chairman of the board of Remington Rand. He made an endowment to the city of Norfolk, Virginia, his mother’s hometown. The city converted its old city hall into the General Douglas MacArthur Memorial, a museum and archives. MacArthur’s tomb is part of the complex. "He chose not to have himself buried at Arlington National Cemetery with the masses," says Hoyt. "He made sure he had a real memorial."

About the Author

Sara E. Wilson is a writer in Arlington, Virginia.

Funding Information

NEH provided $700,805 in funding to WBGH in Boston for the production of MacArthur.