Who Was General Douglas MacArthur?

Image: General MacArthur

US General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is one of the most controversial characters in US military history. Douglas was born on 26 January 1880 to a US army officer, Captain Arthur MacArthur, who had been awarded the Medal of Honour during the Civil War; and Southerner, Mary Pinkney-Hardy MacArthur (“Pinky “). He spent much of his early life moving from army base to army base, and became obsessed with the idea of an army career, like his father whom he idolised.

When MacArthur entered the US Military Academy at West Point on 13 June 1899, his mother moved to Craney’s Hotel which overlooked the Academy grounds. He graduated top of his year on 11th June 1903.

Between 1905 and April 1908 his posting enabled him to serve alongside his father who had now been promoted to Major General. In September 1912 the death of Major General Arthur MacArthur brought his two sons (Arthur III and Douglas) to Washington to care for their mother. Douglas was posted to the Office of the US Army Chief of Staff where he met a number of people who would influence his career later on.

For his part in operations in the 1914 Veracrus expedition he was recommended for the Medal of Honour, but the Board convened to investigate the award recommended against it.

Brigadier General Douglas MacArthur emerged from World War 1 with two Distinguished Service Crosses, Distinguished Service Medal and seven Silver Stars. Although recommended again for a Medal of Honour, which was not awarded, he still emerged as the most decorated US soldier of the war. During the war he had been Division Chief of Staff, commander of the 84th Brigade, and acting Divisional Commander (in the last week of the war).

His war service brought him the offer of appointment of Superintendent of the US Military Academy at West Point. By accepting this appointment he retained his wartime rank instead of reverting to his pre-war rank of major. His time at West Point saw a number of changes to the academic and military studies programme in order to better equip graduates for life in the army in the Twentieth Century. MacArthur left West Point in October 1922 for the Philippines with his new wife, Louise. The changes he made at West Point did not last long; nor did his marriage. Over the years many of the changes at West Point were re-instituted.

MacArthur was appointed as the youngest Army Chief of Staff on 21st November 1930 at a time when economic matters dominated the news and political thinking. The “war to end wars “had been fought and won and the rise of the totalitarian regimes had yet to occur. MacArthur fought hard to keep the US Army strength and equipment levels up, but he could not overcome the tide of isolationism and economic stringency dominating US politics at the time.

His handling of the Bonus Marchers was to tarnish his image with large sections of the US population. The ex-service personnel who had gathered in Washington to demand the wartime service bonus promised to them for their WWI service, were to be dispersed, by order of President Hoover. MacArthur chose, against the advice of his staff,( notably Major Dwight D Eisenhower ) to lead the operation personally. One person died as troops with bayonets fixed and accompanied by tanks drove the marchers away.

Outraged by the accusations by journalists Drew Pearson and Robert Allen that his actions were “unwarranted, unnecessary insubordinate, harsh and brutal”, he sued for defamation. The action was withdrawn when it became apparent that details of his liaison with Isabel Rosario Cooper would become public if the action continued. MacArthur would attempt to control the media with varying degrees of success from then on, but probably most effectively in SWPA.

When MacArthur’s term as Chief of Army Staff ended in October 1935 he was awarded his second Distinguished Service Medal. During his term of office he had re-instituted the Purple Heart decoration, and been the first recipient. Normally a Chief of Staff would be due to retire on the completion of his term, but MacArthur was far too young.

In 1935, en route to the Philippines to take up his appointment as Military Advisor to the Commonwealth of the Philippines, MacArthur met Jean Marie Faircloth who he would marry on 30 April 1937. MacArthur was appointed a Field Marshal of the Philippine Army (24th August 1936) at the same time he was serving as a Major General in the US Army. He resigned from the US Army on 31st December 1937. On 26th July 1941 President Roosevelt federalised the Philippine Army and recalled MacArthur to active duty as a major general, commanding the US Army Forces Far East (USAFFE).

MacArthur’s defence of the Philippines is probably the low point of his military career. He sought to defend the entire Philippines in direct contradiction to the US War Plans which he had approved when US Army Chief of Staff. What led him to do this has been debated ever since. Was it his attachment to the Philippines and its people, or an ego that told him that he was able to do this when no one else could?

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour gave him about 8 hours’ notice of impending attacks on the Philippines. MacArthur hesitated and did not order the counter attacks on the Japanese airfields on Formosa (Taiwan) which had been part of the US War Plan. His air forces was then caught on the ground and largely destroyed when the Japanese launched their invasion. After Pearl Harbour the US Navy was in no position to support him and inevitably Japanese control of the sea left him open to attack from a number of different directions. The withdrawal back to the pre=war planned positions saw vast quantities of food equipment and munitions destroyed to prevent their use by the enemy.

MacArthur and his family were evacuated to Australia, leaving Corregidor on 12 March 1942 by PT boat. Accompanying him was a much larger contingent of his staff than had been authorised to leave by US Chief of Army Staff, General George Marshall. This group was to be known as the “Bataan Gang” and filled most of the senior positions on his staff for the rest of the war. At the small railway station at Terowie in South Australia, MacArthur made his oft quoted statement “I came through and I shall return”. Expecting to find a large contingent of US troops ready to re-capture the Philippines, MacArthur was bitterly disappointed that the Europe first policy (driven by reports of German interest in nuclear weapons) meant it would some time before he returned. His disappointment would be somewhat eased by the announcement that he had been awarded the Medal of Honour, creating the first father-son awards in US history. The award was controversial and MacArthur acknowledged that it was in “recognition of the indomitable courage of the gallant army I had the honour to command.”

On 18th April 1942 MacArthur was appointed Supreme Commander South West Pacific Area. His staff was largely American, but the Allied Land Commander was General Sir Thomas Blamey in recognition of the fact that until April 1944 the majority of combat land forces were Australian. MacArthur stated his reason for not having more Australians in senior position as there were insufficient experienced officers to fill the positions. This claim does not stand up to scrutiny and it is more likely that MacArthur was already obsessed with re-taking the Philippines, which he believed had to be achieved by Americans alone.

Although intelligence suggested that the Japanese might attempt an overland assault on Port Moresby MacArthur’s headquarters was slow to react and the Japanese landed at Buna against light opposition. This and the attack at Milne Bay marked the start of the Papuan campaign. MacArthur’s handling of the Papuan campaign has been criticised for its unnecessary emphasis on speed and the use of unsupported infantry attacks against heavily defended positions. Despite this he claimed his communique of 28th January 1943 claimed “no campaign in history . . . produced such complete and decisive results with a lower expenditure of life and resources”. Out of nearly 20,000 Australian troops 2,165 were killed, and of the nearly 15,000 US troops committed 930 were killed. Overall one in eleven of ground troops committed to the Papuan campaign would be killed. The corresponding figures for the US Marine Corps campaign for Guadalcanal were one killed for every 37 committed to battle.

The Australians of the 7th and 9th Divisions were the spearhead of MacArthur’s advance along the northern coast of New Guinea, capturing Lae and Finschafen. The rapidly increasing strength of the US 7th Fleet enabled MacArthur to land the US 1st Cavalry Division on the Admiralty Islands on 28th February 1943. By now the Americans largely controlled the air and sea and GHQ SWPA staff had developed into an effective theatre headquarters, enabling ever bolder advances, often by passing Japanese strong points.

On 20th October 1944 US troops landed at Leyte in the Philippines and MacArthur broadcast that he had returned as promised. Further landings took place on Luzon and Mindoro, and Mindanao. On 18th December 1944 he was promoted to the newly created five star rank of General of the Army. He pressured the Australian government to invade Borneo, against the advice of General Blamey who insisted it was of no military value as the war had now move so far north.

The dropping of the atomic bombs brought about the sudden collapse of the Japanese and MacArthur, as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers accepted the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship USS Missouri on 2nd September 1945.

The modernisation of Japan is regarded as one of his greatest achievements where he wrote a new constitution, oversaw the war crimes trials and enacted significant social changes in Japan. He led the United Nations Forces in the Korean War including the brilliant counter stroke at Inchon, before his insubordination led to his dismissal by President Truman.

MacArthur contested primaries for the Republican Party in 1948 and 1952, despite professing no desire for the presidency unless drafted. By the 1952 Primaries his popularity had waned to the point where in the third ballot he received no votes at all. His 1944 candidacy was dependent on a deadlock in the Republican nomination and his successful re-conquest of the Philippines before the deadline for nominations. neither of which occurred.

As a General of the Army he remained on the active list, receiving salary and entitlements until his death on 5th April 1964.

Find out more about the life and career of General MacArthur.

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