Douglas MacArthur – Part II

“The American Caesar”

MacArthur observing the shelling of Inchon during the Korean War
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Earlier, we published the first half of our article on General Douglas MacArthur, one of the best-known but also most controversial American commanders of World War II. (Read our earlier article) Today, we’ll pick up where we left him, having just reached Australia after fleeing from the Philippines and Japanese capture.
 
Once safe in Australia, MacArthur was appointed Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area. The victory at the Battle of Midway in June 1942 allowed the Allies to seize the initiative in the Pacific; this breathing room made it possible to try and push the Japanese off the island of New Guinea. The majority of land forces in the theater were Australians, who gradually came to bear a grudge against MacArthur. While much of the fighting was done by Australian troops, MacArthur’s reports and public communiques tended to glorify American troops and neglect to mention their allies. He also created resentment by awarding the Distinguished Service Cross, America’s second highest award, to several officers who had not actually fought in the field.

An Australian soldier assisting a wounded comrade on New Guinea
(Photo: Australian War Memorial)

MacArthur was very vocal about what strategy he wanted to see in the Pacific. He was against the gradual capture of Japanese-held islands one by one, with each island used as a launching stage for the next push. Instead, he advocated bypassing most hostile islands to bring a quicker and less costly victory. Unsurprisingly, his plan was to push west along the coast of New Guinea, directly toward the Philippines. Some historians suggest that he had an ulterior motive for his haste: he was considering running for president, and wanted the liberation of the Philippines to be the crowning act that would bring him the popularity he needed to win. Whether this was true or not (the conservative faction of the Republican Party was also pushing for his candidacy), he failed to achieve this goal by early 1944, and decided not to run that year. It’s also been suggested, though never confirmed, that Roosevelt, who knew about the gratuity MacArthur accepted from Quezon, used this information to blackmail him into not running.

MacArthur (second from left) with other Allied senior officers on New Guinea, October 1942
(Photo: original photo property of Douglas Walker)

In early September 1943 MacArthur personally observed U.S. paratroop landings at Nadzab (on the eastern part of the island) from aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress. One of the bomber’s engines stopped shortly after takeoff, but MacArthur insisted on flying on and received the Air Medal for the act. Later that month, and still in the same general area, he ordered an amphibious assault at the town of Finschhafen. The Australian forces performing the assault were spread thin and growing wary of a Japanese counterattack, so they requested reinforcements. MacArthur denied the request, since his intelligence staff told him there were only 350 Japanese soldiers in the area. In actual fact, there were 5,000, and their numbers were quickly boosted to 12,000 as they prepared to launch a counterattack. Sheer grit and some limited last-minute reinforcements eventually allowed the Australians to push the Japanese out, but this was not the last time MacArthur and his staff dropped the ball on enemy troop strengths.

An Australian machine gun team near Finschhafen
(Photo: Australian War Memorial)
On the upside, MacArthur did perform a remarkable strategic feat later, in the spring of 1944. Pushing west along the northern coast of New Guinea, he surprised Japanese high command by bypassing 600 miles (965 km) of the shoreline and landing behind the enemy, outside the range of Allied land-based aircraft, but still able to receive air support from Admiral Nimitz’s Pacific Fleet. The risky maneuver paid off, as an entire unprepared Japanese army was cut off with light casualties – though the Japanese did remain in fighting condition and tied up Allied forces as MacArthur pushed on westward.
MacArthur (left) in conference with President Roosevelt, Admiral Leahy and Admiral Nimitz about the next stage of the campaign after the New Guinea campaign
(Photo: Library of Congress)

MacArthur met Roosevelt in July 1944 to discuss the next stage of the war in the Pacific. Admiral Nimitz wanted to turn toward Formosa (Taiwan today), but MacArthur managed to convince the President to liberate the Philippines first. The Philippine island of Leyte was incorrectly believed to be largely undefended, prompting MacArthur to personally make landfall on October 20, the first day of the landings. His boat ran aground and the beachmaster was too busy to send him a landing craft, so MacArthur jumped into the water and waded ashore while Japanese snipers and mortar teams were still active in the area. In his famous prepared speech, he said “People of the Philippines: I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God our forces stand again on Philippine soil—soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples. We have come dedicated and committed to the task of destroying every vestige of enemy control over your daily lives, and of restoring upon a foundation of indestructible strength, the liberties of your people.”

The famous photo of MacArthur wading ashore on Leyte
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

The liberation of the island did not go smoothly. A Japanese naval counterattack turned into the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history (by number of naval personnel involved), which almost ended in disaster for Allied forces. Monsoon rains disrupted airfield construction, and the lack of Allied air cover allowed the Japanese to pour reinforcements onto Leyte. MacArthur was promoted to the new five-star rank General of the Army in December, becoming one of only four officers of that rank in World War II.
 
MacArthur’s problems with estimating enemy strength, already demonstrated at Finschhafen, continued to plague him. An estimate at the end of December claimed there were only 5,000 Japanese left on Leyte, and a communiqué by MacArthur stated that only mopping up was left to do – and yet, 12,000 Japanese soldiers were killed on the islands in the following five months.

U.S. troops moving inland on Leyte
(Photo: National Archives)
MacArthur’s next step was the liberation of the island of Mindoro, which was suitable for airfield construction; and then Luzon, the largest island of the Philippines, with the capital of Manila. Luzon was held by General Tomoyuki Yamashita (Read our earlier article), the Japanese commander who humiliated the British with the unexpected capture of Singapore earlier in the war.
 
Once more, MacArthur underestimated his enemy. The Sixth Army estimated Yamashita’s force to be 234,000 strong. MacArthur’s own chief of intelligence gave a much lower figure of 137,000. MacArthur discarded the higher estimate as “bunk,” and decided that even his own intelligence officer’s number was too high. The actual Japanese force numbered over 287,000, well over twice what he expected. The communiqué he sent while en route to Luzon was a typical example of his self-aggrandizing style: "The decisive battle for the liberation of the Philippines and the control of the Southwest Pacific is at hand. General MacArthur is in personal command at the front and landed with his assault troops."
The first wave of U.S. troops approaching Luzon
(Photo: U.S. Navy)
MacArthur wanted to capture the port of Manila quickly. Yamashita, who wanted to minimize civilian casualties, abandoned the city and occupied the hills to the north. Unknown to the Americans, a Japanese naval officer called Sanji Iwabuchi ignored Yamashita’s orders, quickly reoccupied the city, and dug in for a fight to the death. The resulting heaving fighting and Japanese massacres killed thousands of civilians in Manila over the month of February 1945, despite MacArthur’s attempts to help them leave the city, even to the detriment of the immediate military effort.
Japanese soldiers surrendering to U.S. and Filippino troops in Manila
(Photo: Library of Congress)
Once in Manila, MacArthur installed an old Filippino friend, Manuel Roxas, to a position where he was guaranteed to become the next president of the Philippines. Roxas was a leading collaborator during the Japanese occupation, but MacArthur waved away complaints with unproven claims that he was simultaneously leaking information to the Allies. It was perhaps not coincidental that Roxas was one of the few people who knew about the huge gratuity MacArthur received from President Quezon in 1942.
President Manuel Roxas greeting MacArthur in 1946
(Photo: Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum)

 
MacArthur spent the rest of the war liberating POW camps and the rest of the Philippines, and invading Borneo. He was appointed commander in chief of U.S. Army Force Pacific in preparation of the invasion of Japan, but the operation was mooted when Japan surrendered after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. MacArthur accepted the formal Japanese surrender aboard the USS Missouri on September 2, 1945.
MacArthur signing the Japanese surrender aboard the Missouri
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)
With World War II over, MacArthur faced his next challenge, and arguably the peak of his career. The Empire of Japan, an anti-democratic, ultranationalist militaristic society, had just been beaten and occupied by the Allies. Someone needed to transform the nation into a peaceful, democratic nation friendly toward the Western powers – and quickly, since the Cold War with the Soviet Union was already developing, and a pro-Western Japan could be an important strategic ally.
 
MacArthur was given the title Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) and the job of managing the country’s reformation. The experience he gained during the occupation of Germany after World War I came handy at his new post. Instead of forming a typical military government, he simply used the Japanese governmental institutions to execute all reforms, though with military personnel placed all over Japan to make sure the reforms were really carried out.
The Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Building in Tokyo, where MacArthur had his headquarters
(Photo: public domain)
His first challenge was to stave off famine. The bombing of Japan, the cessation of food transports from the empire’s colonies, and the return of large numbers of POWs caused a food crisis that threatened millions, and which was quickly but incompletely mitigated by U.S. food relief.
 
MacArthur recognized that the key to successful reforms lay with Emperor Hirohito. The emperor was a living god in the eyes of the people, and his words and actions commanded tremendous respect. MacArthur shielded Hirohito from indictment as a war criminal (and his exact level of involvement with Japan’s war crimes remains unknown to this day as a result) and attempts to make him abdicate, since either course of action would have caused a popular uproar. MacArthur believed, and stated, that removing the emperor in any way would have caused Japan to disintegrate, and the U.S. would have had to station a million troops in the country indefinitely to keep it together.
Emperor Hirohito visiting Hiroshima in 1947
(Photo: public domain)
Instead, MacArthur separated the emperor from the remaining militarists in the Japanese government and retained him as a monarch, albeit reduced to a figurehead by a new constitution. In exchange, Hirohito supported MacArthur’s reforms. MacArthur, always a talent at public relations, had his famous photo with the emperor taken for a calculated effect. Him towering over the diminutive Hirohito (while even wearing a regular, rather than a dress uniform) expressed co-operation, but also made it clear who was really calling the shots.
The famous photo of MacArthur and Emperor Hirohito on their first meeting
(Photo: Gaetano Faillace)
MacArthur’s reforms fundamentally changed Japan. The Shinto Directive disestablished Shinto as a state religion (“State Shinto” was considered a major supporter of Japanese nationalism and militarism before and during the war). A Trade Union Law was passed to protect the rights of workers, and some of the zaibatsus, the large corporate conglomerates that dominated Japan’s economy, were persuaded to “voluntarily” break themselves up into smaller companies. Women were given the vote, and a land reform transferred the ownership of agricultural land from the landlords to the actual people who worked it. Emperor Hirohito was forced to publicly renounce his divinity and the notion that the Japanese people were fated to rule the world. MacArthur also invited Roger Nash Baldwin, the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, to teach the Japanese (and Korean) governments and people about civil rights and liberties – he did despite protests from the FBI and the House of Un-American Activities Committee, who considered Baldwin a communist.
The release of members of the Japanese Communist Party. The legalization of the party was part of MacArthur’s reforms.
(Photo: unknown photographer)
While doing all this, MacArthur also oversaw the transition of South Korea into a Western-friendly sovereign country – he did this without any clear orders or initiative from the U.S. government, which simply didn’t really know what to do with the country.
 
During his stint as SCAP, MacArthur once again considered running for President. He was at the peak of his career and had the support of elements of the Republican Party, but he shot himself in the foot with one decision. While he encouraged others to campaign on his behalf, he himself refused to go on the campaign trail or to retire from the Army, which ruined his chances at winning – in fact, he didn’t even get the Republican nomination.
 
MacArthur handed power over to the Japanese government in 1949, but stayed in the country. The Treaty of San Francisco officially established peaceful relations between Japan and the Allied nations in 1951, but MacArthur’s attention was already elsewhere.
The signing of the Treaty of San Francisco
(Photo: public domain)
North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, starting the Korean War and capturing the South Korean capital of Seoul in the same month. The United Nations quickly authorized a United Nations Command (UNC) to aid the south, and had the U.S. government appoint a commander in chief to the command. The unanimous choice of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was MacArthur.
 
The North Korean advance was initially unstoppable, and the only thing U.S. forces in the area could do was trade space for time and fall back until North Korea’s initial attack tapered off in late August 1950. At this point, the U.S. alone had 180,000 troops in South Korea facing 88,000 North Korean invaders. In September, MacArthur ignored the concerns of his superior and launched a large amphibious landing at Inchon, deep behind North Korean lines. The operation, while risky, was a brilliant success that liberated Seoul and sent the North Koreans retreating in disarray. On September 17, MacArthur visited the battlefield and inspected six knocked-out T-34 tanks, ignoring the North Korean snipers taking shots at him.
U.S. Marines climbing over a seawall during the Inchon landings
(Photo: U.S. Federal Government)
The next obvious step was to set off after the retreating North Koreans, but MacArthur was wary of advancing past the 38th parallel and into North Korea, not sure if he actually had the authority to do so under the U.N. resolution to protect South Korea. Both the U.N. and the Joint Chiefs of Staff soon clarified that he was, in fact, to enter North Korea and unify the two countries.
Civilian refugees climbing over a broken bridge near the North Korean capital of Pyongyang
(Photo: Max Desfor)
The Inchon landing was one of MacArthur’s brightest moments as a military commander; what came next became one of his darkest. In October, as U.N. forces were advancing in North Korea, China entered the conflict, sending a large infantry force across the border, marching at night to avoid being spotted from the air. MacArthur was sure the Chinese wouldn’t attack, and that even if they did, they would only send a small contingent. The sudden appearance of a large Chinese force caught him unprepared at a time when U.N. forces were deep in enemy territory, low on supplies, and unprepared for the plunging temperatures of the coming winter. Chinese troops first started pushing the U.N. expedition back, then lured them into large-scale ambushes in the mountains, even as MacArthur was still insisting that China was not involved. The resulting U.N. rout enraged MacArthur, who demanded that nuclear weapons be placed at his disposal. It was only the fortunate arrival of General Matthew Ridgway (Read our earlier article) that saved the U.N. war effort from collapsing.
U.S. Marines watch as close-air support hits Chinese positions in Korea
(Photo: Corporal McDonald)
Much has been made of MacArthur’s nuclear intentions in Korea, but the truth is somewhat muddled. He definitely discussed the possibility of stopping the Chinese with atomic bombs with his chief of staff, General Joe Collins (Read our earlier article), but he later testified at Congress that he never actually intended to deploy such weapons. On the other hand, he did say in an interview, published after his death, that he wanted to drop 30 to 50 atomic bombs on Chinese bases. The truth might never be known; what he definitely considered was using radioactive waste to create an impassable border and cut off North Korea.
 
MacArthur retreated from North Korea a few weeks after the Chinese intervention; Seoul was lost to Communist forces once again in January 1951; and both President Truman and MacArthur seriously considered abandoning Korea. Forces under Ridgway eventually pressed northward again, liberated Seoul, and stabilized the frontline at the 38th parallel, where the border still stands today. MacArthur’s standing with America’s political leadership, however, was damaged beyond repair. Two of the cornerstones of the U.S. military are civilian oversight and an apolitical military leadership. MacArthur, enamored with his public image as a war hero, had repeatedly violated these cornerstones by challenging political decisions in public. Truman agreed with several of his top military advisors that MacArthur had gone too far, and relieved him on April 10 amid much public controversy.
President Truman and General MacArthur seven months before MacArthur was fired
(Photo: Harry S. Truman Library) 
MacArthur spent the last decade of his life enjoying the public’s adulation, preparing for his death, and advising President Kennedy on three occasions: about the Bay of Pigs fiasco (of which MacArthur was harshly critical), the build-up of U.S. troops in Vietnam (which he was against) and he Cuban Missile Crisis (where he advocated for the blockade). He passed away in 1964 as an enormously popular war hero with over 100 decorations, with a history of many brilliant moments, but also actions and decisions which tarnished his legacy. As one general who served under him said: "The best and the worst things you hear about him are both true."
The tomb of Douglas MacArthur and his second wife Jean at the MacArthur Memorial
(Photo: Toohoo / Wikipedia)

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WWII veterans celebrated in Normandy
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