The Controversial Military Career of Douglas MacArthur
The Controversial Military Career of Douglas MacArthur

The Controversial Military Career of Douglas MacArthur

Larry Holzwarth - February 12, 2020

The Controversial Military Career of Douglas MacArthur
MacArthur and his family escaped the Philippines via PT Boat and B-17 to arrive in Australia. US Navy

14. The battle raged on in the Philippines after MacArthur was withdrawn

The Filipino and American troops on Bataan fought on for months in the Philippines, supported by the Navy and the remnants of the air forces, winning some victories as they withdrew. Japanese casualties were heavy. The fighting was indicative that had they been better positioned and led at the onset they may have been able to hold at least part of the archipelago. But it was not to be. In March, 1942, MacArthur was ordered to leave Corregidor and remove himself to Australia. He was evacuated by PT-Boat with his family in a daring move and taken to Mindanao, from whence he flew to Australia. It was from there he made a speech in which he said, “I came through and I shall return”.

He was asked to alter the speech to say, “We came through and we shall return”. He refused. It was typical MacArthur. George Marshall then recommended MacArthur for the Medal of Honor. Eisenhower pointed out the requirement for an act of valor, which MacArthur had not performed. Marshall used the precedent of Charles Lindbergh receiving the award in 1927, which had required special legislation by Congress (and which led to the award being mistakenly called the Congressional Medal of Honor). His citation claimed a “tremendous superiority of enemy forces in men”, which was untrue. In 1945 the Adjutant General reviewed MacArthur’s award of the Medal of Honor, and called it “questionable”.

The Controversial Military Career of Douglas MacArthur
General George C. Marshall (right) recommended the Medal of Honor for MacArthur over the objections of several officers, including Eisenhower. US Army

15. MacArthur’s Medal of Honor was awarded as counter-propaganda

Marshall explained to Eisenhower, at the time serving as his aide, that the Medal of Honor was awarded to MacArthur to counter expected propaganda issued by the Japanese and Germans. There was general concern over the effect the loss of the Philippines would have on American morale. The defeat in the Philippines was the largest ever inflicted on the United States Army, and coming on the heels of the Pearl Harbor disaster was devastating. The United States had already adopted the war strategy of focusing on the defeat of Germany first. There was at the time no means of striking at Germany. Isolationism was still a force. A morale boost was needed, provided by MacArthur’s award.

When MacArthur was evacuated from Corregidor, Jonathan Wainwright was left behind in command of the defense. Wainwright was forced to surrender in May as the remaining defensive positions in the islands were overrun, and spent the remainder of the war in Japanese prison camps. Wainwright was known as a fighting general, often found at the front in foxholes and slit trenches alongside of his troops. After his surrender in 1942 he was recommended for the Medal of Honor. It was vociferously opposed by Douglas MacArthur, who argued that it was neither deserved nor served any purpose as regarded morale. It was finally awarded at the end of the war, overriding MacArthur’s objections.

The Controversial Military Career of Douglas MacArthur
Japanese aircraft at Rabaul in 1942. Wikimedia

16. Operation Cartwheel was a proposal which capture of Rabaul

Following Japan’s initial successes in the Pacific, the empire established a major island fortress at Rabaul, on the island of New Britain. In February, 1943, MacArthur presented his plan for the reduction of Rabaul. His plan was to first take New Guinea, capture several other islands in the Southwest Pacific, and from them launch an assault on New Britain. The majority of the troops under his command were Anzac. When he presented his plan in 1943, the British objected to much of it, since in their opinion it committed too much to the Pacific theater at the expense of the agreed Germany first overall strategy. Cartwheel was approved, but MacArthur was limited to the troops already present in theater.

At the Quebec Conference in August 1943, the military staffs under Churchill and Roosevelt agreed to simply bypass Rabaul, rather than attempt to capture it, as part of the island-hopping strategy already underway in the Pacific War. MacArthur objected strenuously but was overridden. He then shifted to a drive westward across the northern coast of New Guinea, from which he could attack Mindanao. Rabaul was isolated largely through the American campaign in the Solomon Islands. As American airpower throughout the area came to dominate the skies, the Japanese garrison at Rabaul could neither be supplied nor evacuated. Allied troops landed on New Britain in late 1943, but no assault was made on Rabaul.

The Controversial Military Career of Douglas MacArthur
Senator Arthur Vandenburg was a political ally of MacArthur during early World War II. Library of Congress

17. MacArthur met with his public relations staff almost daily in 1943-44

In March, 1943, MacArthur sent Richard Sutherland, his Chief of Staff and a Major General, to Washington DC to meet with Arthur Vandenburg. Vanderburg was a senior Senator and member of the Republican Party. They met informally at the home of Clare Booth Luce, a strongly anti-Roosevelt Republican. Luce was the wife of Henry Luce, the man behind the powerful Time-Life media conglomerate. The purpose of the meeting was to discern how much conservative support MacArthur could expect if he ran for President in 1944. Vandenburg evidently offered his support, because less than a month later MacArthur sent another aide from Australia to Washington. He was bearing a note to the Senator which read in part, “I am most grateful to you for your complete attitude of friendship. I can only hope that I can someday reciprocate”.

As a behind the scenes campaign to draft MacArthur for the Republican nomination was led by Vandenburg and political allies, MacArthur met with his public relations staff at his headquarters in Australia. At least one member of his staff, Colonel Lloyd Lehrbas, was appalled at the open discussions of MacArthur winning the Presidency and running the war from Washington. Lehrbas was a former newspaper editor who reviewed many of the press releases issued by the staff in the General’s name. He frequently clashed with MacArthur over the brazenly political nature of the releases. MacArthur kept him on the staff because of his many connections in the media.

The Controversial Military Career of Douglas MacArthur
MacArthur’s staff included public relations experts who issued press briefings throughout the war. Library of Congress

18. MacArthur for President ran into opposition from the men he commanded in the Pacific

Vandenburg found strong support among arch-conservatives for MacArthur. He planned a Republican convention in which the two announced candidates – Wendell Wilkie and Thomas Dewey – became deadlocked, after which he would lead a “ground roots movement” to draft MacArthur by acclamation. As he and his operatives canvassed and polled potential voters he found resistance to the idea was consistent among one group – veterans who had served under MacArthur, either in the Pacific or before the war. Vandenburg, under the guise of fact-finding trips over morale at the front, sent representatives to canvas the troops in the Pacific theater. The consistent response over MacArthur’s leadership was negative from the men fighting the war.

In early 1944 a private correspondence between MacArthur and Congressman Arthur Miller of Nebraska was released to the press. It revealed MacArthur’s machinations behind the scenes to secure the Republican nomination, even as his public relations staff had made repeated denials of any political ambitions on the part of the General. On April 30, 1944, his staff released a statement in which MacArthur said, “I request that no action be taken that would link my name in any way with the nomination. I do not covet it nor would I accept it”. MacArthur twice more considered running for the office of President, but his 1944 behind the scenes machinations while serving in uniform was unique in American history.

The Controversial Military Career of Douglas MacArthur
From left, MacArthur, FDR, Admiral Leahy, and Admiral Nimitz in Hawaii, 1944. National Archives

19. MacArthur pushed for an invasion of the Philippines in July 1944

By mid-1944 MacArthur’s campaign in the Southwest Pacific had established only one base within bomber range of the Southern Philippines. By contrast, the US Navy and Marines campaign in the Central Pacific had seized the Gilberts, Marshalls, and Marianas, and carrier raids on Japanese bases in the Philippines were underway. FDR met with Admiral Nimitz, who commanded the Central Pacific Campaign, and General MacArthur at Pearl Harbor in July. MacArthur at first demurred, explaining that operations demanded that he remain in the theater of operations.

When MacArthur learned of Nimitz’s proposal for an invasion of Formosa, he changed his mind and attended the conference. He argued against the invasion of Formosa and stressed to Roosevelt the moral obligation of the United States to liberate the Philippines. Roosevelt was persuaded. MacArthur planned to land first at the southernmost island of the archipelago – Mindanao. When Admiral William Halsey’s carrier planes raided Leyte in September they reported minimal resistance, and the first landings in the Philippines were moved to that island, and scheduled for October, 1944. MacArthur was offered two Australian divisions, but he refused them unless they served as part of a corps under American command.

The Controversial Military Career of Douglas MacArthur
MacArthur wanted the return to the Philippines to be an American operation, rather than an Allied invasion. US Navy

20. MacArthur wanted the invasion of the Philippines to be an all-American operation

MacArthur commanded Australian and New Zealander troops throughout the war before the invasion of the Philippines. During the planning for attacks on the Philippines he deliberately alienated the Australian high command. Though the Australian Air Force and Navy supported the operation, the ground forces did not. MacArthur wanted the world to see the Americans returning, under his command, as he had promised from Australia after he was evacuated in 1942. On October 20, 1944, American forces landed on Leyte. Japanese attempts to destroy the landings led to the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history.

MacArthur watched the landings from USS Nashville, before requisitioning a whaleboat to take him ashore. It ran aground offshore and the General requested a landing craft be dispatched to take him the rest of the way to the beach. None were available. The beachmaster told him all the landing craft were being used to shuttle wounded off the beach to the ships. MacArthur was furious at having to wade ashore, according to others of his party. Later, at Luzon, he replicated his walk ashore, after learning of the favorable impression made by the photograph of his going ashore at Leyte. According to the photographer who took the photograph at Luzon, Carl Mydans, “No one appreciated the value of a picture more than MacArthur”.

The Controversial Military Career of Douglas MacArthur
MacArthur ordered this photograph of him towering over Hirohito published and distributed throughout Japan. US Army

21. Rebuilding Japan and saving the emperor were MacArthur’s post-war goals

MacArthur is often criticized for his handing of the Japanese government in the post-war period. During that time he protected the emperor from accusations of war crimes. He was under orders to use the existing machinery of the Japanese government to control the people. MacArthur argued strongly of the need to retain the emperor, though he also ordered all Japanese newspapers to publish a photograph of his meeting with Hirohito. In the photograph, MacArthur towered over the diminutive Hirohito, whom the Japanese believed to that point to be a living god. MacArthur’s intent in having the photograph published across the nation was self-evident.

During his tenure in Japan, MacArthur organized another attempt to run for President, coordinating with far-right conservatives in the United States, while his public relations staff churned out statements about his popularity. His military and legal staff wrote a new constitution for Japan, and effectively made the emperor little more than a figurehead. MacArthur was, for all practical purposes, a dictator with supreme authority in Japan prior to the signing of a peace treaty, which did not occur prior to the election of 1948. He chose not to resign prior to the treaty, but also refused to withdraw from running for the Republican nomination. MacArthur was replaced by the new Japanese government in 1949, though he remained in Japan in command of American occupying forces.

The Controversial Military Career of Douglas MacArthur
MacArthur observed the pre-invasion shelling at Inchon from USS Mt. McKinley, September 15, 1950. US Navy

22. The Korean War and the success at Inchon

When the North Koreans invaded the South in 1950 the American troops stationed there were sent into retreat. The United Nations asked for an Allied force to protect the South, and the Americans were authorized to name its commander. Truman assigned the command to MacArthur. Initially a crisis of immense proportions, by August, 1950 the Pusan Perimeter was established and UN forces in Korea outnumbered the North Koreans by more than 2:1. In September the landings at Inchon completely outflanked the North Koreans, and by the end of the year MacArthur’s forces were near the Chinese border. Inchon was MacArthur’s plan, executed to perfection by the Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Army. It was the most brilliant success of his career.

Then he squandered the victory. Despite increasing evidence that Chinese troops were active in North Korea at the end of October MacArthur downplayed the threat, informing President Truman at a conference held on Wake Island that the chances of strong Chinese intervention were slim. He was wrong. When the Chinese attacked in strength MacArthur was caught by surprise and the UN forces were driven back. Whether MacArthur advocated the use of nuclear weapons in Korea and China remains a matter of debate, he claimed both that he had and that he had not in interviews later in life. European allies held MacArthur in disdain, fearful his actions in Korea would lead to war with China and the Soviet Union.

The Controversial Military Career of Douglas MacArthur
Truman flew to Wake Island to meet with MacArthur, and was not impressed. National Archives

23. Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination during his command in Korea

MacArthur openly discussed the desirability of expanding the war in Korea to China, both in private meetings and in correspondence. He was also openly critical of Truman’s handling of the war. MacArthur wrote to allies to undermine Truman politically while his public relations staff worked overtime to enhance his own popularity with the American people. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, including Chairman Omar Bradley, as well as the Secretaries of Defense and State, agreed that Truman had no choice but to relieve MacArthur of his command. Truman ordered General Bradley to relieve MacArthur – who had remained in Tokyo other than when making brief visits to the front – and replaced him with Matthew Ridgway.

MacArthur’s firing was controversial in the United States, but widely hailed in Korea, where morale had fallen and the troops were in many cases poorly supplied and equipped. Ridgway’s actions restored their spirits, and the front stabilized. MacArthur returned to the United States for the first time since he had assumed command of the Army of the Philippines before World War II. He made a speech before a joint session of Congress, where he famously intoned that old soldiers never die, and enjoyed a spurt of popularity nationally. Truman’s popularity plummeted as he was pilloried in the press. MacArthur embarked on a speaking tour intended to position himself to run for President in 1952.

The Controversial Military Career of Douglas MacArthur
MacArthur often appeared in uniform for his speeches, as here at Chicago’s Soldier Field in April, 1951. Wikimedia

24. MacArthur’s speaking appearances undermined his Presidential ambitions

MacArthur toured the country making speeches and giving interviews. As 1951 eased into 1952 the crowds he attracted diminished in size. He was noted for attacking the President personally, and for embellishing his own record. More and more veterans of World War II and Korea questioned his penchant for self-praise at their expense. His appeal to the public followed his own prediction – it faded away. At the 1952 Republican Convention he was a non-factor. The nomination went to Eisenhower, who had no role for MacArthur in his administration after winning the election by a landslide. Nonetheless Ike consulted MacArthur while President, as did Kennedy and Johnson.

MacArthur died on April 5, 1964, and was buried at Norfolk, Virginia, after lying in state in the US Capitol Rotunda. Since his death his military reputation has risen and fallen with succeeding generations. He was considered vain, pompous, and overbearing by some, brilliant and innovative by others. He was best summed up by Australian Field Marshal Sir Thomas Blamey, who worked closely with him in the Pacific during World War II. When asked about MacArthur by a writer, Blamey said, “The best and the worst things you hear about him are both true”.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“West Point Orders About-face on 108-Year Old Tradition of Hazing Cadets”. Michael Hill, Associated Press. November 18, 1990

“Reminiscences of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur”. Douglas MacArthur. 2010

“The Making of a Hero: Douglas MacArthur’s Daring Mexican Heroics”. David Sears, American History Magazine. February, 2017

“MacArthur and Patton: The St. Mihiel Offensive”. Article, National Museum of the United States Army. Online

“A Brief History of West Point”. Article, United States Military Academy West Point. Online

“Meet Douglas MacArthur: America’s Olympic General”. Craig Bohnert, Team USA Online. July 4, 2016

“Chief of Staff”. A. J. Liebling, The New Yorker. October 19, 1940

“Into the Woods: The First Year of the Civilian Conservation Corps”. Joseph M. Speakman, Prologue Magazine. Fall, 2006. Online

“Eisenhower and MacArthur: Toil, Trouble and Turbulence in the Philippines”. Cole C. Kingseed, Association of the United States Army. January 13, 2015. Online

“Caught on the Ground”. John T. Correll, Air Force Magazine. December, 2007

“MacArthur and Defeat in the Philippines”. Richard Connaughton. 2001

“Marshall and MacArthur: The Tortoise and the Hare”. Stanley Weintraub, Quarterly Journal of Military History. Winter, 2000

“MacArthur – A Flawed General Takes Command of Australia’s Defence”. Article, Battle for Australia. Online

“General MacArthur and the Presidential Election of 1944”. Philip J. Briggs, Presidential Studies Quarterly. Winter 1992

“Leyte: The Return to the Philippines”. M. Hanlin Cannon. 1996

“Occupation and Reconstruction of Japan, 1945-52”. Article, Office of the Historian, United States Department of State. Online

“Truman”. David McCullough. 1992