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 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