[March 11th marks the 80th anniversary of General Douglas MacArthur’s famous departure from the Philippines. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that moment and four other aspects of the war’s Pacific Theater, leading up to a special post on the U.S.-Filipino relationship.]
On how one moment exemplifies the best and worst of a controversial military leader.
As I’ve written many times in this space, war is a consistently horrific reality that should be avoided as much and as fully as possible—but when inevitable wars happen, they do offer the opportunity for soldiers, individually and collectively, to model the kinds of active patriotic service and courage I traced in Of Thee I Sing. There aren’t many American soldiers who have had the chance to do so across three distinct wartime conflicts, but that was indeed the case with Douglas MacArthur: after beginning his military career during Woodrow Wilson’s 1914 expedition to Veracruz with individual acts of bravery that nearly earned him the Medal of Honor, MacArthur went on to be nominated twice for such a Medal (and to receive many other commendations including 7 Silver Stars and 2 Distinguished Service Crosses) for his extensive World War I service and then to finally receive that highest US military honor for his leadership during World War II. There are few American military resumes that can compete with even that brief summary of MacArthur’s service.
At the same time, there are few military leaders who have been part of even one controversial domestic scandal, and MacArthur was at the heart of two across multiple decades. The most famous was his rebellious and quite possibly illegal behavior during the Korean War, when, determined to foment a full-scale war with China (and thus by proxy global communism), MacArthur repeatedly defied orders from President Truman, leading Truman eventually to remove him from command altogether. But I would argue that even more scandalous were his actions against the “Bonus Army” in July 1932, violent and destructive choices about which I’ve written extensively here and elsewhere; as journalists Drew Pearson and Robert Allen put it, MacArthur’s treatment of the Bonus marchers was “unwarranted, unnecessary, insubordinate, harsh, and brutal.” MacArthur sued those journalists for defamation, but their countersuit revealed other misbehavior on his part and he ended up settling out of court and paying the journalists more than $10,000—not exactly a headline that screams “iconic military hero and active patriot.”
Each of those moments and stories, histories and contexts is complex and distinct, but together they paint a picture of one of the most multi-layered, and perhaps most contradictory, figures in American history. And I would argue that all of those layers and contradictions are necessary if we’re to grapple fully with the most famous single moment in MacArthur’s life, and indeed one of the most famous in American military history: his March 11th, 1942 departure from the Philippines. That moment turns out to be pretty fraught, not only because MacArthur was abandoning the islands to more than two years of Japanese rule and destruction (after having promised not to do so), but also because his superiors in Washington ordered him to revise his statement to “We shall return” and the ever-egotistical general refused to do so. But at the same time, MacArthur continued to lead Allied forces to victory throughout the Pacific Theater over the next two years, leading up to his, yes, return to the Philippines in October 1944. All of which is to say, when MacArthur announced “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,” he was modeling once more all the worst and best of this unquestionably iconic military and American life.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other aspects of the Pacific Theater you’d highlight?