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DOUGLAS MACARTHUR AMERICA'S
MOST OVERRATED COMMANDER?
The decision of which historical figures we are to endow with greatness is often made for political reasons, with only scant attention paid to the facts. Additionally, when it comes to picking our heroes, public opinion and popularity almost always rule the day, so it's not often easy to know who deserves their accolades and who does not. This is the case, I'm afraid, with General Douglas MacArthur, the revered supreme commander of American forces in the Pacific during World War II and eventual commander of UN forces in Korea, who could not only be considered one of the most over-rated generals in military history, but perhaps even one of its worst.
It's not easy or particularly pleasant to contemplate this idea, but for history to be a useful template from which to either understand the past or create a future, such unpleasantness must be occasionally addressed. For too many years Douglas MacArthur has been portrayed as a brilliant military tactician and one of the great geniuses of modern warfare on par with Napoleon and Ulysses S. Grant, but to continue to adhere to such a belief diminishes the value of truth and gives future generations only the illusion of knowledge without the reality of it. As such, we would be doing a disfavor to those who might one day be called upon to fight and die in a foreign war not to recognize how military decisions are often shaped not by strategic and tactical necessities, but by the whims of a single individualusually with tragic results.
Of course, to understand a man as complex as Douglas MacArthur, one has to look at him within the context of his own time. He was the product of an America and an American army that no longer exists, so we must be careful to take those factors into account when judging the man. Additionally, no one can deny that Douglas MacArthur was a brave and intelligent man. His leadership skills were considerable, and he proved his bravery in battle more than once on the fields of France during the First World War. As such, MacArthur the warrior is not on trial here. He apparently earned his stars on the field of battle and served his country tirelessly far longer than most officers in history (a West Point graduate in 1903, he served on active duty for 44 of the next 48 yearsone of the longest military careers on record.) For that alone he deserves his countries' gratitude.
However, even his proponents do not deny that Douglas MacArthur had some serious flaws in his personality that made him a less than ideal commander and even a potentially dangerous man. Aside from his legendary personal ambitiousness, by all accounts he proved to be a vain, egotistical and difficult man that many of his colleagues found impossible to reason with. Of course, such characteristics have often been a part of manyand some would say, mostgreat military commanders, and so in that respect at least, he was no different than Napoleon, Caesar, Alexander the Great or, in more contemporary terms, the famous George S. Patton, another commander known for his larger-than-life persona. In fact, it can be contended that supreme self-confidence is an important characteristic for any man whose job it is to order men into battle to possess, so this, too, is not the problem. Such common human failings are not what made Douglas MacArthur a failed leader; they only reinforced what other weakness in character he possessed. MacArthur's problems were not in what he was, but in what he wasn't, and what he wasn't was a good strategic planner.
General Douglas MacArthur was a man who illustrated the principle that given enough time a person will usually and quite naturally rises to his level of incompetence and continued to illustrate his shortcomings from the day bombs first fell on Clark Field on December of 1941 until the moment he was relieved of command by President Truman in 1951. It's not that every command he gave or every operation he planned failed; in fact, some of them proved to be spectacular successes. Where he failed was in anticipating how his enemy might respond and making provisions for it, and in demonstrating absolutely no ability whatsoever to learn from his mistakes. In essence, he had a type of tunnel vision that not only made him inflexible and unrealistic but, in several cases, even positively dangerous. Of course, one does not dare to tarnish the reputation of one of America's most popular military commanders without good evidence to support their charges; fortunately, however, General MacArthur provides plenty.
of the Philippines
If Pearl Harbor was America's greatest naval disaster, then the Philippines has to be considered America's greatest army disaster (at least since the Civil War.) Over 31,000 American troopsalong with 60,000 of their Filipino alliesfound themselves trapped and eventually abandoned at Bataan and Corrigedor, all because of MacArthur's poor planning, unrealistic strategy to defend all the islands of the Philippines, and wanton callousness. Consider the following facts:
Clearly, the debacle in the Philippines was not MacArthur's finest hour, though it somehow managed to make him a hugely popular hero at home. Cultivating close ties with a number of journalists and politicians kept him largely insulated from public scrutiny, and though many senior commanders in the American armed forces felt MacArthur should have been court-martialed for his inept defense of the Philippines, he was instead awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his efforts. Regardless of how one feels about his battlefield tactics and decisions, the destruction of his rather substantial air force nine hours after Pearl Harbor was bombed would have been enough to sink the career of any other man; the fact that it is largely overlooked, excused, or blamed on subordinates demonstrates how successful were his efforts to construct a larger-than-life and largely fault-resistant persona for himself.
as Supreme Commander
MacArthur's efforts following the debacle on Luzon did little to salvage his reputation as a brilliant battlefield commander, though they did manage to reinforce his mythology with the American public that he was an indispensable part of the Allied war effort. Given command of all the American and Australian troops in the Pacific, he functioned in that role with the same characteristic self-assuredness he had demonstrated at Bataan, and seemed to consider the defense of Australia's northern coast and the vital battle over New Guinea an unnecessary distraction from the larger and more important need to retake the Philippines. In fact, it would be fair to contend that his "need" to return to the Philippines was the primary driving force behind almost every decision he was to make over the next two years, giving other important strategic and tactical considerations lesser priorities.
This single-mindedness on his part might have been overlooked had MacArthur proven an able commander, but again the case can be made that his defense of Australia was something less than spectacular. Certainly, Australian military historians even today are less than impressed with his efforts in New Guinea, where his frequent indecisiveness, constant blame-shifting, and unwillingness to work with his Australian counterparts earned him the ire of many of his Australian colleagues. Unfortunately, they had no choice but to endure his arrogance, for they realized the importance of America as an allyespecially in light of Britain's complete inability to help her former colonyand so could only overlook his bull-headedness and do their best. In the end many thousands of Australian and American troops would die in the jungles of New Guinea because of MacArthur's inability to either learn from his mistakes, anticipate Japanese moves, or be flexible in his tactics. It could honestly be said that Australia held off the Japanese in New Guinea not because of Douglas MacArthur, but in spite of him.
Battle for the Philippines
It is generally believed that MacArthur's return to the Philippines in October, 1944 was his greatest military success and one of the high-water marks of his career, and while there certainly is no doubt it further solidified his reputation as a great commander, when one looks closer at the facts, it quickly becomes apparent that his victory was not only preordained but probably needlessly extended the war. Let's look at the facts:
All things considered, then, MacArthur's meddling in the larger strategic conduct of the war, made possible through his carefully cultivated connections in the senior levels of the government and media, probably extended the war and resulted in thousands of unnecessary allied lives being lost. The Philippines should have been bypassed as previously planned, but MacArthur saw to it that things went in a direction more in keeping with his own personal ambitions.
Even if one agrees that MacArthur's contribution to the allied war effort in the Pacific during World War II was less than stellar (and even, at times, positively counterproductive) few are willing to deny him credit for the successful Inchon landing in Korea in September of 1950. It was, after all, undeniably his plan and it did prove successful in breaking the back of the North Korean effort to invade South Korea that fall. As such, Inchon stands as the high water mark of MacArthur's career, and almost proved to be enough impetus to take him all the way into the White House.
Yet how remarkable was it? Clearly the idea of outflanking the North Koreans and cutting off their line of retreat has to be considered a bold initiative, but considering that the bulk of North Korea's army was massed around the city at Pusan on Korea's southern coast, leaving most of the Korean peninsula only lightly garrisoned, and that North Korea's small air force had been largely eliminated by that time, thereby giving the U.S. almost undisputed air and sea control in the region, the truth of the matter is it would have been a huge surprise had it failed. In fact, any commander worth his salt would have recognized the precarious position North Korea's army was in and likely would have come up with a similar planand probably would have pulled it off equally as well.
Of course, much has been made of the riskiness of landing at Inchon, considering the dramatic tides in the area and the possibility of seaborne mines, but such difficulties are frequently overblown. Yes, there were obstacles in the waters but Inchon was hardly Normandy, and the tides could be fairly easily calculated. It was simply careful planning by MacArthur's senior commanders that made Inchon work; there was nothing inherently magical or brilliant about it. Additionally, when one considers that there were no more than a few thousand North Korean troops defending the tiny port and its environs, quick success at Inchon should not only have been likely but inevitable. Had it been heavily defended by a couple of battle-hardened North Korean divisions, its success would have been much more impressive, but that simply wasn't the case. That's not to take anything away from MacArthur's plan or downplay the heroics and tenacity of the soldiers who fought in the operation, but it needs to be kept in its proper perspective: Inchon worked because the North Korean army was basically exhausted and far removed from the area, and MacArthur, like any good commander, simply took advantage of the overwhelming air and sea resources he had at his disposal. To read more into it is simply unnecessary.
Perhaps nothing illustrates MacArthur's recklessness and failure to anticipate potential scenarios better than does the Chinese counterattack in November, 1950an operation which not only managed to allow MacArthur to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, but almost resulted in what had been a small regional conflict turning into a major Asian land war.
Of course, no one can deny that MacArthur's bold drive north of the 38th parallel in the months immediately following the Inchon success was impressive, and had it ended at the Yalu River by Christmas as envisioned, it really would have made MacArthur a superior military commander. Unfortunately, like almost everything else MacArthur touched, it too fell apart because of his inability to anticipate potential enemy responses and an unwillingness to recognize any inherent flaws in his own strategy.
It's clear that intelligence reports of massing Chinese troops north of the Yalu River were increasingly pointing to a potential Chinese counterattack, but MacArthur repeatedly ignored these obvious signs, and instead continued to drive his armies towards the Yalu river with what could almost be described as wild abandon. As such, when the Chinese did counterattack in force, his army was caught completely by surprise (sound familiar?) and forced into a full retreat, again resulting in the unnecessary loss of thousands of American, South Korean, and U.N. lives.
Of course, all of that could have been avoided had MacArthur maintained a more carefully paced advance and took the time to establish defensive perimeters as he moved north in case of a counterattack, but the good General unfortunately chose to overlooked such basic, sound military doctrine. Additionally, the drive into the rugged mountains of North Korea in the dead of winter could perhaps have waited until spring, by which time he would have established a powerful military presence in the region that would have made any potential Chinese counterattack much more difficult. By the end of October, the main industrial areas and population centers of North Korea were firmly under allied occupation, North Korea's army was virtually nonexistent, and the Communist government of Kim Il-Sung was on the run, making the need for a rapid advance to the Yalu unnecessary. Further, had he stopped his advance well short of the Chinese border, it would have provided a hundred mile wide buffer between the Chinese armies and the allied forces, potentially eliminating the main rationale for a Chinese counterattack in the first place. In effect, MacArthur's brazen drive to end the war by Christmas may have, in the end, been the very thing that lengthened it by years.
Even if he was taken by surprise by China's powerful attack, however, didn't MacArthur finally stop the Communist advance and push them back to the 38th parallel, effectively freezing the lines at their present location? No, it wasn't Mac who gets the credit for that, but General Ridgeway, who rallied the dis-spirited allied forces and retook Seoul, while MacArthur's staff sat back at headquarters wondering what to do. Like Bataan, when bested on the battlefield, MacArthur was often frozen into indecision, which proved to be one of his greatest weaknesses.
Finally there is MacArthur's grand strategy to expand the war to consider. While his desire to bomb the bridges over the Yalu and go after airbases inside China was sound, MacArthur's efforts to bring the Nationalist Chinese on Formosa into the fightthus turning the war into a full-blown Asian conflictand his irrational plan to drop atomic bombs on massed Chinese troops has to be considered insane (especially with a Stalin-led, nuclear armed Soviet Union bankrolling the Chinese effort). As such, it's not difficult to imagine why the Truman administration felt it necessary to fire the popular General: his "victory at any cost" mentality and inability to understand how China or the Soviet Union might respond to the use of atomic weapons made him a threat not only to his own troopswho could have been targeted by the Soviets who had their own atomic arsenalbut to world peace. In the end, it was Truman's recognition of how unstable his senior commander was and not his famous "end runs" around the chain of command that cost him his job; a point history has not always been quick to acknowledge. MacArthur was a menace the cold war could no longer afford, and Truman was right in sending him packing. It's fortunate MacArthur did not possess the same powers of persuasion over Truman as he had over Roosevelt; had he, the world might well have experienced first-hand the horrors of nuclear warfare, not just in Asia, but around the globe.
It is said that no great commander is not without his mistakes and no flawed commander without his successes, and such is true of Douglas MacArthur as well. Though he proved to be a mediocre battlefield commander at best and an unstable personality at worse, he does have to be acknowledged as being one of the great military governors of all time. His rebuilding efforts in Japan in the years following World War II dramatically reshaped Japanese society from within and laid the foundation for making it one of the great industrial and economic powers it has become today. Additionally, his willingness to stand firm in the face of Soviet threats to occupy parts of the Japanese home islands also have to be acknowledged as feats of remarkable political shrewdness and courage; had he failed it would have meant years of a divided and unstable Japan that might still be in place today. For that, if nothing else, MacArthur does deserve credit and the thanks not only of the Japanese people, but of the world.
The real tragedy of Douglas MacArthur is that he might well have missed his true life's calling. Clearly, in his tireless efforts at self-promotion and in his abilities to work public sentiment in his favor, he demonstrated that within his old warrior's body beat the heart of a superb politician. Had he taken a different path in life and chosen a political tack, he might have made an able governor or a fine senator, which in the end would probably have left him with a far more favorable legacy than the one he ultimately secured for himself. The legacy of the brilliant tactician and courageous and determined combat commander is one that can only be maintained by smoke and mirrors and is one that, like even the best illusions, quickly falls apart under careful scrutiny. Douglas MacArthur deserves better from history, as do all who serve their countryeven if that service is compromised by one's own personal demons.
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