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MacArthur still endures as a larger-than-life figure — for good or ill

“What do you think of Douglas MacArthur?”

Few questions in military history are more loaded.

“It’s no secret that MacArthur was and is a polarizing figure,” Barbara Noe Kennedy wrote in World War II magazine. “A brilliant tactician, revered for helping to win World War II and overseeing the successful Allied occupation of postwar Japan, but also a man who could be vain, arrogant, suspicious and insubordinate.”

To be sure, multitudes of American service members fondly remember the Army general for his variation on the “island hopping” strategy along the northern coast of New Guinea, which brought about great advances with relatively light casualties. Or for his later landing at Inchon in 1950, which did much to turn the tide of the Korean War.

Many others, however, remember how seriously MacArthur, who claimed to understand the mind of his enemies, underestimated his opponents in the Philippines in December 1941, the North Koreans in June 1950 and the Chinese in November 1950. Those miscalculations loom large, especially to those soldiers and Marines who suffered the consequences.

So what was he? A mastermind? A megalomaniac? One of the greatest — if not the greatest — general in American military history? A genius, albeit a flawed one?

A nation hungry for heroes embraced MacArthur as “Destiny’s Child,” the “Lion of Luzon,” the “Hero of the Pacific,” according to military historian Richard B. Frank.

“In 1945, a pollster asked Americans to name the greatest American general of the war. MacArthur won hands down, with 43 percent,” Frank wrote in a 2018 History Net article. “Only 31 percent chose Ike. George S. Patton Jr. came in a distant third at 17 percent.”

A different perspective on MacArthur’s genius allegedly came from one of his opponents, as described in Kunlun, the magazine of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. After occupying Seoul on Jan. 7, 1951, General Peng Dehuai halted to plan the next “phase” of his offensive.

Soon afterward the Soviet ambassador to North Korea arrived and announced that he had just learned that “the Americans are prepared to completely withdraw following our retaking of Seoul,” that United Nations forces were “now faced with an overall situation of total collapse,” and added that he could not understand why the Chinese had suddenly stopped their pursuit when “the Korean War can be over in one go at it.”

Peng replied that after three consecutive offensives, his troops needed to rest and regroup at a time when his ability to resupply them had been hobbled by U.N. air attacks. Furthermore, he added, “the enemy could use the narrow, long terrain and his sea and air superiority to land in our rear at any time and that is extremely dangerous.”

“What’s more,” he concluded, “the enemy is absolutely not going to make any overall withdrawal. This is a fake impression that is to lure us southward. I, Peng Dehuai, am not MacArthur. I will not be taken in by this!”

One other man who was not overawed by the head of the Far East Command was, of course, President Harry S. Truman, who relieved him of command of U.S. forces in Korea.

The events leading to that extraordinary decision are presented in great deal in a 2008 book by Korean War veteran Stanley Weintraub, “MacArthur’s War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero.”

In essence, the growing disagreement between MacArthur and his commander in chief came to a head in March 1951 when House Minority Leader Joe Martin, R-Kan., sent MacArthur a copy of his speech advocating for an invasion of the Chinese mainland by Chiang Kaishek’s forces from Taiwan, in concert with a U.N. offensive in Korea.

MacArthur, who in 1950 had declared his willingness to use “our virtual monopoly of the atom bomb” against the Chinese if need be, wrote to Martin of his wholehearted agreement: “As you point out we must win. There is no substitute for victory.”

When Martin released the letter to the press, it made MacArthur’s endorsement of his plan public — and in public conflict with Truman’s strategy of limiting the war to stopping the Communist advances in Korea without escalating it into a global conflict.

Fellow generals, such as George C. Marshall, knew that MacArthur had committed an act of insubordination. So, for that matter, did MacArthur, who on April 9 remarked to Maj. Gen. Edward M. Almond, “I have become politically involved and may be relieved by the president.”

Indeed, on April 11, 1951, President Truman announced on the radio that “General of the Army Douglas MacArthur is unable to give his wholehearted support to the policies of the United States Government and the United Nations on matters pertaining to his official duties.” Truman added that he was replacing MacArthur with Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway.

In standing up for his constitutional authority as commander in chief, Truman knew he had committed political suicide. His successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower — who had served for six years on MacArthur’s staff — proved to be no more impressed with MacArthur than Truman had been.

“I wouldn’t trade one Marshall for fifty MacArthurs,” Eisenhower said, adding, “My God! That would be a lousy deal. What would I do with fifty MacArthurs?”

Far from fading away, however, MacArthur continues to endure as a larger-than-life figure, revered by some, derided by others — most recently, in James Ellman’s 2023 book, “MacArthur Reconsidered,” which reassess the commander in a more negative light.

And so the debate will continue, quite possibly with a little more restirring of the pot. One certainty is that any attempt to balance his accomplishments against his failures, concluding with the image of a “flawed genius,” is likely to be the minority viewpoint.

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