The Legacy of General Douglas MacArthur

General Douglas MacArthur is best known today through two quotations, “I shall return,” and “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”  Over the course of nearly fifty years of military service, however, he left his mark on the modern world in many ways.  His most lasting contributions were in his roles in the Allied victory in World War II, in American relations with the Philippines and Japan, and in the role of nuclear weapons in the Cold War.

The son of a Civil War hero, MacArthur certainly began his career with certain advantages.  In his case, his subsequent performance proved those advantages warranted.  He graduated from West Point with record-breaking high grades, and distinguished himself as a junior general during the First World War.  After spending a few years as Superintendent of West Point, he continued to rise in the peacetime Army, serving as Army Chief of Staff from 1930 to 1935.

In 1935, he began his ten-year relationship with the Philippines, a country that had its own government but was not yet fully independent.  MacArthur took up a Field Marshal’s commission under President Quezon, taking retirement from the U.S. Army shortly thereafter.  Significantly, MacArthur differed from the conventional view that the Philippines could never successfully be defended in the event of an invasion, arguing that in ten years it could be made capable of self-defense.  As it so transpired, MacArthur was not to have those ten years to accomplish the military transformation of the country, but his confidence changed American policy; when World War II came, America would fight to defend the Philippines.

The anticipation of war with Japan led the Army to call MacArthur back into service in 1941; his position in the Philippines became a key part of the American posture in the Pacific.  When the Japanese invasion came, however, MacArthur was unable to hold the islands, and his forces were compelled to retreat to Bataan.  After considerable prodding by the President, MacArthur agreed to escape from this lost position and regroup in Australia.  Disembarking, he made his famous pledge to return.

In 1942, MacArthur was given overall command of the Southwest Pacific Area, a role that essentially placed him in command of Allied land operations and the naval operations that immediately attended them.  He is often credited with the successful strategy of island-hopping; in reality, he was not the originator of this idea, but he adopted it and authorized it.  For moral rather than strategic reasons, he insisted on recapturing the Philippines, and made a point of leading this reconquest personally.

In 1945, he was given overall command of the U.S. Army in the Pacific theater of war; in September, he led the American delegation at the Japanese surrender.  MacArthur remained in Japan for the next five years as the head of the American occupying force, placing his mark on the political and economic future of Japan.  Here, he took a conciliatory and diplomatic stance, doing much to ensure Japan’s success as a democratic country.

His contribution to Japan’s future was cut short by the Korean War.  Placed in command of coalition forces defending South Korea from the Communist attack, MacArthur enjoyed considerable success until the Chinese entered the war.  Faced with the relentless onslaught of overwhelming numbers, MacArthur came into public conflict with the President by openly advocating the use of atomic weapons against China.

Their dispute constituted insubordination, and MacArthur was removed from his post for it.  More importantly, however, this dispute helped to define the role that nuclear weapons would play during the Cold War.  In 1951, it was not a foregone conclusion that they would be a weapon of last resort, only used as a bluff that no one would dare to call.  Just six years before, not one but two bombs had been used to underline the demand that Japanese surrender must be unconditional.  MacArthur’s willingness to use them in China, and the administration’s opposition, did much to set the tone for forty years of nuclear policy.

MacArthur’s welcome when he returned home was sincere and joyous, even if he failed to turn it into concrete support for a presidential bid of his own. He ended his public life with a speech given to a joint session of Congress, culminating in the famous quotation about old soldiers.

Certainly, MacArthur’s pride got in the way of his relations with peers and superiors, and a more modest man, such as Dwight Eisenhower, would better have been able to enjoy the fruits of his accomplishments.  It is noteworthy that Eisenhower, specifically, succeeded in winning the presidential nomination that MacArthur had sought in vain.  Still, MacArthur’s career was full of superlatives, and he played as much a role in shaping the Pacific region between 1935 and 1951 as anyone.

While the Allies would surely have defeated Japan without MacArthur, his participation did much to shape the course of the Pacific War, from the fact that America tried to defend the Philippines just days after Pearl Harbor to the circumstances of the Japanese surrender.  Furthermore, he played key transitional roles in the histories of the Philippines and Japan.  In the Philippines, he did much to ensure that this former colonial protectorate of the U.S. would be an independent ally; in Japan, he was largely the architect of the modern state.  And finally, MacArthur served to define the role that nuclear weapons would play in the postwar world; his participation was essentially negative, in that he proposed the course that was rejected, but it was probably necessary to see this role defined, and he performed that function.  His legacy can be felt in many ways today.



• Dear, I.C.B. The Oxford Guide to World War II. Oxford, 1995

• Parrish, Thomas ed.  The Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II.  Simon and Schuster, 1978

• Wheal, Elizabeth-Anne, Stephen Pope and James Taylor.  A Dictionary of the Second World War.  Military Book Club, 1990.


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