Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 818

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 818


This is the grave of Douglas MacArthur.

Born in 1880 in Little Rock, MacArthur grew up in one of the nation’s most prominent military families. His father was a captain when Douglas was born but would rise to be a lieutenant general and governor-general of the Philippines. His grandfather was a lieutenant general for the Union in the Civil War and his mother’s family were southerners from Virginia with lots of traitors in the 1860s. MacArthur grew up following his father around the American West, where he was posted as the military’s prime role during these years was enforcing the genocide against Native peoples. Douglas’ future was obviously going to be through the military. But despite his father and grandfather’s active lobbying, both Presidents Cleveland and McKinley did not choose the young man for the Military Academy. So he studied hard and a Wisconsin congressman saw him into West Point.

While at West Point, MacArthur suffered heavy hazing from southern cadets. So did Grant’s grandson and it was clearly targeted toward scions of Union Civil War generals. A cadet actually died of hazing in 1901 and MacArthur testified before Congress about the level of hazing at the Academy, though he downplayed his own suffering. This is probably the most positive contribution MacArthur made to American life, as mostly he turned into a pretty awful person, though certainly a well-prepared general.

MacArthur graduated near the top of his class and was sent into the Army Corps of Engineers. He was sent to the Philippines, where he was involved in clean up operations in the grotesque and brutal imperialist conquest of the islands and where he survived an ambush that required him to shoot the two attackers. Malaria cut his time in the Philippines short. He was sent to California and then to Japan to serve as his father’s aide-de-camp. Both MacArthurs competed to see who had the biggest ego and who could be the biggest blowhard; observers were amazed that the son was actually more egocentric than the father. He received his first command in 1908, as the head of an engineering division based at Fort Leavenworth. He served here and there, rising to the rank of captain, and then was sent to Mexico as part of Wilson’s awful Veracruz takeover in 1914. He was nearly killed there attempting to commandeer rail cars but did not receive any awards because he was disobeying commands in this action. Still, he was promoted to major in 1915.

When World War I began, MacArthur was one of a few officers encouraging a division made up of the National Guard mixed from all states. Wilson agreed and MacArthur was promoted to colonel and named Chief of Staff to the 42nd Division, better known as the Rainbow Division. They started fighting in February. MacArthur was gassed soon after, but got off relatively easy from that. In June, he was named brigadier general. Troops performed well under his command and he received six silver stars for different actions and a distinguished service medal.

After the war, MacArthur was named superintendent of the Military Academy, retaining his rank of brigadier general. He was also given the mission of modernizing the military education system, which many felt was out of date. He worked to extend the length of the education back to four years, clamped down on hazing. created an honor code, and brought the liberal arts into the academy, as he had seen in Europe that modern warfare required political and economic training, not just the military. He allowed upper classmen to leave the campus, promoted sports, pushed more teaching about Asia, and gave cadets a $5 monthly stipend. He received a lot of pushback for most of this in what was a hidebound institution. He also married the wealthy socialite Louise Brooks in 1922 but they divorced seven years later. That year, he also headed back to the Philippines to command the Military District of Manila. In 1928, he headed the U.S. Olympic Committee.

By 1930, MacArthur was probably the most well-known American military leader. He had his style, with his Asian clothing and cigarettes. He was swaggering and he was relatively popular in an era when the military was not so popular. That year, he became Army Chief of Staff. But his extremely right-wing politics began to take over as well, as was his tendency to vastly overplay his hand. In 1932, the Bonus Army came to Washington to demand their military pensions. Herbert Hoover wanted them gone, but MacArthur thought it was a communist plot to overthrow America. Hoover ordered MacArthur to clear out the camp. But Hoover was pretty clear–this was not to be violent. MacArthur disobeyed his orders and burned the whole camp. After he demolished the camp, he told the press that the Bonus Army was full of communists. That Douglas MacArthur, what an American hero. MacArthur’s actions absolutely devastated Hoover’s re-election chances, if he still had them in July 1932. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would obliterate Hoover in November, creating a rare complete realignment of American politics. The VFW strongly supported Roosevelt, wanting revenge on Hoover for what happened to the Bonus Army. Meanwhile, MacArthur became a hero to the anti-New Deal far right and also threatened to sue reporters including Drew Pearson for their coverage of it. He demanded $750,000 in compensation. So Pearson pulled out his ace–MacArthur had an affair with a teenage Filipino actress named Elizabeth Cooper and Pearson threatened to call her as a witness. So the out of court settlement required MacArthur to pay Pearson $15,000!

For FDR, MacArthur was a huge pain to manage, but also a necessary one. MacArthur’s ego was so large by this point that he started lecturing Roosevelt over the president’s plans to reduce the military budget. He told FDR, “when we lost the next war, and an American boy, lying in the mud with an enemy bayonet through his belly and an enemy foot on his dying throat, spat out his last curse, I wanted the name not to be MacArthur, but Roosevelt.” Nice guy.

MacArthur left active duty service in 1935. With the Philippines moving toward independence after Americans decided that interracial sex between Filipino workers and white women in California was not worth having a colony over, Manuel Quezon asked MacArthur to help build the Filipino military. He remarried while there in 1937 and remained there until the start of World War II. Roosevelt brought the Filipino Army into the U.S. military in 1941 and returned MacArthur to command as a major general. Of course, there was no way he and the available troops could hold on against the Japanese. Realizing he was too valuable to lose, Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to leave for Australia in February 1942 and he did so the following month, shortly before the fall of Bataan in April.

I will leave all the details of his work during World War II to comments, but certainly the American drive against the Japanese proved effective, if long and costly in lives. In 1944, he won out over Chester Nimitz on the strategy to defeat Japan. Nimitz wanted an attack on Taiwan, MacArthur stated that the U.S. had an obligation to liberate the Philippines first. MacArthur led that long, tough fight. Of course, many of MacArthur’s friends in the Philippines had been active Japanese collaborators and he returned them to power. That Quezon had given him $500,000 as he left the Philippines was also information he wanted to keep quiet. In April 1945, MacArthur was named commander of U.S. Army Forces Pacific.

This made MacArthur the point man to occupy Japan. The first thing he did was to have his picture taken with Emperor Hirohito and have it published throughout Japan. That MacArthur was a big man and Hirohito a tiny one was the point. MacArthur wanted everyone to know who was really in charge here. He ensured though that Hirohito would remain as emperor. MacArthur was fundamentally sympathetic to a modernized Japan and so wanted to limit the executions and punishments to only the very worst offenders. He also engaged in a serious of democratic reforms, attempting to dismantle monopolies, promoting moderate labor unionism, and engaging in land reform. After 1948, he had less power with the State Department getting more involved as the transition back to an independent Japan was underway. But for about three years, it was Doug’s kingdom.

For a long time, MacArthur had toyed with the idea of running for president as a far-right Republican. Seeing himself as a hero, he took the idea more seriously in 1948. But he refused to actively campaign, seeing himself as above the fray, and so he never got close to the nomination. Japan retook self-governance in 1949 but MacArthur remained based there until 1951. This was of course the moment after he was needed to turn the tide in Korea. The Incheon invasion was a brilliant move that really did turn the tide of that war. But the rapid failure of American troops after the Chinese invasion of North Korea embarrassed MacArthur and laid the foundation for Truman to finally get rid of this extremely political general. When MacArthur sent a letter to a Republican congressman to be read on the House floor criticizing Truman’s foreign policy, he simply had to go. It was risky for Truman. But he had lived on the edge of popularity for his whole presidency and wasn’t going to back down from his rebellious general. Much later, Truman said, he “fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the President. I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was, but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.” Truman definitely suffered the political consequences for this. Had the U.S. won the war, perhaps Democrats would have had a shot in 1952 but between Republicans nominating Eisenhower and the never ending war, Democrats were doomed.

There’s also the debate over whether MacArthur had actively promoted using nuclear weapons against China. He later denied he had pushed for this, but he probably did. Anyway, MacArthur returned to the U.S. a very political man. He gave a speech before Congress attacking Truman and had a number of big parades for him in major cities. He did want to be president again in 1952, but still refused to campaign. Moreover his politicking was so focused on hating Truman that people started to see that he had nothing else but that hate. He lived out his last years as a rich guy in New York, giving advice on foreign policy and telling both Kennedy and Johnson to watch out about getting too involved in Indochina. He died of liver disease in 1964. He was 84 years old.

Among the actors to play MacArthur in film are Henry Fonda (Collision Course: Truman vs. MacArthur; E.G. Marshall played Truman), Gregory Peck (MacArthur), Laurence Olivier (Incheon), Tommy Lee Jones (Emperor), and Liam Neesom (Operation Chromite). Whether any of these movies are even remotely watchable, I do not know.

There’s plenty more to say about MacArthur but this post is too long as it is. So have at it.

Douglas MacArthur is buried in the Douglas MacArthur Museum (not a good museum) in Norfolk, Virginia. Although he had never really lived there, it was where his mother’s family was from and he liked the place so he requested it.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader donations from my last trip to the South. Thanks! I detoured to Norfolk for this grave alone. I hope it was worth it. If you would like this series to visit other World War II military leaders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Chester Nimitz is in San Pedro, California and Dwight Eisenhower is in Abilene, Kansas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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