Douglas MacArthur is known to history as a great and controversial soldier and general. He served in the U.S. Army for 52 years and led American forces in three of the 20th century's greatest wars. But he was also a geopolitical visionary who foresaw that America's future was tied to the Asia-Pacific region. MacArthur was advocating for a "rebalance" or "pivot" to Asia long before it became fashionable to do so. The rise of China and India and the ongoing friction in the East China and South China Seas and the Indian Ocean have awakened U.S. leaders to the importance of shifting our geopolitical vision to that region. A long time ago, Douglas MacArthur pointed the way.
MacArthur's accomplishments in war and in peace are legendary: he bravely and repeatedly led troops across "no man's land" during the First World War; as superintendent, he dragged West Point into the 20th century; he headed-up the U.S. Olympic Committee in the late 1920s; he served as one of the nation's youngest army chiefs of staff; he served as U.S. military advisor to the Philippines and Field Marshal of the Philippine army; after Pearl Harbor, he led U.S. forces battling Japan on Bataan and Corregidor and won the Congressional Medal of Honor; he made a daring escape to Australia after being ordered to do so by President Roosevelt and uttered the famous phrase, "I came through and I shall return"; he coordinated combined arms operations in the New Guinea campaign that brilliantly utilized air and sea power to bypass Japanese troops and leave them withering on the vine; he dramatically returned to the Philippines, wading ashore at Leyte Gulf and calling on Filipino rebels to rally to him in the fight against the Japanese occupiers; he was assigned the task of leading U.S. forces in the planned attack on the Japanese main islands that was only rendered unnecessary by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; he accepted the formal Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on the U.S.S. Missouri, where he delivered a memorable address on the futility of war; he served as military administer of postwar Japan for five years, leading the transformation of that country from a militaristic empire into a stable, peaceful democracy; and he conceived and championed the brilliantly successful Inchon landing during the Korean War, one of the most audacious and successful military operations in the history of warfare. Winston Churchill called him the "glorious commander." George Marshall called him "our most brilliant general." Biographer and Pacific War veteran William Manchester called MacArthur the greatest man at arms that the United States ever produced.
MacArthur's historical reputation suffered, however, as a result of his verbal clashes with President Truman during the Korean War. He cringed at the notion that America would expend the blood of its soldiers, sailors, and airmen in indecisive wars, famously saying, "In war, there is no substitute for victory." Truman and the Joint Chiefs disagreed, and MacArthur was relieved of command. Ever since then, conventional histories have usually portrayed Truman as saint and MacArthur as sinner in Korea, but the truth is far more complex.
There has recently been a revival of interest in Douglas MacArthur. During the last three years, several new books and biographies have appeared covering some aspect of the general's life and career: Supreme Commander by Seymour Morris, Jr; The Most Dangerous Man in America by Mark Perry; The Generals by Winston Groom; MacArthur at War by Walter Borneman; War at the End of the World by James Duffy; Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior by Arthur Herman; and most recently, The General vs. the President by H.W. Brands.
Of course, still worth reading are William Manchester's American Caesar, Geoffrey Perret's Old Soldiers Never Die, and most comprehensively, D. Clayton James' three-volume The Years of MacArthur.
MACARTHUR AND THE ASIA-PACIFIC
MacArthur's appreciation of Asia and the Pacific Rim began with his father, Arthur MacArthur, a Civil War hero at the age of 19 (winning the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics on Missionary Ridge during the Battle of Chattanooga), and later one of the leading generals in the U.S. Army. Arthur MacArthur had a fascination with economics, and his reading list included works by David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, and Walter Bagehot (Herman, 2016). He also had a great interest in China, Japan, and what was then called the Orient (Herman, 2016).
In 1882, Captain MacArthur wrote a 44-page "Chinese Memorandum," which predicted that...