(9) Douglas MacArthur: icon of American intervention
By Andrew Salmon
Below his feet, the decking pitched with the waves as the straining landing craft dug into the swells. Above Lee Jong-yun’s helmet, the air vibrated as heavy caliber naval shells hurtled overhead. Higher still, formations of fighter bombers droned. In front of him, beyond the pitching bow of the landing vessel, great columns of black smoke writhed into the air. The young Korean could see his objective.
“Wolmi Island was just ashes,” he recalled. “The bombardment was continuous.”
His vehicle pitched — then he was storming up the sea wall. Lee was not hurt, his landing was unopposed. Tactical surprise was — almost — complete. The enemy had been caught with his trousers down.
As an interpreter with the U.S. Marine Corps, Lee had been — three breathless months previously — a student of English literature in Seoul, but this day, he was a tiny cog in the mighty juggernaut of the United Nations Command, or UNC, as it rolled ashore to reverse the tide of the Cold War’s first hot war.
Lee was engaged in Operation Chromite — the Incheon landing. Far out in the bay, behind Lee as he scrabbled for cover, the architect of this great victory sat on the bridge of his command ship, the USS Mount McKinley.
General Douglas MacArthur, the American Supreme Commander, Far East, was photographed that day, Sept. 15, 1950, in ebullient mood. Dressed in his characteristic leather jacket and aviator sunglasses, binoculars to hand, the great general was captured from a flattering low angle — for as well as being a strategic genius, this man was one of the earliest public figures to grasp the value of PR.
And why should he not have his moment? After a summer of bloody setbacks, and in the teeth of all risks, he was striking 200 miles behind the enemy front line, defying the world’s highest tidal range and the advice of most of his advisors. And everything had gone according to plan.
But neither MacArthur, nor the grinning officers surrounding him on that triumphant day, could possibly know that Sept. 15 would be the general’s last victory.
Master of the Pacific
Douglas MacArthur was born in Arkansas on Jan. 26, 1880, son of U.S. Civil War hero Arthur MacArthur. His father’s son, he attended West Point military academy, and fought with the U.S. Army in France in World War I, gaining a chest-full of combat decorations and brigadier’s rank. Having survived two gassings and numerous frontline encounters, his physical courage was beyond doubt.
Back in the United States, he became commandant of West Point, where he gained a reputation as an innovator, and in 1930, he was made the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff. In 1937, he was posted to the Philippines.
Sterner trials lay ahead. Commanding U.S. forces in the Philippines in December 1941, his command was unprepared for the Japanese onslaught. His air forces were wiped out on the ground, while his ground forces were pushed back to the Bataan Peninsula. As U.S. and Philippine troops mounted a last-gasp defense, MacArthur was evacuated from his command post on Corregidor by PT boat.
He made landfall in Australia, to take command of allied troops in the Southwest Pacific. Speaking in the actors’ voice for which he would become famous, his radio broadcast “I shall return,” aimed at the Philippines, electrified audiences around the English-speaking world at this darkest of hours. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
But another, rather less positive, phrase was circulating among bitter troops who, as their general received the ultimate American accolade, were engaged in a “Death March” to the prison camps. They dubbed MacArthur “Dugout Doug,” a reference to his concrete headquarters on Corregidor.
The Pacific campaign would be one of the most hard-fought in history. But with the material weight of the United States behind him, MacArthur, employing air-land-sea tactics, steamrollered the Japanese. He returned to the Philippines in 1944, and it was there that one of the most famous photographs of World War II was shot: MacArthur and his staff wading through the surf from a landing craft in Leyte.
But beyond the PR veil, MacArthur had, in fact, been irritated that he had got his feet wet — until he saw the photographs, when he realized their power. The general had, indeed, returned. The shots became part of his legend.
Japan surrendered on the decks of the battleship USS Missouri on Sept. 2 1945. The conclusion of the greatest war in human history was a brilliant piece of stage management by MacArthur, who signed the surrender document and went on to become Supreme Commander, Allied Powers in Tokyo.
Ensconced in the giant Dai Ichi building, MacArthur grew almost imperial as he oversaw the sweeping changes that would transform Japan from militarist aggressor to democratic polity, and soon-to-be economic powerhouse. Given how brutal the war had been, many Japanese, even today, fondly remember MacArthur’s post-1945 vision and leniency.
General’s last war
Although MacArthur had overall responsibility for Korea, he paid the nation, divided after World War II, little attention. He had made only a single visit, during which he met South Korean President Syngman Rhee and told him he would defend the republic “as if it was California.” That statement was later contradicted by Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s remark that South Korea lay outside the U.S. defensive perimeter in the Far East.
Such questions were obviated on June 25, 1950 when, acting with naked aggression, North Korea invaded the South. Although trouble had long been brewing on the peninsula, the attack caught the free world and the old general — now 70 years old — by surprise.
U.S. President Harry Truman’s response was swift. MacArthur was placed in command of what would soon become the first multinational U.N. force to enter a war. (Many veterans of the U.N. Command today like to say that the United Nations has never since acted so decisively or effectively as it did in 1950.)
MacArthur immediately flew to South Korea where he was greeted as a savior by an emotional Rhee. It was at this very early stage of the war, watching the collapse of the South Korean Army, that MacArthur considered a surprise landing at Incheon to take the invaders in their rear.
But the first months of the war went badly for the UNC, which was pushed back and besieged in the “Pusan Perimeter” in the distant south. MacArthur had to employ all his powers of persuasion to convince service chiefs that it was feasible to remove resources from the perimeter and put them on ships for the wide, flanking assault on Incheon.
But MacArthur employed brilliant rhetoric. “I can hear the ticking of the second hand of the clock of destiny,” he intoned. Then, referring to the enemy, he stated, “I shall land at Incheon, and I shall crush them!” His audience was won over.
The landing was a brilliant success. The North Koreans, fully deployed in the south, had nothing to throw against it. U.S. casualties were minimal. Fighting in Seoul proved fiercer, but the Incheon stratagem had essentially cut Kim Il-sung’s army in half.
In a hastily managed event in the bullet-scarred Capital Building, MacArthur handed Seoul back to a reverent Rhee. The general, it seemed, had the magic touch. His daring victory in this, the first major post-World War II victory over the communists, made him a hero in the United States. In Washington, the Joint Chiefs of Staff looked on with some bemusement. MacArthur’s always formidable ego was now stoked to boiling point.
By early October, South Korea had been liberated. All seemed over bar the mopping up of guerrillas. Then, in the second week of October, after hasty moves in the United Nations, the UNC advanced in a general offensive across the 38th parallel.
For the first (and only) time in Cold War history, free world forces invaded a communist state
Pyongyang fell on Oct. 19 and UNC troops found that Kim had fled. Spearheads pushed for the Yalu River, the border between China and Korea. At a meeting on Wake Island on Oct. 15, MacArthur, flush with victory after Incheon and wearing his “Asia expert” hat, assured Truman that China would not intervene to assist her communist ally.
At the end of October, he was proved disastrously wrong. Ignoring a Joint Chiefs directive that only South Korean troops were to make the final attack toward the Yalu, MacArthur ordered all U.N. troops to join the offensive. They ran into a series of ambushes. After a short, shock offensive that bloodied U.N. noses over the course of a week, Chinese troops broke contact.
There was now deep foreboding across the world. But MacArthur, refusing to heed Mao Ze-dong’s warning, launched a general offensive toward the Yalu River after Thanksgiving. He assured generals that their boys would be “home by Christmas.”
Thus began the greatest military disaster the U.S. Armed Forces have suffered in the modern era. Employing guerrilla maneuvers to outflank and surround road bound UNC forces, light Chinese infantry units descended en masse from their ambush positions. The most powerful, most mechanized army in the world was routed in the North Korean mountains. By Christmas, Chinese and North Korean forces had cleared all of North Korea. It was a stunning reversal of fortune. A chastened MacArthur was forced to admit that the U.N. Command faced “an entirely new war.”
Worse was to come. On New Year’s Day in 1951, Chinese divisions attacked into South Korea. UNC forces collapsed. Seoul fell. Only the appointment of a new field commander, the iron-hard paratroop general Matthew Ridgway, prevented total defeat. By spring 1951, U.N. and communist forces were squaring off for a decisive confrontation north of Seoul.
By now, MacArthur, his reputation deflated, was in serious confrontation with Truman, whose strategy was to limit the war with communist forces (at the cost of ongoing Korean divisions). For MacArthur, on the other hand, there was “no substitute for victory.” Truman, sensitive about the releases being churned out by MacArthur’s PR machine, also ordered military commanders to cease releasing political statements. MacArthur had been pressing for more aggressive tactics, including a blockade of China and air attacks on the mainland. Ignoring Truman’s directive, he also criticized U.S. foreign policy in a letter to the U.S. House Minority Leader. Parts of the letter were read out to Congress.
For Truman, this was the final straw. On April 11 MacArthur was relieved of his command. He returned home to ticker-tape parades, and delivered one of the great speeches in the English language at Congress. It was interrupted by 50 ovations.
But his time had passed. He was not invited to join political leadership, though he was consulted by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy.
The old soldier faded away on April 3, 1964 — a date which ensured he would not witness another American military debacle in Vietnam.
For Rhee and the older generation, MacArthur was the first and best American war leader. His early defensive maneuvers saved the nation of South Korea. The Incheon landing broke the back of the North Korean Army. MacArthur was the general who refused to fight a limited war or accept continued division, demanding, instead, total victory and unification. The catastrophe in North Korea, in this narrative, tends to be downplayed.
Although a range of great U.S. generals — notably Ridgway, whose leadership forestalled disaster at the lowest ebb of UNC fortunes, and James Van Fleet, who successfully retrained and restructured the South Korean armed forces — would walk Korean battlefields, it is the majestic figure of MacArthur who remains the icon of the American military in the Korean War. Every South Korean knows his name (albeit the local pronunciation “Megador,” which might have raised the eyebrows of the man himself).
Posterity and Anglosphere historians have been less kind. Truman’s reputation, it is fair to say, has risen since the Korean War, while MacArthur’s has sunk, largely due to his poor judgment on North Korea in the winter of 1950, and his subsequent demands for a more aggressive stance toward the communist bloc — a stance which some believe could have led to nuclear escalation and World War III.
Moreover, in some circles, the old term “Dugout Doug” persists.
In the liberal Korea of this millennium, MacArthur’s legacy would generate even fiercer controversy. In 2005, leftist and pan-Korean youth groups demonstrated at “Freedom Park” in Incheon, demanding that MacArthur’s statue there be torn down. Their logic? Were it not for MacArthur and U.S.-U.N. intervention, South Korea would rapidly have fallen to Kim Il-sung’s assault, and the Korean War would have been a far less bloody affair.
This attitude was given short thrift by one section of South Korean society. From across the country, groups of Korean War veterans, accompanied by ranks of recently retired South Korean Marines and Special Force troops, converged upon the park, vowing to defend MacArthur against these treasonous youthful miscreants. Parading in front of the statue by day and by night, they saluted, waved banners and toted improvised weapons.
The leftists and pan-Koreanists evaporated, and have not threatened the icon ever since. One of the ringleaders of the 2005 protests would subsequently be arrested as a North Korean spy.
So there, on a plinth in a cliff-top park he stands, the World War I hero, the World War II strategist, and the savior of South Korea. Silhouetted against the sunset, he mounts eternal sentry over Incheon Port, the scene of his last great victory. Even in death, few generals can equal MacArthur for stage management.