Douglas MacArthur – a brief summary

Born on an army base in Arkansas, Douglas MacArthur came from a proud military lineage. His father had been a Union general in the American Civil War and MacArthur sought to follow in his footsteps. Highly gifted academically, he qualified for West Point in 1899. Despite the bullying culture he found there, MacArthur worked hard and scored 98 per cent when he passed out, serving as First Captain during his final year.

Douglas MacArthur smokingHe took up a position in the prestigious engineering corps and his first assignment, in 1903, was to the Philippines, then a US colony. This was followed by an extensive tour of Asia accompanying his father, who remained a senior army officer and had pulled strings to secure his son’s appointment as his secretary. They returned in 1906, Douglas MacArthur having become fascinated by the continent and convinced of its importance for US foreign policy.

Rainbow Division

From 1912 until America joined the First World War in 1917, MacArthur worked in Washington, first with the Chief of Staff and then in establishing the army’s Bureau of Information. It was during this period that his remarkable administrative talents began to be noticed. However, the arrival of war persuaded him that he should attempt to obtain a posting to France. The 42nd ‘Rainbow Division’ – a mixed unit composed of National Guard regiments from across the USA – was his idea. He, therefore, secured a position as its Chief of Staff. Despite the staff role, MacArthur served with distinction and bravery throughout his time in the trenches. He was decorated by both America and France.

After the war he was appointed Superintendent of West Point, where he was able to introduce reforms to tackle some of the bad practice he had experienced for himself. In 1922 he married and was transferred to the Philippines. Promoted to Major General in 1925, he commanded IV and then III Corps. Depressed after separating from his wife in 1927 (they divorced in 1929), he threw himself into the leadership of the 1928 US Olympic Committee.

Chief of Staff

Douglas MacArthurAfter another spell in the Philippines, MacArthur was offered the army’s top job – Chief of Staff – in 1930. It was a job his father had coveted before him. His tenure was a difficult one, as he sought to protect the army during times of austerity. His emphasis on retaining a strong officer cadre in a much reduced army has been credited with America’s ability to effectively rearm prior to the Second World War.

In 1935, having many friends among the Philippine elite, he was invited to take on the job of building her armed forces in preparation for independence. He met his second wife on the trip over and they married in 1937. He immersed himself in his new task, yet resources remained scarce. It was not until July 1941, when he was reappointed to the US Army as Lieutenant General, that matters began to improve.

Despite this, the Japanese soon ejected MacArthur’s army from the Philippines, and he made his famous promise to ‘return’. He did so after the Southwest Pacific island hopping campaign of 1942–5, with the imaginative leadership of a mixed Australian and US force.

Japan and Korea

After the Japanese surrender, in September 1945, MacArthur was appointed Supreme Commander in Japan. Over the next five years he was to demonstrate huge administrative and diplomatic skill in rebuilding Japan. The Korean War, however, was to prove his nemesis. Appointed to UN command, largely because he was the senior American on the spot, MacArthur’s Inchon gambit was to be his last major success.

Dismissed in April 1951 for repeated insubordination, MacArthur attempted to run for the presidency in 1952. After that failure he largely passed from public life, living in the Waldorf Hotel, New York. Douglas MacArthur died on 5 April 1964. He received a full state funeral, attended by an estimated 150,000 people.

Korean WarAndrew Mulholland

The Korean War: History In An Hour published by William Collins, part of HarperCollins, is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.99, and downloadable audio.