Skip to Main Content

MacArthur's War

Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero

About The Book

Douglas MacArthur towers over twentieth-century American history. His fame is based chiefly on his World War II service in the Philippines. Yet Korea, America's forgotten war, was far more "MacArthur's War" -- and it remains one of our most brutal and frightening. In just three years thirty-five thousand Americans lost their lives -- more than three times the rate of losses in Vietnam. Korea, like Vietnam, was a breeding ground for the crimes of war. To this day, six thousand Americans remain MIA. It was Korea where American troops faced a Communist foe for the first time, as both China and the Soviet Union contributed troops to the North Korean cause. The war that nearly triggered the use of nuclear weapons reveals MacArthur at his most flamboyant, flawed, yet still, at times, brilliant.

Acclaimed historian Stanley Weintraub offers a thrilling blow-by-blow account of the key actions of the Korean War during the months of MacArthur's command. Our lack of preparedness for the invasion, our disastrous retreat to a corner of Korea, the daring landing at Inchon, the miscalculations in pursuing the enemy north, the headlong retreats from the Yalu River and Chosin Reservoir, and the clawing back to the 38th parallel, all can be blamed or credited to MacArthur. He was imperious, vain, blind to criticism, and so insubordinate that Truman was forced to fire him. Yet years later, the war would end where MacArthur had left it, at the border that still stands as one of history's last frontiers between communism and freedom.

MacArthur's War draws on extensive archival research, memoirs, and the latest findings from archives in the formerly communist world, to weave a rich tale in the voices of its participants. From MacArthur and his upper cadre, to feisty combat correspondent Maggie Higgins and her fellow journalists, to the grunts who bore the brunt of MacArthur's decisions, for good and ill, this is a harrowing account of modern warfare at its bloodiest. MacArthur's War is the gripping story of the Korean War and its soldiers -- and of the one soldier who dominated the rest.


Chapter One: The Second Coming

Only the Second Coming could have upstaged General Douglas MacArthur's return to the United States after fourteen godlike years on the Pacific rim. His sleek Lockheed Constellation, the name Bataan painted on its nose only a few days earlier, roared to a stop at National Airport in Washington just after midnight on April 19, 1951. For the first time since 1937 he set foot on mainland U.S. soil, touching in salute the garland of gold braid that was his "scrambled eggs" officer's cap.

The halo seemed even less than his due. MacArthur in 1950 was the senior soldier in the American army -- "senior," quipped one junior officer, "to everyone but God."

Despite the hour the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), who had unanimously recommended MacArthur's dismissal from his posts in Tokyo so that he and his extreme views would not be factors in the war in Korea, were on hand to offer him an engraved silver tea service. With them was his oldest rival in the military, now the Secretary of Defense, George C. Marshall -- to MacArthur only a desk general.

In unassuming civvies, his lapel unadorned even by a miniature medal ribbon, the balding Marshall was hatless despite the wind off the Potomac. Recognizing a political phenomenon who had aspired to the presidency before, and now might sweep in on a wave of popular acclaim, the majority and minority leaders of both houses of Congress were also at the Military Air Transport Service terminal. Of those in power in the capital only President Harry Truman himself, the failed haberdasher who had sacked MacArthur for insubordination to civil authority, was missing. In a deliberate snub, Harry Truman had delegated Brigadier General Harry Vaughan, his military aide, to be his representative. An old crony who had served with him in France in 1918, in the Missouri National Guard, Vaughan owed his general's star to his poker pal's accidental presidency. ("It was a shameful thing to fire MacArthur," an irate citizen wrote to the President, "and even more shameful to send Vaughan.")

As MacArthur was flying in, the predictable brickbats were flying at Truman. A Baltimore resident suggested that the President "step down and permit MacArthur to replace you." A lady from Washington wrote that MacArthur "has forgotten more about the Far East than those advising you have ever known....Of course, I am not one of your followers -- have never voted for you -- and will never vote for you." A New Jerseyite confessed, "I voted for you in 1948 and have regretted it since," and deplored the bankruptcy of Truman's business in the 1920s, for his turn to politics had been owed to that. The sixth grade at the Nathaniel White School in Cromwell, Connecticut, wrote to ask why General MacArthur "has lost his job in Korea." A lady in Texas charged, "The Kremlin should give you a 21-gun salute." And a Kentuckian telegraphed, "That you should have relieved MacArthur before now is the minority view here." Complainants are always quick to write, but one of that apparent minority, Harold Russell, the national commander of Amvets, who had been maimed in World War II but returned to win an Academy Award for his role in The Best Years of Our Lives, wrote to Truman to express support for the President's upholding of "constitutional lines of authority," for "any lessening of civil power over military power must inevitably lead away from democracy."

The period was then thought of as the early years of the Cold War -- which had actually arisen before, and survived through, the hot one of 1939-45. Yet most major and minor states were led by men whose world outlook reflected the less complex political and strategic configurations of not merely a prenuclear age but of the seemingly simpler truths of the Great War of 1914-18.

Fifty-one years into the twentieth century, only one leader making news had no memory of the nineteenth -- North Korea's Communist ideologue Kim Il Sung. His political and military indoctrination came courtesy of the wartime Red Army. Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, who replaced each other at Downing Street in 1945 and 1951, respectively, were born in the era of Bismarck and had fought in the earlier world war. Konrad Adenauer,

"Der Alte" to West Germans, was born in 1876, two years after Churchill; Syngman Rhee of South Korea, in 1875. Josef Stalin, born in 1879, had been a mature revolutionary in the first decade of the new century when MacArthur, born in 1880, was already soldiering. Harry Truman, born in 1884, had been only a reserve artillery captain activated in wartime. Now, in April 1951, he was commander in chief over the much-decorated MacArthur, who on his promotion in 1918 was the youngest brigadier general in the American army. Chiang Kaishek, holed up in Formosa (Taiwan) after losing China to the Communists, was already past forty in the late 1920s when he was the dominant warlord in China. Mao Zedong, who led the Chinese Red Army in its takeover of the mainland, was a comparative youngster, born in 1893. Sitting atop the burgeoning Third World as its informal spokesman was Jawaharlal Nehru of India, who was twelve in the year of Queen Victoria's death. In Japan, MacArthur had been looked upon as a head of state himself. Defeated but nominally reigning and at fifty the most junior of the older generation, Emperor Hirohito, to symbolize his subservience, paid a courtesy call upon the general twice a year.

Although anxious Democrats worried about offering a national forum for the deposed hero, Congress had invited America's senior active general, at seventy-one a near-mythic military figure, to address a joint session. Republicans, on the other hand, anticipated something approaching the Sermon on the Mount. The valedictory had been drafted in longhand by MacArthur en route, polished by aides, and typed and retyped. Old-fashioned, rolling phrases came easily to him.

In his suite at the Statler Hotel, the general inserted a few more lines despite the approaching dawn and his appointment in the House of Representatives gallery just after noon. He realized that many millions around the nation, including schoolchildren, were to have that Thursday as a holiday in order to hear him on radio, or to see him on their grainy, flickering new television sets. He wanted his words to be memorable as well as mischievous to the administration that had sacked him.

At 12:13 p.m. Jean MacArthur was conveyed to a reserved seat in the front row of the visitors' gallery; other spectators rose to applaud her. Seven minutes later the floodlights for newsreel and television cameras flashed on, and only then did the Republic's elected lawmakers, knowing now that they could be seen by history, file in. At 12:31, a minute behind schedule, the official doorkeeper cried out, "Mr. Speaker: General of the Army Douglas MacArthur!"

The ovation rivaled that of political conventions, yet subsided when it was obvious that MacArthur, with the calm confidence of an actor practiced before cameras and crowds, was ready to speak.

For thirty-four minutes, in a resonant, slow-paced voice some remembered from radio, when he staged the ceremonial Japanese surrender on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay in September 1945, he kept his Capitol and nationwide audience spellbound. "I stand on this rostrum," he began after the traditional acknowledgments, "with a sense of deep humility and great pride; humility in the wake of those great American architects of our history who have stood here before me; pride in the reflection that this forum of legislative debate represents human liberty in the purest form yet devised....I address you with neither rancor nor bitterness in the fading twilight of life with but one purpose in mind: to serve my country."

Pausing for bursts of applause that quieted only when he began anew, MacArthur contended that the real enemy in Asia was China, an imperialist nation in Communist disguise, thrusting across Asia and revealing "the same lust for expansion of power which has animated every would-be conqueror since the beginning of time." Its ideology would solve nothing for the troubled continent, he claimed: "What the people [of Asia] strive for is the opportunity for a little more food in their stomachs, a little better clothing on their backs, a little firmer roof over their heads, and the realization of the normal nationalist urge for political freedom." A UN victory, followed by peace, would bring that closer than would Communism. He made no reference to his earlier views that the Joint Chiefs of Staff felt might expand the conflict into World War III. Instead, he declared untruthfully that although he had been criticized for his strategic ideas about Korea, they were "fully shared" by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The falsehood won him a cheering, hand-clapping, foot-stamping ovation.

"There are those," he deplored, "who claim our strength is inadequate to protect both Europe and Asia, that we could not divide our effort. I can think of no greater expression of defeat. The Communist threat is a global one. Its successful advance in one sector threatens the destruction of every sector.

You cannot appease or otherwise surrender to Communism in Asia without simultaneously undermining our efforts to halt its advance in Europe." Victory had been imminent when the Chinese intervened in Korea, he said, but he had never contemplated invading Chinese territory -- something very

different from neutralizing it by bombing. The changing facts of war, he insisted, now required eliminating the "sanctuary protection given the enemy north of the Yalu." That meant China. Also, he wanted naval and economic blockades of the Chinese mainland, "air reconnaissance of China's coastal waters and of Manchuria," and the unleashing of Chiang's island-bound forces to return civil war to the mainland. All that meant widening the war, which he did not openly say; at the least it went beyond his appeals to

Washington four months earlier to permit him to destroy Chinese "industrial capacity to wage war" and to invite Chiang's restless but ineffective troops to augment UN forces in Korea. He denied that he was a warmonger. "Nothing could be further from the truth." The nation was already at war, and "In war there is no substitute for victory." (Wild applause erupted.) "There are some who, for varying reasons, would appease Red China....History teaches us with unmistakable emphasis that appeasement begets new and bloodier war." He would not settle, either, for a "sham peace" -- which, like blackmail, encouraged more exorbitant demands. "Why, my soldiers asked of me, surrender military advantages to an enemy in the field?" He paused for effect; then, dramatically, his voice turning husky, added, "I could not answer." Enraptured, audiences did not pause to imagine occasions when MacArthur might have exchanged views with ordinary soldiers. (A veteran of service under the general wrote supportively to Truman after MacArthur's dismissal that his buddies had a slogan, "Stick with Mac, and you'll never get back.")

In closing, the general reminded listeners that he had served in the military for fifty-two years, having become a West Point plebe in 1899. On April 1, from Tokyo, he had sent a message to Colonel W. E. Crist at the Academy, where he was once its commandant, to be used in connection with celebrations of West Point's 150th anniversary. "As I look beyond those fifty years to the day I joined the long grey line," he wrote, "I recall I then felt as an Army 'brat' [that] the occasion was the fulfillment of all my boyish dreams. The world has turned over many times since then and the dreams have long vanished with the passing of years...." Over the Pacific, in penning his address to Congress, it was tempting to incorporate the lines written for West Point "as I near the end of the road." "When I joined the Army, even before the turn of the century," he told his national audience, "it was the fulfillment of all my boyish hopes and dreams. The world has turned over many times since I took the oath on the Plain at West Point, and the hopes and dreams have long since vanished. But I still remember the refrain of one of the most popular barracks ballads of that day, which proclaimed, most proudly, that 'Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.' And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away -- an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty. Good-bye."

Had the occasion been a quadrennial party convention, MacArthur might have been nominated for president by acclamation. At the Capitol and at radios and television screens wherever the mesmerizing address was heard, overcome listeners sobbed. Some in the House chamber could be heard shouting "No! No!" Telephones began ringing at newspaper offices to second MacArthur's militancy; the White House switchboard was besieged by calls, most of them hostile and many of them abusive.

A few days later New York City gave the general a huge parade that showered down 2,800 tons of ticker tape and the New York Journal-American employed a full-page banner headline, in red ink, "God Bless Gen. MacArthur!" Someone in the crowd shouted, to enthusiastic cheers, "Hang that bastard Harry Truman!" Another excoriated the ex-salesman, "He's not selling shirts: he's selling us!"

From his suite in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, Herbert Hoover, seventy-seven, described MacArthur to a reporter effusively after the radio address as "the reincarnation of St. Paul into a great General of the Army who came out of the East." In the House chamber Republican representative Dewey Short of Truman's home state announced, "We heard God speak here today, God in the flesh, the voice of God." (In the Congressional Record, Short amended his encomium to "a great hunk of God in the flesh.")

Truman, claiming later that he had only read the speech as the hour

conflicted with his regular Thursday meeting with Secretary of State Dean

Acheson, dismissed the nostalgia for soldiering and the strophic farewell. "There was a lot of carrying on about that speech, and some of those damn fool Congressmen were crying like a bunch of women, but it didn't worry me at all." Truman had read an advance copy of the text, having insisted that Army Secretary Frank Pace get him one, as was the President's privilege as commander in chief. MacArthur remained an active general. "Please, Mr. President," Pace appealed, "it would be very embarrassing for me to ask the general or one of his aides....I'd really rather not."

"Frank," said Truman as if the Cabinet executive were an Army private, "I don't give a good goddamn what you'd rather. I want you to get me that speech and bring it to me. On the double."

"He went and got it, and I read it," recalled Truman. "It was nothing but a bunch of damn bullshit."

Six days later, on April 25, the Senate, more moved than was the President, voted to hold hearings on MacArthur's dismissal and on the military situation in the Far East. As opening witness the general testified for three days. He stumbled into repeated contradictions and found no eagerness among the senators for going to war with mainland China. Public interest in the hearings faded soon after MacArthur left the stand. Newspaper coverage declined. White House and congressional mail began shifting away from MacArthur, especially after widely respected Joint Chiefs chairman Omar Bradley observed to the Senate committee that the general would get the United States "in the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy." MacArthur would wait until much later to call Korea when he ran the war "Mars' last gift to an old warrior."

For MacArthur, events always took a personal twist, as Civil War historian Shelby Foote claimed to novelist Walker Percy. "Heard a funny joke. General and Mrs. MacArthur were sitting together somewhere and a band began to play 'The Star Spangled Banner.' He took her hand and said, 'Listen, darling, they're playing our song.'" By then MacArthur had moved into the Waldorf-Astoria, where at a great height he would live out his remaining years. His imperious former public relations chief in Tokyo, Major General Courtney Whitney, once his investment adviser in prewar Manila, continued to hand out press releases about MacArthur and Korea to a dwindling number of reporters, several of whom, in an idle hour, composed "The Battle Hymn of the Waldorf":

Here is the Waldorf-Astoria,

The home of the rich and the odd,

Where the press speaks only to Whitney

And Whitney speaks only to God.

While the war in Korea dragged on inconclusively, Douglas MacArthur began fading away.

Copyright © 2000 by Stanley Weintraub

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Stanley Weintraub is Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Arts and Humanities at Penn State University and the author of notable histories and biographies including 11 Days in December, Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce, MacArthur's War, Long Day's Journey into War, and A Stillness Heard Round the World: The End of the Great War. He lives in Newark, Delaware.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (November 21, 2008)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439152942

Browse Related Books

Resources and Downloads

High Resolution Images

More books from this author: Stanley Weintraub