Commentary / History

Gen. Douglas MacArthur: American System Statesman

By Steve Douglas

May 6, 2021–Americans are likely to recall Gen. Douglas MacArthur as the victorious World War II commander of American forces in the Pacific, and perhaps as the hero of the Korean War. If so, they will be shocked to learn that MacArthur became a fierce opponent of unjust wars and a forceful advocate of nation-building under American System principles.

MacArthur’s evolution as a stateman of the American System can be seen in an address, entitled “War is No Longer a Medium of Practical Settlement of International Differences,” to a civic banquet sponsored by the Los Angeles County Council of the American Legion on January 26, 1955.  In that speech, he declared that, due to scientific advances in nuclear and related weaponry, “War has become a Frankenstein to destroy both sides…. This very triumph of scientific annihilation—this very success of invention—has destroyed the possibility of war being a medium of practical settlement of international differences.” Then, “Does this mean that war can be outlawed from the world?  If so, it would mark the greatest advance in civilization since the Sermon on the Mount.”[1]

Gen. Douglas MacArthur: American System Statesman

General Douglas MacArthur

Five years earlier, on June 25, 1950, North Korea precipitated the outbreak of the Korean War by invading South Korea.  On September 15, the U.N./U.S. military forces, which had been all but driven off the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula, conducted a surprise amphibious landing at Inchon, hundreds of miles behind the North Korean front lines, in what proved to be one of the most brilliantly successful flanking counterattacks in military history.  Within a matter of weeks, the U.N./U.S. forces drove the North Korean troops back hundreds of miles, took 130,000 North Korean prisoners, and restored the pre-war boundaries between the combatants. Today, as we approach the 71st anniversary of these extraordinary developments, it is appropriate that we reflect upon the genius of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, the architect and on-site commanding officer of the Inchon Landing.

But whereas the military genius that MacArthur manifested in World War II and Korea is incontestable, it is his genius as a statesman of the American System, as he demonstrated during his tenure as Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP) in post-war Japan, that is most important and relevant for our study and appreciation today. Early in his time as SCAP, MacArthur declared, “My major advisors, now have boiled down to almost two men—George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  One founded the United States, and the other save it.  If you go back in their lives, you can find almost all the answers.”[2]

The following essay will elaborate some of the political, military, economic, spiritual, philosophical, and historical foundations of MacArthur’s statesmanship.  Prescient, far-sighted perspectives that were shared by the greatest of American Presidents and Generals, including Ulysses S Grant, George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt helped to shape MacArthur’s thinking.  His leadership in rebuilding Japan after World War II will addressed in particular detail.

The “Moral Courage” to Win the Peace

One of the greatest —and least appreciated—gifts that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave to the American people, the Japanese people, and the people of the world more broadly, was the reorganization of the U.S. military command structure in the Pacific Theater of War that he mandated on April 3, 1945, only nine days before his untimely death.  Knowing that his own death was imminent, FDR dissolved all preexisting theaters of war in the Pacific and declared General MacArthur to be the head of all ground forces in the Pacific, as the U.S. was preparing to invade the Japanese home islands and end the war.  MacArthur’s new command responsibilities meant that he, rather than Admiral Nimitz or any other U.S. Army or Marine commander, would likely become the Supreme Commander of the victorious Allied Powers that would be overseeing the occupation and reconstruction of Japan after the war ended.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur: American System Statesman

General MacArthur, FDR, and Admiral Nimitz in Hawaii, July 1944 (U.S. Naval Institute)

The decision to place General MacArthur in such an extraordinarily powerful position, represented quite a change on FDR’s part, considering how tempestuous relations between himself and MacArthur had been at various times over the preceding 13 years.  In fact, on July 29, 1932, just weeks after winning the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination, FDR told his advisor and confidante Rex Tugwell, after having concluded an exasperating discussion with Huey Long, the mercurial Democratic Governor of Louisiana, “It’s all very well for us to laugh over Huey, but we have to remember all the time, that he’s one of the two most dangerous men in the country.”  Later, when queried about his characterization of Long, FDR replied, “You heard it right… Huey is only second.  The first (most dangerous man) is Douglas MacArthur.”[3]

FDR had made it clear to Winston Churchill, according to FDR’s son Elliott, that he intended to rid the world of “British colonial methods” after the war.[4]  As FDR approached his death in April 1945, he came to realize that the man he had formerly considered to be “the most dangerous man in America” in 1932, was in fact the one man who could be relied upon to implement the post-war anti-British colonialist perspective that Roosevelt envisioned as his legacy to the world.  What a remarkable contrast that transformation of FDR’s attitude toward MacArthur constituted, relative to the rigid, mind-deadening practice of “demonization / dehumanization” of an alleged enemy, whether domestic or foreign, that characterizes the conduct of all too much of today’s political, military, and foreign policy establishments!

General MacArthur embodied the same commitment to making principled changes in policy making and thinking in military affairs that Roosevelt personified in his changed personal relationship to MacArthur.  This was most dramatically evident in MacArthur’s change in thinking with respect to the use of nuclear weapons.  Whereas in 1951, MacArthur had called for the broad use of nuclear weapons against the Communist Chinese during the Korean War, in 1956 he was insisting upon the renunciation of their use altogether.

FDR and Winston Churchill in Teheran, November 1943 (FDR Library)

MacArthur put it this way in his speech to the Los Angeles American Legion:

I recall so vividly this problem when it faced the Japanese in their new Constitution. They are realists; and they are the only ones that know by dread experience the fearful effect of mass annihilation. They realize in their limited geographical area, caught up as a sort of no-man’s land between two great ideologies, that to engage in another war, whether on the winning or the losing side, would spell the probable doom of their country.  And their wise old Prime Minister, Shidehara, came to me and urged that they should abolish war as an international instrument.  When I agreed, he turned to me and said, “The world will laugh and mock us as impractical visionaries, but a hundred years from now we will be called prophets.”

Sooner or later, the world, if it is to survive, must reach this decision.  The only question is, When? Must we fight again before we learn? When will some great figure have sufficient imagination and moral courage to translate this universal wish – which is rapidly becoming a universal necessity – into actuality? We are in a new era.  The old methods and solutions no longer suffice.  We must have new thoughts, new ideas, new concepts, just as did our venerated forefathers when they faced a New World.  We must break out of the straitjacket of the past.  There must always be one to lead, and we should be that one.  We should now proclaim our readiness to abolish war in concert with the great powers of the world.  The result would be magical.”[5] (emphasis added)

The Japanese did indeed “renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation” in their new constitution, as Prime Minister Shidehara had said they would. Article 9 of Chapter 11 of the new Constitution read: “Aspiring sincerely to an international peace based on justice and order, the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.  In order to accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained.  The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.”[6]

President Eisenhower giving his farewell address in 1961.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed this issue, albeit from a slightly different vantage point, when he warned the American people about the growing power of the “military-industrial complex” in the United States, in his famous farewell address  of Jan. 17, 1961:

Now the conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.  The total influence —economic, political, even spiritual —is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the Federal government.  We recognize the need for this development.  Yet, we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved.  So is the very structure of our society.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence whether sought or unsought, of the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.  We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.  We should take nothing for granted.  Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together. (emphasis added)

Anti-Imperialism from Grant to MacArthur

It is totally lawful that the families of America’s two greatest military leaders/statesmen of the 19th and 20th centuries were as closely related to one another as they were. That relationship extended to a visceral rejection of British imperialism and its methods.

Judge Arthur MacArthur, the grandfather of Douglas MacArthur, was a close personal friend of President Ulysses S Grant.  In 1872, he introduced Grant to his son Arthur, a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor in recognition of his heroic conduct at the Battle of Missionary Ridge in Tennessee in 1863.

By the 1880s, Captain Arthur MacArthur was seeking to be redeployed away from America’s quiescent western frontier.  So, Judge MacArthur arranged for a meeting with (retired) President Grant, to discuss prospects for other assignments for his son.  Grant recommended that Captain MacArthur seek a posting to China as U.S. military attaché.  The Captain had read extensively about the Far East and was thrilled with the idea.

Former President Grant on his trip to Asia, with Chinese Governor-General Li Hongzhang. (Library of Congress)

Grant himself had considerable personal knowledge of the region, as a consequence of the world tour that he took in 1877, 1878, and 1879, after leaving the White House.  He was appalled at the ravages of the colonial policy of the British Empire that he witnessed around the globe:

As I was traveling through the East, I tried hard to find something in the policy of the English government to approve.  But I could not… England’s policy in the East is hard, reactionary, and selfish.  No one can visit these wonderful lands … without seeing what they might be, under a good government… As I understand the Eastern Question, the great obstacle to the good government of these countries is England…(I) have seen things that made my blood boil, in the way the European powers attempt to degrade the Asiatic nations…Rights which at home we regard as essential to our independence and to our national existence, are denied to China and Japan.  Among these rights, there is none so important as the right to control commerce…. We have great interests in the Pacific, but we have none that are inconsistent with the independence of these nations.[7]  (emphasis added)

Grant’s anti-colonial outlook was shared wholeheartedly by Arthur MacArthur, just as it was later embraced by Arthur’s son, Douglas.

At Grant’s urging, Arthur drafted a 44-page “Chinese Memorandum” on U.S. industrial policy and its proper policy toward China, reflecting the foregoing outlook.  Grant, in turn, personally submitted it to the President.  The Memorandum did not secure MacArthur the post as military attaché to China, but it did contribute to the deliberations on how the United States could counteract British imperialism in Asia.

When the Spanish-American War erupted in 1898, Arthur MacArthur was deployed to the Philippine Islands theater of conflict.  In 1900, the newly promoted General MacArthur became military commander and governor of the Philippines, which on Dec. 10, 1898, had become a U.S. possession.  MacArthur came into bitter conflict with the aggressively Anglophile imperialist William Howard Taft, the President of the Second Philippine Commission, in a harbinger of the conflict that his son Douglas was to wage against President Harry Truman and his Anglophile advisors in the U.S. State Department during the Korean War.

In 1905, that same Taft, acting in his new capacity as U.S. Secretary of War, deployed Arthur MacArthur on an eight-month, 19,949- mile tour of Asia, in order to keep him out of the Philippines.  Ironically, it was this Taft-directed “trip in temporary exile,” that Arthur’s son Douglas subsequently referred to as “without doubt, the most important factor of preparation for my entire life.”  Because Douglas, who had graduated from West Point in 1903, accompanied his father as his aide-de-camp.  Arthur, whose personal library exceeded 4,000 volumes, insisted that Douglas acquire and read every book possible, to learn about the countries that they were visiting.  In the evenings during their trip, they read, conferred, and analyzed their experiences. By the conclusion of their odyssey, they had read dozens of books about the countries whose leaders they had just met.

Gen. Arthur MacArthur: American System Statesman

Douglas’s father, Arthur MacArthur

Years later, Douglas elaborated on the significance of the trip:

We saw the strength and the weakness of the colonial system, how it brought law and order, but failed to develop the masses along the essential lines of education and political economy…

The true historic significance and the sense of destiny that these lands of the western Pacific and Indian Ocean now assumed, became part of me.  They were to color and influence all the days of my life…. It was crystal clear to me that the future and, indeed, the very existence of America, were irrevocably entwined within Asia, and its island outposts.[8]

Making Peace in Japan

The thinking that guided Douglas MacArthur in his fight to secure a durable peace in Japan, from Day One of the Occupation on Sept. 2, 1945, until the formal signing of the peace treaty in 1951, was succinctly summarized in a message which MacArthur directed to the War Department on Feb. 20, 1947.  During the prior months, the general had diverted, on an emergency basis, large quantities of U.S. Army food which had been stockpiled in the Pacific for consumption by U.S. military personnel, for immediate use by the starving Japanese people.  Some members of Congress complained about the utilization of U.S. military food supplies, to feed former enemies.  MacArthur addressed their complaints, in part, as follows:

There is a popular misconception that the achievement of victory in modern war, wherein a clash of ideologies is involved, is solely dependent upon victory in the field.  History itself clearly refutes this concept.  It offers unmistakable proof that the human impulses which generated the will to war, no less than the material sinews of war, must be destroyed.  Nor is it sufficient that such human impulses merely yield to the temporary shock of military defeat.  There must be a complete spiritual reformation, such as will not only control the defeated generation but will exert a dominant influence upon the generation to follow as well.  Unless this is done, victory is but partially complete and offers hope for little more than an armistice between one campaign and the next. …

MacArthur added: “My professional military knowledge was no longer a major factor.  I had to be an economist, a political scientist, and engineer, a manufacturing executive, a teacher, even a theologian of sorts.  I had to rebuild a nation that had been almost completely destroyed by the war….  It was clear that the experiment in Japan must go far beyond the primary purpose of the Allies – (which had initially been defined as) the destruction of Japan’s ability to wage another war and punishment of war criminals.” (emphasis added)[9]

In articulating this perspective, MacArthur was echoing the nation-building orientation that was the hallmark of Abraham Lincoln’s and Ulysses S Grant’s shared outlook.   What all three of them shared, along with other great American generals and statesmen including George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower, was a perspective for promoting scientifically grounded, strategically vectored economic development as the engine for the growth and harmonious relations of the nations and populations for which they were responsible.  The contrast between their “peace through development” outlook, and the “destroy through the use of ever more murderous weapons of mass destruction” outlook of the acolytes and apostles of the military-industrial complex, could not have been starker.

A painting of The Last Spike being driven in the Transcontinental Railroad. Painting by Thomas Hill, 1881. (public domain)

Consider, for example, the leading roles that Lincoln and Grant played in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States between 1862 and its completion on May 10, 1869. They oversaw the successful construction of the largest development project in the history of mankind, while the nation was being ripped asunder by a Civil War that was fueled by British and French support for the Confederacy!

Moreover, President Lincoln told a group on Congressmen in 1864, while the outcome of the War was still in doubt, that what he was most proud of in his first four years in office was the ongoing construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.  He saw it as a strategic economic undertaking that would bind the vast expanses of North America together in such a way that it could never be ravaged by foreign-backed sectional threats of dissolution again.  And he was particularly proud of the fact that federal government-backed credit financed the project at a time when, given the record budgetary outlays the government was already making to pay for the war effort as such, many small-minded people had claimed that such a large project was impossible on strictly budgetary grounds!

And, of course, President Washington acted with a similar nation-building perspective, as he supported the establishment of the First National Bank that Alexander Hamilton proposed and advanced his plans for the Potomac Canal to link the Western lands with the East Coast.

The chief source of difficulty and opposition which MacArthur confronted, as he presided over the reconstruction and transformation of Japan, emanated not from Japan, nor from Moscow, not from Peking, nor even from London.  Rather, it came from Washington, D.C. –President Harry Truman, to be specific.  It was Truman’s abandonment of President Roosevelt’s perspective to rid the world of the British, Dutch, Portuguese, and French colonial empires by supporting sovereign nation-states around the world through the application of American System economic principles and methods, which was the ultimate source of MacArthur’s problems as Supreme Commander of Allied Powers (SCAP).

Gen. Douglas MacArthur: American System Statesman

President Truman pins a medal on MacArthur in October of 1950. (Truman Library)

Notwithstanding his nominal appreciation for MacArthur’s military accomplishments, President Truman harbored a visceral aversion for the general.  Truman confided to his diary in 1945 that, MacArthur (whom he had never met) was “Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat, Five Star MacArthur, … play actor and bunco man.”  This attitude pervaded all of President Truman’s relations with MacArthur, right up until he relieved him of his command in April 1951.

Reform and Reconstruction of Japan-Sparta

MacArthur found Japan to be “more nearly akin to ancient Sparta than to any modern nation.”  Consulting Plato, who had written much about how to overcome the evil that was Spartan society, MacArthur embarked upon a series of great reforms that profoundly altered Japanese political, spiritual, and economic life.  He admitted to consulting two others as well:

My major advisors now have boiled down to almost two men—George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  One founded the United States, and the other saved it.  If you go back in their lives, you can find almost all the answers.

MacArthur was unrelenting in his insistence, from the first day that he assumed responsibility as SCAP, that the Japanese government continue to govern in uninterrupted fashion. He saw his fundamental mission as helping Japan to change itself from within, not simply acquiesce to demands made from without, by SCAP.

MacArthur was hampered in his efforts by the original directive from Washington which delineated his responsibilities as SCAP. These specified that he should not “Assume any responsibility for the economic rehabilitation or the strengthening of the Japanese economy”!  That prohibition, along with the fact that MacArthur received less than one-fourth the amount of aid, per capita, for Japan, relative to that which was allocated by the U.S. to reconstruction efforts in West Germany, during the first three years after the war, represented major constraints that the General had to overcome.

Moreover, MacArthur constantly had to combat insane recommendations, like the 1946 Pauley Commission Report on Reparations, which was heartily endorsed by President Truman.  Pauley insisted that Japan’s heavy industry should not be allowed to develop beyond 10% of the level that it was in 1935!

Gen. Douglas MacArthur: American System Statesman

Hungry Japanese line up for food. (donated by Corbis-Bettmann)

Nonetheless, MacArthur undertook several initiatives and reforms during the early period of the occupation that were to have a lasting impact on Japanese life.

  • Public Health. The massive emergency sanitation and immunization program which MacArthur mandated, that was overseen by U.S. Army physician Dr. Crawford Sans, achieved extraordinary results.  Within two years, cholera was wiped out, tuberculosis deaths were down by 88%, diphtheria by 86%, and typhoid by 90%.  Sans estimated that during this first two-year period, the control of communicable diseases alone saved 2.1 million lives.  The life expectancy of men had been increased by eight years, and of women by nearly 14 years, a phenomenon, in San’s words, that was ‘unequaled in any country in the world in medical history in a comparable period of time.”
  • Land Reform. Regarding the agricultural domain, MacArthur found that “Japan’s feudalistic regime was most evident in the matter of landholding … a system of virtual slavery that went back to ancient times was still in existence.  Most farmers in Japan were either out-and-out serfs, or they worked under an arrangement through which the landowners extorted a high percentage of each year’s crops.”  A rural oligarchy of 160,000 absentee landlords, each of whom, on the average, owned 36 farms, controlled the countryside and all its produce.

With MacArthur’s prodding, the Diet (parliament) passed a law which compelled all absentee landlords to sell their holdings to the government, at extremely low, non-inflation adjusted prices.  Each acre sold for the equivalent of a black-market carton of cigarettes!  The government then offered purchase options to the tenant-farmers, at the same price.  The tenant-farmers were granted thirty-year lines of credit, at 3.2% interest, to facilitate the purchases.  The buyers were required, by law, to farm their land themselves.  Farm sizes ranged from 7.5 to 30 acres.  By this process, tenants acquired over 5 million acres from the former absentee landowners.  As a result, proclaimed a proud MacArthur, 89% of the country’s farmland finally belonged to the people who were farming it.

MacArthur historically situated his effort in this realm, by stating, “I don’t think that since the Gracchi effort of land reform in the days of the Roman Empire, there has been anything so successful of that nature.”

  • MacArthur insisted on strict separation of Church and State, along with absolute freedom of religion.
  • MacArthur encouraged the establishment of labor unions, which grew rapidly.  The Trade Union Law of December 1945 guaranteed the rights of workers to organize trade unions.  While only 100,000 Japanese workers were unionized in “company-type” unions in 1941, and only 707 workers were members of unions in October 1945, fully 6.3 million—48% of the non-agricultural workforce—were

The Japanese Diet (parliament) passed many of the laws which MacArthur proposed, revolutionizing Japanese society. (wikimedia commons)

  • Constitutional Reform. The new constitution, which went into effect in the spring of 1947, was referred to by MacArthur, 17 years later, as “probably the single most important accomplishment of the Occupation.”  It included a bill of rights, modeled upon that of the U.S. Constitution; stipulated the separation of powers of the legislature, executive, and judicial branches of government; severely delimited the powers of the Emperor and his family; eliminated titles of nobility and peerage, with the exception of the Emperor’s family; and included a prohibition on offensive war, along with many other landmark reforms and changes in Japanese political life.  Its guarantee of the right to vote for women, dramatically altered the political landscape in Japan.  Whereas in elections in 1928, only 12.4 million males were eligible to vote; in 1946, 36.9 million men and women over the age of 20 were eligible to cast their ballots.  MacArthur referred to this change in the legal status of women as the ‘most heartwarming” of all the changes brought about by the Occupation.
  • Economic Reform. A central included feature of MacArthur’s reconstruction program was his plan to break up the immense financial power that was concentrated in the hands of 10 of Japan’s most powerful families—the Zaibatsu (literally, financial cliques or combines).  MacArthur characterized these families as practicing a form of “private socialism.”  A postwar study determined that “through 67 holding companies and over 4,000 operating subsidiaries and affiliates, the Zaibatsu families at the end of the war asserted effective control over 75% of Japan’s financial, industrial, and commercial activities.”

Sabotage

While MacArthur made some progress with these institutional measures, his effort was ultimately aborted by various U.S. Eastern Establishment families, operating through their agents in the State Department, Newsweek magazine, and elsewhere.

Undersecretary of the Army William Draper, who had been a long-time investment banker with the New York firm of Dillon Reed, and George Kennan, a “policy planner” at the State Department and the architect of the “containment” doctrine against the Soviet Union, collaborated with Newsweek international affairs editor Harry R. Kern, to plant a sensationalist article against MacArthur on Dec. 1, 1947. It was entitled, “Lawyer’s Report Attacks Plans to Run Occupation…. Far to Left of Anything Now Tolerated in America.”

Newsweek continued the campaign to bring down MacArthur until he was fired. 

Kern’s article quoted extensively from the classified FEC-230 document, which mandated the economic “deconcentration” or breakup of the Zaibatsu.  Senator William F. Knowland of California led the charge in the Senate against FEC-230 and demanded “a full-scale investigation of American Policy in Japan,” The uproar created by Newsweek and Knowland, proved to be enough to derail MacArthur’s policy in this realm.

Thus, ironically, it was MacArthur’s pursuit of the same policy FDR used against the electric utility trusts in the United States, which played a major role in his downfall.

Think Like MacArthur

It was the quality of MacArthur’s mind, which was his greatest weapon, in both war and peace.  Just as his tactical undertakings in any particular military theater, were always subsumed by a strategy for winning the entire war, so his thinking in victory was to carry out those policies which would which secure a durable peace. It is that kind of American System thinking, which he shared with his mentor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, that we urgently need to restore today.

[1] A Soldier Speaks—Public Papers and Speeches of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, pp. 314-315

[2] William Manchester, American Caesar, p. 562.

[3] The Most Dangerous Man in America by Mark Perry, pg. xi

[4] As He Saw It by Elliott Roosevelt, 1946.

[5] A Soldier Speaks, p. 310.

[6] MacArthur, His Rendezvous with History, by Major General Courtney Whitney, pp. 258-259.

[7] Around the World with General Grant by John Russell Young

[8] Douglas MacArthur, Reminiscences.

[9] Douglas MacArthur, Reminiscences, pp. 281-282.

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