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Douglas MacArthur (1880–1964)

by David Horner

This article was published:

Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), by unknown photographer

Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), by unknown photographer

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library

Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), army officer, was born on 26 January 1880 at Little Rock, Arkansas, United States of America, third son of Captain Arthur MacArthur, an army officer who rose to lieutenant general, and his wife Mary Pinkney, née Hardy. Douglas entered the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York, in 1899 and graduated first in his class in 1903. As a junior engineer officer, he served in the Philippines, accompanied his father on a tour of Asia and commanded a company of engineers in Kansas. In 1913 he joined the General Staff of the War Department, Washington, and in 1914 took a prominent part in the Veracruz expedition in Mexico. He was a major at the War Department in 1917 when America entered World War I.

In August that year MacArthur was promoted colonel of infantry and made chief of staff of the 42nd ('Rainbow') Division, with which he served on operations in France from February 1918. As a brigadier-general (August 1918), he led the 84th Brigade in several offensives, then assumed command of the 42nd Division shortly before the Armistice was declared. Twice wounded, he had been conspicuous in the front line, and had won the Distinguished Service Cross (twice), the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star (seven times) and various foreign decorations.

Unlike many others, MacArthur retained his wartime rank and in mid-1919 became superintendent of the military academy. He completely overhauled its structure and curriculum. In 1922-30 he held senior commands in the Philippines and the U.S.A., and was president of the American Olympic Committee for the 1928 Amsterdam games. Promoted general, he was appointed chief of staff, U.S. Army, in November 1930. He served presidents Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and argued strenuously for funds during the Depression.

In 1935 MacArthur became military adviser to the new Commonwealth of the Philippines. On his retirement from the U.S. Army in 1937, he continued as field marshal in the Philippine Army. Aged 61, in July 1941 he was recalled to the U.S. Army and appointed major general (general from December), commanding all American and local forces in the Philippines. The Japanese attacked in December. MacArthur has been criticized for his conduct of the Philippines campaign, especially for allowing his air forces to be caught on the ground by Japanese bombers and for overestimating the capabilities of his Filipino troops. His men were still holding out on the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island when, in March 1942, Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to go to Australia. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honour.

On 21 March MacArthur arrived in Melbourne. Next month he was formally appointed supreme commander of the South-West Pacific Area, with authority over all allied naval, land and air forces in the theatre. In placing the Australian forces under MacArthur, the Federal government surrendered a large measure of sovereignty, but, considering Australia's limited strength and the magnitude of the Japanese threat, there was no real alternative. MacArthur established a close relationship with Prime Minister John Curtin, promising him that 'we two, you and I, will see this thing through together . . . You take care of the rear and I will handle the front'. Initially, the strategic ideas and ambitions of this foreign general were almost the same as those of the Labor government.

General Sir Thomas Blamey was the sole Australian to be appointed as one of MacArthur's three immediate subordinates—he was given command of the Allied Land Forces. Curtin established the Prime Minister's War Conference as the senior decision-making body, but it met rarely after July 1942. The conference consisted of Curtin, MacArthur and the secretary of the Department of Defence, (Sir) Frederick Shedden. Aloof, highly intelligent, variously hated and loved throughout the U.S. Army, MacArthur believed that it was his destiny to lead the Allies to victory in the Pacific, having vowed to the people of the Philippines, 'I shall return'. His air commander in 1942, Lieutenant General George H. Brett, thought that he was 'a brilliant, temperamental egoist; a handsome man, who can be as charming as anyone who ever lived, or harshly indifferent to the needs and desires of those around' him. Everything about MacArthur was on a 'grand scale'—his 'virtues and triumphs and shortcomings'.

MacArthur was also a man of personal contradictions. His first marriage, on 14 February 1922 at Palm Beach, Florida, to a divorcee Henriette Louise Cromwell Brooks, had ended in divorce in 1929. Conservative, moralistic and apparently religious, when he was chief of staff he had kept a young Eurasian mistress Isabel Rosario Cooper in a Washington hotel while his mother lived at his official residence. On 30 April 1937 in a civil ceremony in New York he married Jean Marie Faircloth, some twenty years his junior, to whom he was devoted; their only child Arthur was born in the following year. In January 1942 MacArthur had secretly accepted $US 500,000 from Manuel Quezon, the Philippines' president, as a 'recompense and reward' from the Filipino people.

While living in Australia, MacArthur became the focus of public attention. His demands were fulfilled; his press communiqués provided the main source of military information; and Australian and American forces responded to his directions. MacArthur's prestige and influence in the U.S.A. meant that large numbers of troops were dispatched to Australia where they had a considerable and long-lasting impact on its society. In July 1942 he moved his headquarters from Melbourne to Brisbane in preparation for an offensive to regain Rabaul, but the Japanese pre-empted him. Landing in the Buna-Gona region of Papua in July, they struck inland, heading for Port Moresby. MacArthur and Blamey hurried to reinforce the Territory's defences. The Australians repelled a Japanese landing at Milne Bay in August.

The Papuan campaign did not show MacArthur at his best. After the defeat in the Philippines, he feared that another failure would result in his being superseded. Questioning the fighting qualities of the poorly supplied Australian troops, who were being driven back over the Owen Stanley Range, he asked Curtin to send Blamey to Port Moresby to take personal command. The Australians had in fact fought well, but Blamey relieved Lieutenant General (Sir) Sydney Rowell of his command. MacArthur then directed additional forces to New Guinea, including an American division. Faced with MacArthur's demands for more speed, Blamey relieved two other senior officers. For the final stages of the campaign, MacArthur moved to Port Moresby, and in dramatic fashion told his American corps commander Lieutenant General Robert L. Eichelberger: 'If you don't take Buna, I want to hear that you are buried there!'

By contrast with the Papuan campaign, the New Guinea offensives of 1943 were a brilliant orchestration of Australian and American sea, land and air forces. Australia provided the bulk of the ground forces until April 1944, after which the Americans bore the brunt of the fighting. Taking advantage of excellent signals intelligence and of MacArthur's hunches, his troops landed in areas where the Japanese were weakest. As the Americans approached the Philippines, MacArthur promised Curtin that Australians would take part in the islands' recapture, but that never came to pass. MacArthur was unwilling to allow the Australians to play a major role in the recovery of American territory. In September he met with Curtin in Canberra for the last time. On 20 October MacArthur went ashore on the first day of the U.S. landing at Leyte Gulf in the Philippines.

Promoted general of the army in December 1944, MacArthur directed Blamey to use more forces to garrison the Japanese-held areas of New Britain, Bougainville and New Guinea than the Australian commander thought necessary. He also ordered Australian troops to land at Tarakan and at Brunei Bay, Borneo, in May and June. Blamey opposed plans for a final landing at Balikpapan in July, but MacArthur advised the Australian government that cancelling the operation would 'disorganize completely' the strategic plan of the joint chiefs of staff. The Australian government approved the proposed landing, unaware that MacArthur had previously told the joint chiefs that, if they disallowed the operation, it would 'produce grave repercussions with the Australian government and people'.

On 2 September 1945 MacArthur accepted Japan's surrender aboard the battleship, Missouri, in Tokyo Bay. Blamey, and senior naval and air force officers, represented Australia. MacArthur became supreme commander for the Allied Powers, responsible for the occupation of Japan and the creation of a democracy there. An Australian, Lieutenant General (Sir) John Northcott, commanded the British Commonwealth Occupation Force.

When the Korean War began in June 1950, MacArthur was given the United Nations Command, consisting mainly of U.S. forces. At first Australia provided two warships, an infantry battalion and—at MacArthur's express request—a fighter squadron. In an effort to break the North Korean offensive, and against all advice, he planned a daring amphibious landing at Inchon, near Seoul, far behind the North Korean front line. Conducted in September, it was an outstanding success: the North Koreans were driven back, almost to the Chinese border, with the Australian battalion playing a prominent role. MacArthur had been lucky.

Then the Chinese crossed their border in October 1950 and threw the United Nations forces back in disarray. In the New Year the U.N. line was stabilized south of Seoul. MacArthur called for bombing-raids on China. While the U.S. government was talking of a political settlement, he announced that there was 'no substitute for victory'. On 11 April 1951 President Harry S. Truman relieved him of his command.

MacArthur returned to the United States to a hero's welcome. He was 71 and his military career was over. In an address to Congress he promised to 'fade away—an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty'. Survived by his wife and son, he died on 5 April 1964 in Washington; his tomb is in the old court-house at Norfolk, Virginia. One of the most enigmatic military leaders of the twentieth century, MacArthur has been the subject of over fifty biographies. His Reminiscences were published in New York in 1964. Between 1942 and 1945 he had been the dominant figure in Australia's conduct of World War II. Few figures who have spent less than three years in this country have had such an impact on Australian life.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Long, MacArthur as Military Commander (Syd, 1969)
  • D. C. James, The Years of MacArthur (Boston, 1970, 1975, 1985)
  • W. Manchester, American Caesar (Boston, 1978)
  • C. M. Petillo, Douglas MacArthur (Bloomington, Indiana, 1981)
  • D. M. Horner, High Command (Canb, 1982)
  • E. Rasor, General Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964 (Westport, Connecticut, 1994) for bibliography
  • G. Perrett, Old Soldiers Never Die (NY, 1996)
  • MacArthur papers (MacArthur Memorial, Norfolk, Virginia)
  • Blamey papers (Australian War Memorial)
  • Shedden papers (National Archives of Australia)
  • Sutherland papers (United States National Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Horner, 'MacArthur, Douglas (1880–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), by unknown photographer

Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964), by unknown photographer

John Curtin Prime Ministerial Library

Life Summary [details]


26 January, 1880
Little Rock, Arkansas, United States of America


5 April, 1964 (aged 84)
Washington, District of Columbia, United States of America

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