The Debate

Douglas MacArthur and the Pivot to Asia

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The Debate

Douglas MacArthur and the Pivot to Asia

The controversial general would have applauded the U.S. commitment to the Asia-Pacific.

Douglas MacArthur and the Pivot to Asia
Credit: U.S. Army Signal Corps officer Gaetano Faillace

Douglas MacArthur is known as a brilliant and controversial general, but not as a geopolitical visionary. Throughout his lengthy and distinguished military career, however, MacArthur envisioned geopolitical factors that he believed would result in a U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific region.

In April 1904, shortly after MacArthur graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, he accompanied his father, Lieutenant General Arthur MacArthur, Jr., on an official tour of Asia. General Arthur MacArthur, who won the Medal of Honor as a 19-year-old lieutenant in the Union Army during the American Civil War and who had commanded U.S. forces in putting down the Philippine insurrection, was in Japan to observe the Russo-Japanese War. Douglas recalled in his memoirs, Reminiscences, that he and his father traveled from Japan to Hong Kong, Singapore, Rangoon, Calcutta, Peshwar, Quetta, Bombay, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Madras, Colombo, Java, Siam, Indochina, and Shanghai. “We were nine months in travel,” MacArthur wrote, “traversing countless miles of lands so rich in color, so fabled in legend, so vital to history that the experience was without doubt the most important factor of preparation in my entire life.” He continued:

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. Here lived almost half the population of the world, with probably more than half of the raw products to sustain future generations. Here was western civilization’s last earth frontier. It was crystal clear to me that the future and, indeed, the very existence of America, were irrevocably entwined with Asia and its island outposts.

After distinguished service with the army in Mexico and having commanded the famous Rainbow Division in France during the First World War, and following a stint as superintendent at West Point, MacArthur in October 1922 arrived in Manila where he served as commander of the Military District of Manila, the Philippine Scout Brigade, and later the 23rd Infantry Brigade of the Philippine Division. In the mid-1920s, he was back in the continental United States where he participated in the court-martial of pioneering airman Billy Mitchell, served as president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and returned to the Philippines as commander of all U.S. Army forces on the islands.

In 1930, President Herbert Hoover appointed MacArthur as chief of staff of the Army. Despite MacArthur’s controversial role in forcibly removing the “bonus marchers” in Washington, D.C., President Franklin Roosevelt kept him on as chief of staff. MacArthur clashed frequently with FDR over budget matters. On one occasion, he boldly told the president that in the next war, when an American soldier was laying in the mud with a bayonet through his stomach and spitting-out his last curse, the name he would be cursing would not be MacArthur, but Roosevelt.

In 1935, MacArthur returned to the Philippines to lead American forces there. Except for a brief trip home to get married in 1937, he would not return to the continental United States again until 1951. During that time period, he commanded Filipino and American forces on the islands. After the Japanese invasion of the Philippines, MacArthur was ordered to escape to Australia where he marshaled forces and planned strategy to defeat the Japanese in the southwest Pacific and retake the Philippines. After the war, he served as Supreme Commander for Allied Powers in Japan where he oversaw the creation of a new constitution and democratic government, understanding that a revived and Westernized Japan was crucial to U.S. security in the Asia-Pacific region.

When the North Koreans, with Soviet and Chinese backing, attacked South Korea in June 1950, MacArthur was appointed Supreme Commander of U.S. and UN forces fighting the communists. He held that position until he was removed by President Harry Truman in April 1951 for publicly criticizing the constraints imposed on Allied forces and engaging in diplomacy not approved by the administration.

In his memorable address to Congress after his removal, MacArthur emphasized the importance of Asia and the Pacific to America’s future. “While Asia is commonly referred to as the gateway to Europe,” he said, “it is no less true that Europe is the gateway to Asia, and the broad influence of the one cannot fail to have its impact upon the other.” The peoples of Asia, he continued, have thrown off the shackles of colonialism “and now see the dawn of new opportunity.” He noted that Asia had “half the earth’s population and 60 percent of its natural resources,” and with its progress “the whole epicenter of world affairs rotates back toward the area whence it started.”

The U.S. “strategic frontier,” he stressed, has shifted “to embrace the entire Pacific Ocean,” which he described as “a vast moat to protect us as long as we hold it.” The U.S. controls the Pacific to the shores of Asia “by a chain of islands extending in an arc from the Aleutians to the Marianas” from which “we can dominate with sea and air power every Asiatic port from Vladivostok to Singapore and prevent any hostile movement into the Pacific.” The Pacific Ocean under such conditions, he explained, “no longer represents menacing avenues of approach for a prospective invader,” but  “assumes . . . the friendly aspect of a peaceful lake.” MacArthur warned, however, that this western Pacific defense line was vulnerable if any major breach occurred. In particular, he said, under no circumstances must Formosa (Taiwan) fall under enemy control.

In his memoirs, MacArthur called the decision to withhold aid to the Nationalists in China and our refusal to resist to Mao’s communist armies in the late 1940s as “one of the greatest mistakes ever made in our history.” The communist conquest of China, he lamented, “was the beginning of the crumbling of our power in continental Asia,” and he expressed the belief that “its consequences will be felt for centuries, and its ultimate disastrous effects on the fortunes of the free world are still to be unfolded.” In his address to Congress, MacArthur judged Chinese communist leaders to have “the same lust for the expansion of power which has animated every would-be conqueror since the beginning of time.”

MacArthur believed that America’s destiny was primarily as a Pacific and Asian power. During his lifetime (1880-1964), the United States fought four wars in the Asia-Pacific region and greatly increased its economic interests there. Were he alive today – with China and India rising, the U.S.-Japanese alliance as strong as ever, a still divided and unstable Korean peninsula, and the struggles for control of the Asian littoral – he undoubtedly would applaud the U.S. pivot to Asia, and could take some satisfaction in having predicted it many years ago.