Tuesday, October 20, 2009

This Day in World War II History (MacArthur Returns)

October 20, 1944—Splashing ashore in knee-deep water, in long, powerful strides, General Douglas MacArthur made good on his promise of two years before when he was compelled to abandon the fortress of Corregidor: “I shall return.”

Nobody could accuse the general of cowardice, and the “island-hopping strategy” in the South Pacific that brought him back to the Philippines—bypassing heavily fortified Japanese strongholds for more vulnerable points—saved thousands of American lives.

But, characteristically, MacArthur’s return—a huge morale booster for a Filipino population suffering under misrule under the Empire of the Rising Sun—was also marked by histrionics. Dwight D. Eisenhower, an aide to MacArthur during the 1930s, remarked that he had studied dramatics under the general—and you can see it in how the Pacific commander prepared for his landing and what he did upon getting to shore.

All through the morning, the general watched 200,000 of his troops offload seven miles off the shore of Leyte Gulf. At last, after his luncheon, he decided to come in with the third wave of the landings.

Just before he went in, he signaled to his public-relations staff: “Regard publicity set-up as excellent. I desire to broadcast from beach as soon as apparatus can be set up. After I have done so you can use records made to broadcast to the U.S. and to the Philippines at such times and in such ways as you deem best.”

After wading ashore, MacArthur repeated his dramatic walk. Why would he do so, particularly when snipers could have cut him down? Why, for the benefit of newsreel cameras, of course!

Standing by his side was the President of the Philippines, Sergio Osmena, who had been unable to persuade the great man that it might be safer to wait until the troops had eliminated Japanese resistance before they waded in. Now, with a mobile broadcast unit set up, MacArthur was ready to speak: “People of the Philippines: I have returned.”

The general continued for a few sentences, paying tribute to the “unswerving and resolute devotion to the principles of freedom” demonstrated by Filipino patriots. But what must have stood out for many a listener was this short sentence: “Rally to me.”

Somewhere along the line, MacArthur had forgotten that there is no “I” in “team,” nor in “Army.” His egomania was such that he had already been seriously contemplating running for President against Franklin Roosevelt, his commander in chief.

Military historian Max Hastings’ judgment on the general in Retribution: The Battle for Japan 1944-1945 is not without harsh truth: “MacArthur displayed a taste for fantasy quite unsuited to a field commander, together with ambition close to megalomania and consistently poor judgement as a picker of subordinates.”

David McCullough’s view, however, rings with truth, too: “There's no question about his patriotism, there's no question about his courage, and there's no question, it seems to me, about his importance as one of the protagonists of the 20th century."

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