Liberator or ‘Dugout Doug’?: MacArthur’s legacy in the Philippines revisited

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Here are five controversies you probably didn't know about the general. Photo from INTRAMUROS ADMINISTRATION/FACEBOOK

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — World War II ended 75 years ago on September 2, when Japan signed the Instrument of Surrender aboard the USS Missouri. In his speech, General Douglas MacArthur, supreme commander of the Allied Forces, recalled how the Japanese succumbed to its imperialist aspirations:

“But alas, the knowledge thereby gained of Western science was forged into an instrument of oppression and human enslavement. Freedom of expression, freedom of action, even freedom of thought were denied through appeal to superstition, and through the application of force.”

Today, MacArthur’s warning is eerily resonant. Myths of supremacy still drive nations to exclude and take advantage of others. Tyrants create cults of personality to rally their base and oppress their enemies.

MacArthur was himself prone to such delusions. Historian William Manchester called him the “American Caesar,” extolled for his genius and bravery, but fatally flawed in his hubris and ambition.

Here in the Philippines, where collective memory of the war is quickly fading, MacArthur’s legacy remains steadfast. He is best known for making and keeping his promise to Filipinos: “I shall return.” This earned the respect and adulation from the people, who even named him then as “Defender and Liberator of the Philippines.”

Recently, the Intramuros Administration held an online event with historians to discuss MacArthur’s mixed yet enduring legacy. Here are five controversies you probably didn't know about the general.

Quezon, MacArthur, and the $500,000 payment

Manuel Quezon was so sure of winning the presidency in 1935 that he asked his long-time friend MacArthur a year prior to beef up the Philippines’ national defense. Ricardo Jose, professor at UP Diliman’s Department of History, said that MacArthur probably saw the post as an “adventure,” having already reached the heights of military service as Chief of Staff. It was also a homecoming of sorts for the general, who started his military career in the country in 1903.

MacArthur, who requested Quezon for “adequate living quarters,” was given the luxurious penthouse suite of the Manila Hotel. (The room is still available for guests.) The two were even compadres, acting as godparents to each other’s sons.

But just as world war became more imminent, MacArthur was suddenly hard to reach for Quezon. Jose said that MacArthur was probably “distracted,” spending more time with his family and watching movies. This frayed ties between the two, as Quezon sought counsel from other officers of the Philippine Army and Major Dwight Eisenhower, MacArthur’s chief aide.

MacArthur and Quezon would later reconcile after Japan’s surprise attack on the Philippines. Quezon even gave MacArthur a payment of $500,000 for his services to the Commonwealth. While legal, this proved to be controversial as American officers were generally prohibited to take money from foreign governments. Jose believes that Quezon “was trying to make amends” to MacArthur and was also “probably trying to get MacArthur to call for more US aid.” Quezon made similar offers to Eisenhower, who refused, and to MacArthur’s chief of staff General Richard Sutherland, who accepted.

MacArthur's return to the Philippines almost didn't happen. MacArthur (photo center) and the Allies had to first claw their way back up and defeat the Japanese forces in New Guinea. Photo from the US ARMY/PUBLIC DOMAIN

Caught unprepared?

MacArthur assured Quezon that the Philippines “can be defended” in the event of war, given proper funding. Despite this assurance, some have blamed MacArthur for the Filipinos’ lack of preparation when the Japanese finally attacked.

Jose attributes the ill-prepared Filipino forces to gaps in funding and execution. “The reality was usually different from what was on paper,” he says. MacArthur “pushed and pushed” for more reinforcements and equipment from the Americans and thought that everything would be ready by March 1942.

Japan attacked on December 8, 1941. Hours after their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese planes bombed Clark and Iba airfields, decimating the Philippines’ air fleet (which was still mostly on the ground when the Japanese attacked). There were not enough planes to counter Japan’s air power. The enemy also attacked from the beaches, landing in Lingayen Gulf. The plan was to deploy torpedo boats to defend the Philippine coastline and pepper the beaches with heavy artillery. This never happened. MacArthur, an Army man, also left out the US Navy’s Asiatic Fleet in his plans. Jose says the Army-Navy rivalry may have influenced the general’s decision.

Cooperating with the Japanese

As the occupation of Manila was imminent, MacArthur declared the capital an “open city” on December 26, 1941 to prevent further destruction. War Plan Orange was now in effect — troops had to abandon defense of the beaches, withdraw to Bataan and Corregidor, and blow up bridges along the way to obstruct the enemy.

MacArthur, Quezon, and select cabinet officials had to escape before the Japanese arrived. Before leaving, the general met with the cabinet at Quezon’s Marikina residence. Here, MacArthur reportedly told Jose P. Laurel, Jorge B. Vargas, and other cabinet members to “cooperate” with the Japanese, but not to take an oath of allegiance. MacArthur had denied this account, but Jose says most of those present in the meeting remembered the general’s words “very clearly.”

Laurel, who was associate justice of the Supreme Court when war broke out, would later become president of the Japanese-sponsored Second Philippine Republic in 1943. Vargas, who was mayor of Manila when it was declared an open city, was named chair of the Philippine Executive Commission, the interim government set up by the Japanese before the Second Republic.

‘Dugout Doug’

Meanwhile in Corregidor Island, MacArthur set up his wartime headquarters at Malinta Tunnel. Here, they constantly monitored updates from nearby Bataan, where Filipino and American troops had retreated. Bataan’s rugged terrain was strategic for holding off the Japanese while awaiting reinforcements from the Americans.

MacArthur only visited his troops in Bataan once on January 10, 1942. Some viewed this as cowardice and lack of leadership, at a time when his men needed a morale boost. This earned him the nickname “Dugout Doug,” as in hiding inside a tunnel while his troops faced death. Jose is not sure why MacArthur did not visit Bataan often, but perhaps, MacArthur wanted to maintain a “more mystical and untouchable” aura.

In Corregidor, MacArthur maintained a brave face. According to Jose, MacArthur was never photographed wearing a helmet. Sometimes, he exposed himself “needlessly” to enemy air attacks and did not seek shelter during ongoing air raids.

MacArthur almost did not return

Despite the Allied Forces’ gallant stand, Bataan and Corregidor fell to the Japanese by April-May 1942. By then, MacArthur and his family had already left the Philippines in a daring escape to Australia, upon orders from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was in Melbourne where he promised Filipinos: “I shall return.”

This almost did not happen. MacArthur and the Allies had to first claw their way back up and defeat the Japanese forces in New Guinea. The Americans were also divided on where to go from there.

Two years later, and fresh off victories in New Guinea, Roosevelt called MacArthur for a meeting in Hawaii to strategize the invasion of Japan. The plan was to proceed to enemy-held Formosa (now Taiwan), thus bypassing the Philippines. MacArthur vigorously opposed the plan since it would be more strategic to retake Luzon first and stage the invasion from there, rather than fighting it out in hostile Formosa.

But James Zobel, director of the MacArthur Memorial Library and Museum in Virginia, USA, said that it was probably MacArthur’s moral plea that eventually convinced Roosevelt to change his mind. For the general, bypassing the Philippines would mean leaving thousands to die, betraying their commitment to the Filipino people, and diminishing America’s standing in the world.