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General Douglas MacArthur in Manila, c. 1945. (Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Douglas MacArthur: Father of Modern Asia

Arthur Herman

Look at a map of East Asia — at the region’s economic dynamics and the crises currently unfolding in the South China Sea and on the Korean Peninsula. One can safely say that one man not only shaped it all, but foresaw it all as well.

He was Douglas MacArthur — general, statesman and American icon. He was the spokesman for America’s original “pivot to the Pacific” in the 1930s; supreme commander in World War II and the Korean War; defender of Formosa (now Taiwan); and architect of postwar Japan. No figure in the last 100 years has left a larger and more lasting stamp on the region — not Mao Zedong, not Deng Xiaoping, not Lee Kwan Yew.

Certainly, no figure in American history better understood the importance of Asia for America. His father, General Arthur MacArthur — a Civil War hero and U.S. Army legend in his own right — warned as early as 1882, in a memorandum for the War Department: “The U.S. cannot exist as a commanding and progressive nationality” unless it enjoyed a strong strategic presence in the Pacific. He also argued that growing American trade with Asia should serve as an opening for “the propagation of American ideas” of self-government and human freedom.

That goal would become the life’s work of his son, who recognized that “the future and, indeed, the very existence of America, were irrevocably entwined with Asia …” as he later wrote in his “Reminiscences.”

In 1905-1906, Lieutenant Douglas MacArthur joined his father on a 30,000km official tour of Asia, including Japan, the country whose reconstruction he would oversee 40 years later. That early trip convinced MacArthur that once the reigning European colonial powers departed the scene, the region would “see the dawn of new opportunity, a heretofore unfelt dignity and the self-respect of political freedom,” which the U.S. needed to foster and encourage. And since the Pacific was America’s exposed western flank, MacArthur never lost sight of the fact that fostering peace and freedom in Asia was also crucial for the defense of America itself.

Challenges and disappointments

MacArthur first dedicated himself to that task in the 1930s in the Philippines, where he worked unsuccessfully to give the country both independence and the means of defending itself from Japanese invasion. Likewise, during World War II MacArthur saw his task as not just defeating Japan, but using victory to spread the idea of freedom and equality for all peoples of the region, starting with the liberation of the Philippines — and to help them to protect themselves from future despotisms (one reason he was bitterly disappointed by China’s fall to the Communists after the war).

MacArthur extended those same principles to postwar Japan. He gave it a new constitution that included the vote for women and the rule of law, and fostered a new era of economic freedom that laid the foundations for Japan’s later economic miracle — and for it to become one of the prime drivers of global economic growth.

But MacArthur’s role in shaping modern Asia didn’t stop there. When the Korean War broke out in June 1950, MacArthur worked to make sure the fledgling Chinese nationalist regime in Taiwan was safe from possible Maoist attack. Even though the Truman administration was formally committed to defending the island, it was MacArthur’s insistence that the island be considered “an unsinkable aircraft carrier” for the projection of U.S. power, that really cemented the alliance. It also made Taiwan vital to U.S. security and the region to this day.

South Korea, too, owes its freedom to MacArthur’s liberation of the country, not once but twice during the Korean War, just as it was MacArthur who first saw the rise of China as a great power — and the greatest threat to future stability in the region. In a powerful memorandum for General George Marshall written after China entered the Korean War in November 1950, MacArthur warned about a Chinese nationalism “of increasingly dominant aggressive tendencies” that would eventually break from Moscow. Once the Chinese “reach the fructification of their military potential,” MacArthur concluded, “I dread to think what may happen” — that is, unless the U.S. took a strong, active role in preventing it.

Advice for today

Given MacArthur’s prescience, and his commitment to an active American role in Asia, it’s fair to wonder what advice he would have given a present-day U.S. president.

First, he would say, strength matters. The U.S. must be a firm friend but an even firmer adversary of those seeking to disrupt the regional balance of power. On China’s serial cyber thefts; on its aggression in the South China Sea; and on North Korea’s nuclear threat, MacArthur would reiterate what he said in his farewell speech to Congress in April 1951: “Like blackmail, (appeasement) lays the basis for new and successively greater demands, until, as in blackmail, violence becomes the only alternative.”

Second, know your limits. The man who warned President John F. Kennedy, “Anyone who starts a land war in Asia should have his head examined” — a warning Kennedy ignored in Vietnam — understood both the possibilities of American military power in Asia but also its perils.

Third, allies matter. MacArthur would be deeply disturbed by talk of abandoning allies like Japan, or encouraging nuclear proliferation in the region. Faced by a rising China, he would see in Japan, Australia (whose close ties to the U.S. were first forged by MacArthur during World War II) and the Philippines, as well as Taiwan and Vietnam, the building blocks for a new era of collective security under U.S. leadership — one that would not only preserve his legacy today but build a strong, peaceful and prosperous Asia tomorrow.

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