Divided and Conquered: MacArthur in The Philippines

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Author of the post-war Japanese constitution, veteran of the Veracruz expedition, the Philippine-American War, and the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) was a revered American hero. However, the extent to which he should be celebrated is debated. In particular, his mishandled defence of the Philippines during the Japanese invasion of 1942 is a point of criticism which has been arguably under-explored.

MacArthur, who had retired from American service in 1937, was closely linked to the Filipino army, having overseen its creation under President Quezon. It was of little surprise that, in July 1941, Roosevelt recalled MacArthur to assume command of all US forces in the Far East, including the Philippines. At his disposal were 120,000 poorly trained Filipino troops, mainly armed with WW1 rifles and woefully short of artillery. This force was bolstered by 23,000 American soldiers.

There were two courses of action available to MacArthur. Either he could concentrate his forces near Manila Bay, a short march from the natural mountain fortress of Bataan at Luzon – leaving the rest of the Philippines to fall to the Japanese – or he could scatter his forces across the various islands to try to defeat them at multiple landing points. Emboldened by the acquisition of 35 B-17 bombers and 29 submarines, which he mistakenly believed could intercept Japanese troop ships before they ever reached land, he opted for the latter strategy.

Spread out across nine islands, the isolated Filipino and American forces were unable to support each other, allowing the Japanese to defeat each force ‘in detail’ (dividing and conquering). Allied soldiers on the most crucial island, Luzon, were too poorly trained to conduct a spontaneous retreat to Bataan once MacArthur realised his original plan was futile. The forces there were overrun by the Japanese after a bitter 30 day struggle, leading to the surrender of an entire American army – the worst defeat in US military history – and the horrors of the Bataan Death March and the Prisoner of War camps.

MacArthur’s failure stemmed from a lack of appropriate priorities and perspective. A commander should dedicate more effort to primary goals (i.e. slowing the Japanese) and less to secondary ones (economy of force). As US Army doctrine explains, up to a point, one should actually seek to minimise effort dedicated to secondary goals, since an army which tries to do everything usually succeeds in nothing. MacArthur was told to resist a large and experienced force with a small, poorly trained one. He was also fighting in a country which, as a collection of islands, made defence more difficult, and whose loss, while regrettable, would not decide the outcome of the war. Thus, successfully defending the whole country may have been the best possible outcome, but it was unrealistic and inessential. Only token forces should have been assigned to this task, if any at all.

Having extensive ties to the Philippines (he had spent years in the country, was friends with its President, and his father had been its Governor), MacArthur may have viewed his objective as preserving the country rather than helping to win the war. Instead, he should have preserved his forces and tied down the Japanese by concentrating them around Manila and Bataan. While offering fewer chances for the glory with which he was obsessed, this goal was actually achievable.

One mistake for which MacArthur may be forgiven was his failure to bomb the Japanese airfields on Taiwan (Formosa) in the hours after Pearl Harbour. This led to the destruction of his once-significant air force, which could have played a key role in the campaign. A plausible explanation is that, with Filipino-Japanese relations still in doubt, President Quezon may have bound MacArthur’s hands in hopes of reaching a neutrality agreement with the Japanese by threatening to disband the Filipino army unless the bombers were grounded. Nonetheless, even more defensible decisions such as these appear, at the very least, contentious.

President Roosevelt, calculating that Macarthur’s capture would be too damaging for national morale to bear, ordered him to secretly leave the country. His personal reputation was relatively untarnished by this spectacular failure, and two years later he would be promoted to four-star General, the second-highest rank in the army. Still, the defence of the Philippines provides a cautionary tale against thinly dividing one’s efforts and losing sight of one’s ultimate objectives. MacArthur may be a national hero, but his actions in the Philippines do him no credit.

Morton, L., 1993. The Fall of the Philippines. U.S. Army Centre of Military History.

Weinberg, G., 2004. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. Cambridge University Press.