When Demigods Die: MacArthur and the 1950 Chinese Intervention in Korea
Hubris and the intelligence consumer
“The emperor came to him, he didn’t go to the emperor.”
John Russell Allison served Gen. Douglas MacArthur as a civilian economic advisor in Tokyo from 1945-1951. In his unpublished memoir, Allison alludes to the famous photo of the general with Hirohito, noting that MacArthur “didn’t even dress up for the occasion. He’s in open collar, and the emperor is in formal morning coat.”
“Why would he not have put on tie and jacket to meet with the emperor?”
MacArthur’s casual office uniform was a performative, purposeful humility that placed the man-MacArthur above the living god-emperor. No usual mortal in terms of personal power, the height and plainness of the general were a visual structure of power that further transformed him into something between earth and heaven, superior to the living god-emperor who personified heaven on earth.
MacArthur’s plenipotentiary powers under the 1945 armistice were contained in the visual. It worked. When Truman fired MacArthur in 1951, “the Japanese turned out in millions to demonstrate their respect and disappointment that he should be deposed,” Allison recalls. Whatever his failures, MacArthur had conquered the hearts and minds of the Japanese.
Allison himself arrived in Tokyo as a military police lieutenant the day after the armistice. Placed in charge of the city jail, he found it packed with hungry Japanese dock workers caught pilfering cans of food from broken crates that were being unloaded at the docks to support the American troops. While the Japanese police were over-zealous enforcing the occupation order this way, the city courts were in a state of bureaucratic paralysis.
Unable to fix the squalid state of the jail any other way, Allison typed out an order to record every prisoner’s name and address and then let them go home. His superior worried there would be a court martial. Instead, Allison’s decisive action was rewarded. Promoted to captain, then breveted as a brigadier general, Allison donned a suit and tie to put his prewar career as an accountant to use restructuring the Treasury Ministry.
Despite some false starts, Japanese cooperation made reform workable. Explaining this history to his own country, Japanese historian Hiroshi Masuda has described the public image of MacArthur as “a godlike figure, surpassing even the emperor in his invincibility and utmost authority” among the Japanese (emphasis mine).
Decades before Masuda was translated into English, Allison echoed this idea that “MacArthur had become so powerful that amongst the Japanese he was almost looked upon as a god … I believe he superseded the emperor in their emotions” (Emphasis mine).
According to Allison, this quality of MacArthur was both necessary to the mission and misunderstood at home in the United States.
The press considered him an egotist, preening poppycock type of person, false, somebody who overvalued his own presence — going ashore in the Philippines and saying, “I have returned.” He had to handle himself in that fashion in order to achieve the necessary level of respect in the Far East. He had to present himself in a way that would result, in the Far Eastern mentality, in his becoming a kind of demigod in order to be effective. (Emphasis mine)
No human being could have so much power for six years and remain unaffected by it, though. Nor was this all just for show, as Allison admits.
For example, MacArthur had a famous sense of religious mission and personal destiny. Journalist John Gunther once observed that he “goes so far as to think of himself and the pope as the two leading representatives of Christianity in the world today,” such was the general’s obsession with proselytizing all of Asia in his lifetime.
Yet MacArthur had this same godlike way with everyone, high and low, for better or worse. “With the Allied Council and foreign representatives in Japan … he kept himself just as aloof, and as separate, with each of them,” Allison notes. At the time, there were eleven foreign interlocutors in the slow process of finalizing the peace of Japan.
Such hard neutrality at the center of so many competing demands became a source of friction between GHQ and Washington, where allies and embassies aired their “bitching and complaints” about MacArthur’s decisions, in Allison’s words, to civilians who had no power to overrule his unique authority.
MacArthur and the State Department were diverging in policy. George Kennan, the famous diplomat and architect of Cold War containment strategy, wanted to revive Japanese manufacturing and build a prosperous democratic bulwark against communism.
MacArthur hated communism, but he balked at Kennan’s proposal to build a Japanese self-defense force, dragging his feet until the Korean War finally forced him to accept the necessity. Re-arming Japan, even with “Police Reserves,” meant amnesty for purged military professionals and industrialists (zaibatsu), moves MacArthur found unacceptable.
Kennan, on the other hand, was a critic of MacArthur’s 1947 negotiations for a grand peace bargain in the Far East. When the Soviets demanded a veto on the Far Eastern Council that would make decisions on Japanese sovereignty, Kennan terminated State Department involvement, effectively killing the multilateral process.
During 1948, MacArthur also lost Lt. Gen. Robert Eichelberger, his 8th Army commander and longtime intelligence chief, to retirement. Military historian D. Clayton James has written that Eichelberger was the last man in Japan able to challenge MacArthur or change his mind. After his departure, MacArthur’s “channels of information narrowed and his sources of fresh, objective thinking declined.”
MacArthur’s moves were ill-timed in Washington. For example, he announced his Far East peace initiative with the Soviets in 1947 just five days after President Truman announced the Truman doctrine to contain Soviet communism. By the time now-Secretary of State Kennan met him in Tokyo during 1948, MacArthur was out of touch with the wider developments of the Cold War and focused on his own strategy in the Pacific.
Allison does not mention Kennan in his memoir, but he did have “the unique opportunity to see people on their way up and on their way back” from visiting MacArthur and described his observations in general.
The visitors would fall into either one of two categories. I would say to them, well, how was the visit with the old man?” And they would say that he (MacArthur) walked up and down and pontificated and did all the talking. I didn’t have anything to say, really, no much except social niceties, but what he said was very impressive; he gave me a vision, gave me some real messages to take home with me.”
That would be one category. The other was somebody who would say the exact opposite. For instance, “He pumped me. I did all the talking. He kept asking questions and insisting on getting whatever answers I could give him. And I really didn’t get any exposure to what he was thinking about or had to say.”
Either way they were gratified.
Perhaps Kennan was less than gratified, however. After two hours of MacArthurian monologue, Kennan scheduled a second meeting with a War Department representative for backup. Encouraged by their perceived ability to press home key realities in this second interview, they left Japan disappointed after MacArthur rejected the plan anyway in a third meeting.
In a conversation with the author before he died, Allison expressed a negative impression of George Kennan. This moment stood out in the writer’s experience as a student of the Cold War. Although the exact wording cannot be recalled now, Allison’s “company man” enthusiasm for MacArthur points to the antagonism that had developed between the general’s staff in Tokyo and their interlocutors in Washington. Independence of command was becoming independent policy.
Masuda blames the “stubbornness and the pride” of the demigod for his resistance to unpleasant realities in these meetings with Kennan. Yet pumping visitors for information was a simultaneous sign of MacArthur’s disconnection from the American political center. He had few other information sources about what was going on 10,000 miles away in the United States.
Flirting with politics, MacArthur endorsed the UN plan for South Korea and withdrew 100,000 American troops from the peninsula because it was popular with Americans to do so. This ambition clearly affected his decisions from 1947-1951.
Although MacArthur declined to run for president in 1948, military success only seemed to deepen this sense of destiny. Following the success at Inchon in 1950, when amphibious landings achieved strategic surprise and routed the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) from South Korea, MacArthur’s reputation hit a new high. So did his imperious self-regard.
Just as MacArthur seemed to be at the zenith of his powers, however, the downfall began. President Truman wanted to be seen conferring with his commander before the midterm election, so he took 35 reporters to Wake Island. Photogenic as ever, MacArthur arrived for the meeting with just three adjutants. According to Truman, the general “informed me that the Chinese Communists would not attack and that Japan was ready for a peace treaty.”
Confidence abounded. “If the Chinese tried to get down to Pyongyang, there would be the greatest slaughter,” MacArthur predicted. “He repeated that the Korean conflict was won and there was little possibility of the Chinese Communists coming in,” Truman explained later. The troops in Korea would be home by Christmas.
MacArthur had a different memory of the conversation with Truman. Nevertheless, his description of the meeting contains a revealing detail. “Rather impertinently, I asked him if he intended to run for re-election…He immediately countered by asking me if I had any political ambitions along such lines,” MacArthur wrote in his memoir.
From this moment on, MacArthur’s aggressive policy towards China got ahead of the Truman administration. Ordering a general advance to the Yalu on October 24, nine days after the Wake Island meeting, MacArthur wanted to complete the destruction of the North Korean army even though China had warned against UN forces crossing the 38th Parallel. On October 27, the Joint Chiefs ordered MacArthur to use Republic of Korea (RoK) troops along the Chinese border and keep American formations away. Disobeying this order would lead to the end of MacArthur and his demigodhood.
Heedlessness is the plain explanation. William J. Sebald, a State Department political advisor to MacArthur, called MacArthur “unwary” of Chinese intervention. If anything, the general seemed disinterested in the potential of a head-on collision with communist Chinese troops. “I cannot recall that MacArthur showed concern during this period over the possibility that Peking would enter the war,” Sebald told an interviewer.
Nor was there a shortage of intelligence available to MacArthur that Chinese intervention was imminent. Gen. Walton Walker had learned to rely on signals intelligence (SIGINT) and proven its value in holding the Pusan Perimeter. The same sources of intelligence inspired caution in his advance now. During November, MacArthur grew angry with “Patton’s meanest son of a bitch” for his tardy progress. Walker confided to a reporter that he was “deeply disturbed” by his deteriorating relations with MacArthur’s command.
GHQ was disconnected from the reality of the looming threat, while Walker could see what was about to happen. He was protecting his flanks so that Eighth Army could retreat in good order. “Those preparations, he was convinced, had enabled him to save most of Eighth Army so that it might fight again,” wrote Gen. Mathew Ridgeway, who replaced Walker in command after his tragic death. “At this time, he told his interviewer he was convinced that he was about to be relieved of his command because of the retreat of the Eighth Army in the face of the Chinese assault.”
MacArthur understood the value of SIGINT. Yet he put his faith in the new air power doctrine of interdiction, believing Air Force estimates of their own success bombing North Korean lines of supply, and his intelligence chief dismissed the first Chinese prisoners taken in combat as volunteer replacements. “Our intelligence reports were not really wanting,” Ridgeway explains.
In retrospect, they turned out to be remarkably close to the mark. The failure lay once more in the interpretation of the facts rather than the gathering of them. As early as November 10, GHQ G-2 had reported that the CCF buildup in the area of the reservoirs on the plateau north of Hamhung “even now may be capable of seizing the initiative and launching an offensive which might take the form of a concerted drive to the south – to cut off UN forces east and northeast of Hungnam.” (Emphasis mine)
Ridgeway puts the blame squarely on MacArthur. “It should have been clear to anyone that his own refusal to accept the mounting evidence of massive Chinese intervention was largely responsible for the reckless scattering of our forces all over Korea,” Ridgeway writes, comparing MacArthur’s blindness to the infamous defeat of George Armstrong Custer.
MacArthur’s command staff has also received blame for misinforming MacArthur as well as Washington, which relied on Far Eastern Command for most of its intelligence. Gen. Charles Willoughby, MacArthur’s intelligence advisor, supposedly withheld or fixed information. MacArthur’s hostility to the CIA blinded him to their assessments.
However, all intelligence consumers display some sort of bias that is natural to their particular domain. Perhaps no amount of intelligence would have stopped MacArthur because he, and by extension his staff, did not want to see it. “Whether or not overwhelming evidence of an impending Chinese intervention would have enabled analysts and policy makers to overcome their cognitive dissonance is a hypothetical that cannot be answered,” observes Max Rovzar, a serving US Army officer who calls the charges against Willoughby “baseless.”
Yet it is worth noting the contrast of Gen. Walker, who did read the intelligence and managed to pull his army’s fat out of the fire, as well as Adm. Forrest Sherman, who pre-positioned transport ships for evacuations. On November 24, MacArthur told unit commanders their men would be home by Christmas at the very moment 36 Chinese divisions were crossing the Korean border. At that point, he was underestimating the actual size of Chinese forces already inside Korea by a factor of ten.
Truman felt misled after the ensuing rout of UN forces, telling one interviewer the general was “out of his head and didn’t know what he was doing” sometimes. Yet it seems just as likely that MacArthur knew exactly what he was doing — that he wanted to provoke, or at least welcomed, Chinese intervention expecting to win — and that the decline of MacArthur thereafter can be seen as the throes of a man with grand plans that are coming apart.
MacArthur never spent a night in Korea, preferring to fly in for day trips. He was too connected to Tokyo, too busy pulling strings in Washington. Perhaps he had been in Japan for too long.
Despite misgivings, Allison came to peace with his hero getting fired. “It was a good thing Truman did but for the wrong reasons,” he explains, listing these as “pique, anger, instead of wisdom.” Already a Canadian expatriate to the United States, Allison decided to leave Japan immediately. It was a sudden calculation of self-interest rather than an act of loyalty; he had been in Japan for too long. “I feel if I had not left at that time, I would have become an expatriate” a second time, Allison muses.
He was hardly alone. Staff turnover was understandably high in Tokyo after MacArthur left. To his credit, the general took time to thank everyone working for him. Washington was then able to fill the gap with its own personnel and policy. The demigod had served his purpose and now he had to die, or rather fade away, to complete the heroic tragedy.
Nor was MacArthur the only general at wit’s end. Killed in a traffic accident like his mentor Patton, Gen. Walker had become so gloomy and fatalistic that Gen. Ridgeway already thought he should be replaced. Hesitating to tell MacArthur lest he be seen as seeking the job, Ridgeway stepped into Walker’s boots upon his death and held the line until Chinese exhaustion set in.
War is an inherently social affair. It does not pay to put MacArthur “in the dock” and accuse him of evil intentions. If we assume the contrary, that MacArthur had the very best possible intentions, his faith in American firepower and blindness to unhappy intelligence make perfect sense as classic hubris, and the lesson is much more beneficial down the ages.
Command culture at Far Eastern Command was completely in character with the person, ideology, and priorities of Douglas MacArthur by 1950. Chinese intervention is now reckoned one of the great disasters of American arms in the 20th Century — and his ego was a decisive factor.