American Experience: Season 11, Episode 10

MacArthur (17 May 1999)

TV Episode  |   |  Documentary, History
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Biography of U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur.




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Episode credited cast:
Stephen Ambrose ...
Leon Beck ...
Herbert Bix ...
Faubion Bowers ...
Omar N. Bradley ...
Himself (archive footage) (as Omar Bradley)
Tanya Brooks ...
Alfred X. Burgos ...
Charles Canada Jr. ...
Robert Dallek ...
Roger Dingman ...
John W. Dower ...
Robert Eichelberger ...
Himself (archive footage)
Himself (archive footage)
Daniel Finn ...
Richard B. Finn ...


Biography of U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur.

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17 May 1999 (USA)  »

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A Legend In His Own Mind.
29 August 2015 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

At more than four hours, this program is much too long to deal with in detail and anyway the general trajectory of his career is widely known. As for his character, historian William Manchester, on whose biography this series is based, put it well. If you want to consider MacArthur a brilliant strategist and humanitarian, you can find plenty of evidence to support that position. If you want to argue that he was vainglorious, egotistical, and contemptuous of rivals, you can find evidence for that too. The difficult work is in reconciling the two points of view. His actions as ruler of Japan, between the end of World War II and the beginning of the Korean War are emblematic of his character.

MacArthur was appointed Supreme Commander of the occupation forces in Japan -- and it worked. It took about a year for the Allied troops to change their perception of the Japanese as the hated enemy into a polite, clean people with a rich historical tradition. Any American soldier striking a Japanese was subject to five years in the slams. The Japanese, devastated and starving, put their allegiance to the Emperor on the back burner and looked to MacArthur for salvation. Democracy, okay, but food first, and they got it. The general himself was magnanimous in victory and touched by the conditions of his former adversaries. And of course it's hard to beat the Japanese when it comes to politesse, honesty, and humility. An acquaintance of mine had just left a Japanese whorehouse and was half a block away when one the girls came chasing after him, shouting that he'd forgotten his wallet.

MacArthur was supremely fit for the job of Monarch. He loved absolute authority. He was austere and aloof, which fitted the national conception of a great leader. His own staff could give him advice but nobody could tell him what to do. The press was now free to print all the news -- but no criticism of MacArthur. He personally wrote their Constitution. He allowed unions to form and made the communist party legal, reasoning that if it were banned it would make them more popular. ("I intend to care for the Japanese people from the cradle to the grave.") He gave women the right to vote and to hold political office. He confiscated large plots of land from the owners and distributed it among the peasants. He was excoriated as a communist by some in America, but in five years he created on of the world's greatest democracies. .

Except for the mangling of zones of influence, something similar happened in Germany. Always obedient and industrious, the Germans sloughed off the rule of Naziism and adopted the practices of their new benefactors. Nation building sometimes works, but it seems you need a cohesive and integrated country, used to central authority, to bring it off.

One of the features of this program that I most admire is its equipoise. It's neither a hagiography nor a hatchet job. In this respect, it's unlike some of the lengthy feature films of American generals that were appearing on the screen at the time. "Patton: Salute to a Rebel." The word "rebel" was widely admired in 1970. The only sense in which Patton was a rebel was that he was more aggressive, bloodthirsty, and arrogant than most other commanders in his vicinity. The film softens has actions, makes them seem reasonable. I'll give one example. Patton is visiting a field hospital. He takes off his helmet, passes from bed to bed, kneels beside the still figure of a soldier encased in bandages, whispers something in his ear, and tenderly places a medal on the pillow. The audience is as moved as Patton is shown to be. Then the general gets to his feet and encounters a fully clad and unwounded young soldier sitting on his bed and sobbing because his nerves are shot. Patton explodes with rage, slaps him with his glove, and orders him back to the front at once -- "Goddam COWARD!" The scene is so framed -- severely wounded warrior vs. whimpering puppy -- that we are all on the general's side. Yet, historically, Patton didn't slap an enlisted poltroon. He slapped two soldiers, one with PTSD and the other with malaria. Several controversial decisions by Patton are never mentioned. (See "Task Force Baum.") The same bias pervades the film "MacArthur", starring Gregory Peck, except that weaknesses in character are even more thoroughly papered over.

That sort of sly slant isn't found in this program on MacArthur, just as it isn't found in Manchester's thoroughly researched biography. The producers have done a remarkable job.

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