MacArthur's Farewell to West Point

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On May 12, 1962, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, age 82, delivered his farewell address to the cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where he had set academic records as a student that remain unsurpassed and where as superintendent in the early 1920s he brought the curriculum of the revered institution into the 20th century.

In accepting the school’s Sylvanus Thayer Medal for outstanding service to his country, MacArthur organized his speech around the sacred motto of West Point: “Duty, Honor, Country.” It was the last public act of a military career that spanned more than a half-century; that witnessed triumphs and tragedies, glory and disgrace.

To author and Pacific War veteran William Manchester, MacArthur was “the most-gifted man-at-arms this nation has produced.” To army veteran and military historian Geoffrey Perret, he was the America’s greatest soldier of the 20th century.

Several of MacArthur’s contemporaries were equally profuse in their praise of his abilities. During the First World War, Secretary of War Newton Baker called him “the greatest American field commander produced by the war.” One American general officer said of MacArthur’s heroics in World War I, “[o]n a field where courage was the rule, his courage was the dominant factor.” George Marshall, who commanded MacArthur during the Second World War, called him “our most brilliant general.” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called him “the glorious commander,” while British Army Chief of Staff Alan Brooke viewed him as “the greatest general and the best strategist that the war produced.”

MacArthur fought and led American soldiers in three great wars of the 20th century—World Wars I and II, and the Korean War. He earned 13 medals for bravery, including the Congressional Medal of Honor. He served as superintendent of West Point and Army Chief of Staff. During World War II in the Southwest Pacific, according to military historian Mark Perry, MacArthur “coordinated the most successful air, land, and sea campaign in the history of warfare.” After the war, he led an enlightened and successful occupation of Japan that transformed that nation from a militaristic empire into a stable, prosperous and peaceful democracy. In Korea, he produced a strategic gem—the surprise landing at Inchon, which cut off and stranded enemy forces in the south, sent communist North Korean forces reeling north over the 38th parallel, and freed the South Korean capital of Seoul.

When communist Chinese forces surged across the Yalu River into North Korea in September-October 1950, MacArthur organized a difficult retreat and requested permission to wage offensive war against China. President Truman, who had authorized MacArthur to conduct military operations throughout all of Korea with the goal of liberating the entire peninsula, repeatedly refused MacArthur’s requests for more men and greater latitude in conducting military operations. MacArthur publicly protested these restrictions, resulting in his being relieved of command by the President.

Truman partisans and conventional histories have painted Truman as saint and MacArthur as sinner in the Korean episode. The truth is far more complex. History in this instance has been unfair to MacArthur. As Arthur Herman recently pointed out in National Review, “It was MacArthur’s outspoken criticism of a policy that traded victory for stalemate that finally cost him his job, not incompetence—let alone hubris.”

On that day in May 1962 on the plain at West Point, the Korean controversy was forgotten; only the heroics mattered to the cadets who listened in awe as MacArthur explained the meaning of “Duty, Honor, Country.”

“Those three hallowed words,” MacArthur told the cadets, “reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be.”  They are not a slogan or a flamboyant phrase, he continued, “[t]hey build your basic character; they mold you for your future roles as custodians of the nation’s defense. ... They teach you ... to be an officer and a gentleman.”

The American soldier, MacArthur stated, is “one of the world’s noblest figures, not only as one of the finest military characters, but also as one of the most stainless.” Reflecting on his observations of American fighting men, he noted:

In twenty campaigns, on a hundred battlefields, around a thousand campfires, I have witnessed that enduring fortitude, that patriotic self-abnegation, and that invincible determination which have carved his status in the hearts of his people. From one end of the world to the other he has drained deep the chalice of courage.

MacArthur reflected on the soldiers he led in both world wars and Korea and the conditions they endured. He recalled “the filth of murky foxholes, the stench of ghostly trenches, the slime of dripping dugouts, those broiling suns of relentless heat, those torrential rains of devastating storm, the loneliness and utter desolation of jungle trails, the bitterness of long separation from those they loved and cherished, ... the horrors of stricken areas of war.”

Through it all, MacArthur continued, the American soldier showed “resolute and determined defense ... indomitable purpose ... and [won] complete and decisive victory.” In his minds eye, MacArthur recalled the “vision of gaunt, ghastly men reverently following your password of Duty-Honor-Country.”

Physical courage, training and brute instinct, he continued, are not enough to sustain the fighting soldier. The soldier must also rely on “those divine attributes which his Maker gave when He created man in His own image.” “The soldier who is called upon to give his life for his country,” MacArthur said, “is the noblest development of mankind.”

MacArthur then described a future world of change, with science leading the way to the fulfillment of many of mankind’s dreams and fantasies. But he cautioned them that “through all this welter of change and development, your mission remains fixed, determined, inviolable—it is to win our wars. Everything else in your professional career is but a corollary to this vital dedication ... [Y]ou are the ones who are trained to fight.” “In war,” he intoned, “there is no substitute for victory.” Therefore, “the very obsession of your public service must be Duty-Honor-Country.”

While others will debate domestic and international issues, the American soldier stands “serene, calm, aloof” as the “nation’s war guardian, as its lifeguard from the raging tides of international conflict; as its gladiator in the arena of battle.”

Soldiers, he continued, are not warmongers as is often claimed. “On the contrary, the soldier above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.” But while praying for peace, the soldier must be mindful of “the ominous words of Plato, the wisest of all philosophers, ‘Only the dead have seen the end of war.’ ”

MacArthur finished this great and timeless speech with a personal reflection that none of the cadets there that day would forget:

The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished, tone and tint. They have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears, and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen vainly, but with thirsty ears, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll. In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield. But in the evening of my memory, always I come back to West Point. Always there echoes and re-echoes: Duty, Honor, Country. Today marks my final roll call with you, but I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps. I bid you farewell.

MacArthur, as is well known, could be vain, self-promoting, petty, and at times paranoid about perceived enemies in Washington—flaws not uncommon among generals, politicians, and many human beings. But he deserves to be remembered at his best—a brilliant, far-seeing military commander and statesman who, arguably, was the greatest American of the 20th century.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of "Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century, America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War," and "Somewhere in France, Somewhere in Germany: A Combat Soldier’s Journey through the Second World War." He has written on historical topics, including the Civil War, for The Washington Times, The Diplomat, Orbis (the journal of the Foreign Policy Research Institute), the University Bookman, Presidential Studies Quarterly, and other publications.

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