When the tour guide throws open the doors to the Douglas MacArthur Suite, I’m fairly sure what to expect. The American general it’s named after was known for astutely managing his public image, concealing his weird private foibles and rebuilding his hero’s reputation after professional fiascos. Likewise, the Suite he lived in for six years has been impeccably restored to a supposedly Edenic moment in Philippine history, before World War II levelled Manila, before the Japanese destroyed the entirety of the Suite just to get back at MacArthur and before the country fell under the hammer of martial law. Although there’s nothing original about the mahogany chaise longues, the slightly musty sampaguita scent or the gently sparkling brass chandeliers, the impression of 1935 is persuasive and beautiful enough.
What is the most iconic image of World War II? Britons might think of Herbert Mason’s photo of Blitz-era St Paul’s Cathedral framed by thick black bomb smoke, yet somehow undamaged and bathed in a heavenly light. Russians would likely recall the hunched silhouette of a Red Army soldier waving the Hammer and Sickle from the roof of the Reichstag, the tower blocks in the background shelled down to their rafters. Americans would nominate either the US Marines hoisting the Stars and Stripes into the gloomy skies of Iwo Jima or the picture I spot on the wall on the MacArthur Suite’s sitting room.
It’s a spontaneous snap of the General strutting ashore at Leyte Island in October 1944, at the start of the American liberation of the Philippines. He is fulfilling the highly quoted promise — ‘I shall return’ — he made to the Filipino people two years before, when his spirited and tactically adept resistance to the Japanese failed and he was forced to flee to Australia.
Although the claims in the preceding paragraph are widely believed to be true, they are largely false. The tour guide tells me that the photo was far from unplanned. ‘It took them three attempts to get it right,’ she says in a lilting accent that mixes American stressed vowels with rolling Spanish “rs”. ‘The first time, the General believed that he did not look good. The second time, he tripped and fell in the water. The third time, it was a success.’ Moreover, as Professor Vicente Villan of the University of the Philippines has discovered, by the time MacArthur arrived at Leyte on that “historic” day, indigenous guerrillas had already driven the Japanese out of the island. MacArthur chose this particular beach precisely because he knew it was safe and secure. He could step Christ-like from water to land and play the courageous saviour, but without actually having to save anyone or be in any way courageous.
As we turn to a glass cabinet displaying the “Decorations & Medals of General of the Army Douglas MacArthur”, I’m reminded that he made some disastrous military decisions, especially during the early phases of the war. The historian James Hamilton-Paterson observes that, in his capacity as Supreme Commander of the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE), MacArthur ignored a ten-hour invasion warning, failed to provide his troops with basic rations and clothing, and relied on an outdated war plan that resulted in the surrender of 76,000 Filipinos and Americans at Bataan in April 1942. Yet none of this ever came back to haunt him. On the contrary, as Hamilton-Paterson puts it, “Douglas MacArthur’s most remarkable achievement was to turn this whole unpropitious series of events into a mammoth public relations triumph such that he ended the war a national hero, receiving the Congressional Medal of Honour for his defence of Bataan and Corregidor.”
When the tour guide tells me these ‘are not real medals’, my heart skips a beat as, for a moment, I entertain the notion that MacArthur’s entire war record is bogus. Then she justifies her allegation: ‘What we are seeing here are just facsimiles. The actual medals are inside the General’s tomb at Norfolk, Virginia.’
MacArthur’s weakness for whitewashing his career went hand-in-hand with an inflated sense of self-importance. When he accepted the role of Military Advisor to the Philippine Army in 1935, he demanded to be put up at the 100,000-square-foot Malacañang Palace. ‘This was not possible,’ says my guide. ‘The Palace is special for Filipinos. Only our governors and presidents had ever lived there before.’ MacArthur’s second choice was the whole of the fifth floor of the deluxe Manila Hotel. When the government complained that the bill would be too high it was agreed that, alongside his military duties, MacArthur would be made General Manager of the Hotel. Somehow MacArthur was able to finagle exactly the same salary as the then President of the Philippines, Manuel Quezon.
I glance back at that photo of MacArthur wading ashore. It reeks of theatrical self-consciousness. Like a Hollywood stereotype of a military leader, the powerful curve of his chin advances out beyond ritzy sunglasses and taut, stoic lips. The uniform unbuttoned at the neck denotes both rebel individualism and Lotharian glamour. As his torpedo-like legs crash through the sea, his beefy hands are clamped to the waist of his billowing khakis. The body language says: “Nothing will stop me.” In Ermita, F Sionil José’s superlative novel of post-war Manila, a chauffeur names his newborn son MacArthur in the hope that “the General’s good looks, his noble visage and everything worth emulating about the Liberator of the Philippines would somehow be transmitted to the baby.” That this oft-photographed flabby and sour-faced old man could be popularly regarded as good-looking is a testament to the power of propaganda to generate intense affection for the MacArthur myth amongst Filipinos and Americans alike.
A textbook narcissist, MacArthur needed such hagiography to buttress his somewhat rickety ego. During bouts of depression, he would call prostitutes up to the Suite, but instead of having sex with them he demanded they tell him repeatedly what a wonderful human being he was. He often threatened to commit suicide, only changing his mind after sufficient amounts of flattery from colleagues. In Michael Schaller’s biography MacArthur: The Far Eastern General, MacArthur aide T.J. Davis tells of how, during one train journey in the US, he finally got sick of the General’s histrionics.
‘As we pass over the Tennessee River bridge,’ MacArthur said in a maudlin tone, ‘I intend to jump from the train. This is where my life ends, Davis.’
‘Happy landing,’ replied Davis wryly.
MacArthur got the message and never again talked about killing himself.
According to the diplomacy scholar Laura A. Belmonte, MacArthur’s behaviour was partly a response to his domineering mother Pinky’s yearning that he be a “glorious Apollo, Roland and George Washington all in one”. As his fame grew during World War II, this yearning behind closed doors became a very public expectation. This only upped the pressure on his fragile sense of self.
We peek into the guest bedroom which, either by accident or design, contains many shades of the colour brown. The 1970s-style zigzag carpet is ecru, the teak bedside table seal-brown. The centrepiece is an elegant bed made from nara wood, the swirling grains of its four posters starkly sepia next to the fulgent white pineapple-skin duvet.
‘You know that Bill Clinton stayed here?’ says the guide. ‘And before you ask, no he did not bring Monica with him.’
Clinton wasn’t the first philanderer to stay here. One of the other contributing factors to MacArthur’s depression was his catastrophic affair with the Scottish-Filipina actress Isabel Rosario Cooper, who was 26 years his junior. MacArthur made every effort to hide her from public view and — perhaps more importantly for him — from his mother, first in Manila and then in an apartment in Washington, DC. After two reporters on The Washington Post wrote an uncomplimentary profile of MacArthur accusing him of being “narrow-minded, opinionated, vain, egotistical, and dismissive of civilian authority”, the General sued for defamation. However, the reporters got wind of Cooper’s existence, tracked her down and persuaded her to stand as a witness for the defence. Terrified of a career-ruining scandal, MacArthur quickly dropped the suit and paid $150,000 to Cooper to keep quiet and get out of his life.
In MacArthur’s study are a number of personal affects that epitomise both the man and the myth. Predictably, neither the trademark corncob pipe nor the statesman-like marble-topped desk are original. The brass gilded chair is, however, and dates back to 1939.
‘Sir Tom, do you want to sit down where the great man used to sit down?’ asks the tour guide.
‘Are you sure?’ I frown. ‘I probably weigh more than MacArthur and I don’t want to go down in history as the visitor who broke the only authentic item in his Suite.’
‘Please don’t worry sir, we have had many thousands of visitors sit there, some of them even bigger than you.’
I ease myself down into the chair. It feels as sturdy as a gun emplacement. If there’s a secret centre to the MacArthur Suite, an axis around which everything else revolves, then this chair is it. From here, I feel I can start to understand Douglas P. MacArthur’s life and its close connection with the wider story of Manila, the Philippines and the United States. I look out the north window over Manila Bay. In 1900, just as Douglas’s father Arthur MacArthur Jr. was being sworn in as Governor-General of the US-occupied Philippines, the American architect Daniel Burnham was busy re-designing Manila Bay for the twentieth century. His stated aim was to sanitise, modernise and morally improve the area by building new parks, streets, railways, waterways and a lavish Classical Revival hotel – the hotel I am sitting in right now – overlooking the bay.
But, like MacArthur’s own life story, there were flaws and feints in this narrative of uplift. First of all, Burnham’s civilising mission was seen by many Filipinos as an attempt to conceal the United States’ profoundly uncivilised behaviour in their homeland. While the US was plotting to seize the Spanish Empire’s possessions in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines, a nationalist revolution had broken out near Manila. Washington struck a deal with the Katipunan, the revolutionary movement, whereby the US would grant full independence to the Philippines in return for the Katipunan’s assistance in defeating the Spanish. In a scoundrelly move, Washington reneged on the deal and decided that it wanted to rule the archipelago directly as the new imperial overlord. Almost as humiliating for Filipino patriots had been Spain’s decision to sell the Philippines to the US for a paltry $20 million. Furthermore, while mild-mannered American gentlemen were strolling around Manila Bay pontificating about Greco-Roman columns, across the rest of the archipelago the US Army was involved in a counter-insurgency operation that, by 1910, would kill twenty per cent of the population, including thousands of innocent women and children. For the cultural theorist David Brody, the ultimate physical expression of the myth of American benevolence is the Burnham Memorial in Baguio City, a hill station near Manila. The inscription on his bust moralises about “love, amity and mutual respect” which, for Brody, “mitigates a tumultuous history that included the bloodshed, loss and cultural trauma that accompanied the Philippine-American War.”
Moreover, few of Burnham’s ‘City Beautiful’ plans ever got beyond the stage of blabber about progress and civic harmony. Rather than founding an urban utopia, he was more successful in stamping US cultural superiority over Manila. As Burnham was drawing up plans for the Manila Hotel as an outpost of Western metropolitan luxury amid the colonial boondocks, the young Douglas MacArthur was fast becoming the personification of the abusive and exploitative relationship between the US and the Philippines. After graduating from West Point in 1903, MacArthur joined the 3rd Engineer Battalion in the Philippines, where his father had just been put in charge of the Department of the Pacific. MacArthur was sent out into the jungle to conduct surveys and build bridges as part of the efforts to cement US military authority. During his tour he made contacts within the new American business elite and invested in such lucrative operations as the Benguet gold mines. As Deanna Springola, author of the Power Elite Playbook has observed, during the early 1900s, the US Congress “passed tariff acts allowing free US entry of all Philippine products; this would make the Philippines dependent on the US.”
On the marble-topped desk is a reminder of MacArthur’s other significant encounter during his early visits to the Philippines. It’s a photo of him shaking hands with a slight, nervous-looking man in a cream suit. This is Manuel Roxas, MacArthur’s close friend, military aide and, later on, political crony. The official history goes something like this: after World War II the Philippines lay in ruins and the US government tasked Roxas and MacArthur with disbursing $2 billion in aid. The enlightened Filipino humanitarian and the Hollywood hero of the Pacific spent the money on reconstructing the nation, raising living standards for all. However, James Hamilton-Paterson’s account is closer to the truth:
[In 1945] … MacArthur was given a free hand to arrange
his former fiefdom according to his taste. His personal
support was crucial to getting his old friend Roxas approved
by Washington and elected. So also was his capricious
withholding of US aid for the reconstruction of the Philippines
after the election, thereby making the aid virtually contingent
on Roxas becoming President. Thereafter, the $2 billion in aid
was fought over by various groups of vultures who had good
links with the new ruling elite of MacArthur and Roxas. Only
very little of this fabulous sum (at mid-1940s value, too) actually
went into rebuilding the Philippines’ shattered infrastructure
There was understandable public outrage. Backed by the Office of Strategic Services and later the CIA, MacArthur and Roxas ruthlessly crushed dissent in the media, the intelligentsia and the rural poor. In some ways, such gangsterish autocracy blazed the trail for future US interventions throughout the Cold War, from Iran to Vietnam, Chile to Nicaragua. In 1946, the Hukbalahap guerrillas (nicknamed the Huks), who had boldly resisted the Japanese during the war, tried and failed to overthrow the central government in Manila.
I rise from MacArthur’s chair and shuffle closer to the window. Down on Bonifacio Drive — named after Andres Bonifacio, a founder member of the Katipunan — a homeless boy, barefoot and caked in tar-black dirt, is holding a frail and quivering hand up to passing cars. It’s a grievous reminder that the injustices that shocked the Huks into rising against the MacArthur consensus persist today. Costing $3,300 a night, the MacArthur Suite in 2014 is just as alien to the experience of the 30 million or so Filipinos who live on less than $1 a day as it would have been to the pickpockets and panhandlers of MacArthur’s time. 76% of the Philippine economy is still owned by an oligarchy that can trace its roots back to either Spanish or American colonisation. The Philippines remains in the grip of “dollar imperialism”, as proven by the ubiquity of Coca-Cola, McDonalds, basketball, and rock and hip-hop music. Having just become the country’s number one trading partner, Japan is now arguably exerting more influence over the Philippines than at any time since the war. The Huks have metamorphosed into the Maoist New People’s Army, which struggles — often violently — on behalf of landless peasants and urban squatters.
I sit back in the chair where, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, General MacArthur did much of his thinking about war, history, politics and business. If this mythical figure were somehow to be resurrected and to find himself in this chair again, would his thoughts about the contemporary Philippines be all that different?
(Originally published in The London Magazine Dec 2014-Jan 2015)