Almost a quarter of a millennium has passed since Jefferson and his mates gave life to the radical idea that governments draw their authority only “from the consent of the governed.” That idea was attractive to a talented and energetic people stifled from afar by the world’s greatest military and economic power. Its appeal is less apparent when you are the world’s greatest military and economic power.
Truth be told, we have far too often succumbed to placing our perceived national interest far above the right of other people to decide what is best for themselves. The list is long, if not distinguished. Baptista in Cuba, Pinochet in Chile, the Shah in Iran, Papa Doc in Haiti, almost every country in Latin America and many others form a rogues’ gallery that violates my mother’s admonishment that “you are the friends you keep.” Certainly enough to provide ample ammunition for the college freshman with some weird “peoples of the world” major to ruin a 4th of July cookout on his return to the provinces from the citadels of higher learning. (“That’s enough politics talk Jimmy. You are upsetting Uncle Milt. Why don’t you play catch with your brother?”)
And yet….There is another tale to be told. My grandfather used to say “far easier the job of the critic than the poet” and Jimmy might eventually learn that too. Having just finished Arthur Herman’s excellent biography of Douglas MacArthur, American Warrior, I was particularly struck by what July 4th, 1946 meant an ocean away from here. For many today, MacArthur is just a name, kindly regarded as someone who did important things. Serious historians savagely debate his merits, both as a general and as a human being. MacArthur’s long career was full of duty, bravery, brilliant strategic decisions balanced by megalomania-infused disasters, so everybody has a fair point. But the one thing historians all agree on is that he was post-war America’s loudest, most persistent proponent of a foreign policy centered on pan-Pacific alliances.
In particular, MacArthur’s essence derived from the Philippines. Not surprising as MacArthur’s father, a Union civil war hero (he and his more famous son became the first father-son duo to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor) turned career Army man was on hand to supervise the transfer of the Philippines from Spanish to American rule at the conclusion of the Spanish-American war. As early as 1882, Arthur MacArthur had detailed the importance of the Pacific Rim in an eerily prescient memorandum to the War Department; Douglas adopted his father’s views as if by osmosis. Both MacArthurs were early proponents of Filipino independence. After his tour as Army chief of staff concluded, Douglas had accepted the job of creating a purely Filipino armed forces so that an independent Philippines could defend itself. But war came to early for that goal and when it came, MacArthur’s roots were dug deeply into the Filipino soil.
Those circumstances may be why, as undermanned and under supplied as they were, MacArthur’s Americans and Filipino forces were the first in the Pacific to meet the aggression of the Japanese invaders with a fierce determination and resistance of their own. Manila Bay was of obvious strategic importance and guarded by the rock known as Corregidor at the tip of the Bataan peninsula. As the Japanese overran Manila, MacArthur and his generals skillfully withdrew to Bataan and then fought like hell. As a portent of the savagery and deprivation to come, two armies on the verge of starvation, running out of ammunition and fighting in tropical heat and humidity gave each other no quarter. Americans desperate for good news since Pearl Harbor, hung on every dispatch from a land few new existed six months before.
MacArthur’s problem was that the Japanese could and eventually did resupply and refresh their forces. FDR and Churchill, however, decided that Hitler was the greater threat and directed almost all available resources to Europe. Given the Japanese naval and air dominance in the Pacific, it probably would not have mattered. One way or another the only resupply MacArthur could count on was from smugglers willing to run a Japanese blockade that grew more impenetrable by the day. As much as he pleaded with FDR that America had a moral obligation to save its protectorate, and contrary to his optimistic communiques to the troops and people, MacArthur had resigned himself to death and the death of his wife and 4 year-old son, who were with him. Indeed, in considering the dire situation the Philippine command faced, one of the Washington policymakers practicing the realpolitik demanded by a world at war could only say “Sometimes men have to die.”
At the last moment, FDR decided America’s only identifiable war hero was too valuable to lose. MacArthur, his family and his staff escaped via a daring PT-Boat ride over 600 mlles of open ocean to another island where they were picked up and flown to Australia. During the flight, MacArthur issued his famous “I shall return” remark. The statement was not propaganda. MacArthur agonized over leaving his men to an awful fate and failing to protect his adopted homeland. Within hours of landing in Australia he began a tireless campaign to recapture Manila. Defeating Japan was the primary goal, but ridding the Philippines of its invaders was almost as urgent.
Of course, MacArthur eventually made good on his promise. It was a savage, ugly campaign. Modern warfare in a primitive setting against a fanatical opponent lead to atrocities and deprivation that can only be described as inhuman. The general famously waded ashore in October 1944, but when a Japanese admiral decided the fight would be to the end, the American was forced to level most of Manila, including his own residence. Still by July 4, 1945, MacArthur could declare the Philippines once again as safe. It was from here the invasion of the Japanese would be based but the war came to its atomic and swift conclusion before that attack was needed. Almost immediately, MacArthur assumed his duties in Tokyo as chief occupier, but almost a year later he returned to Manila to celebrate the Philippines’ independence as America finally made good on its promise and recognized a new nation.
For years July 4th was “independence day” in both countries; today the holiday is “Philippines-America friendship day.” The relationship might not have been one of equals and the Filipino government has faced its share of challenges (as did ours in the first 70 years of its existence). The inescapable point, however, is that rather than act as a conquering empire, Jefferson’s descendants chose to allow the Filipinos the same self-determination we had so benefited from.
We repeated that choice in the far more difficult case of Japan, fought again for the result on behalf of South Koreans and poured treasure into reforming Western Europe democracy. Our stubborn insistence on the ideal led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the crumbling of the USSR. It is easy and sometimes fashionable for Jimmy to tick off our foreign policy failures or hypocrisies, but on balance the record tilts decidedly in our favor. Literally billions of people across the globe live the life of their choosing because in the world’s darkest moments, America has turned to the signal idea that motivated our founders.
MacArthur’s father saw it clearly and his son lived it. When we seek to spread our values, rather than protect our interests, we always win. Today’s challenges may be different, but the choice remains the same. We can turn inward, viewing the rest of the world as a problem not of our making. Or we can continue to fight for the idea that all peoples should control their own destiny.
On this July 4th, Jefferson would be pleased to know that the Stars and Stripes still flies on this continent. He would be just as pleased to know the flag of an independent Philippine nation flies over Manila Bay.