The Army’s Pioneering Public Relations Officer
Edward Louis Bernays, in the mid to late 20th century, was acclaimed as “the father of public relations” – a field described as the promoting and managing of an organization’s or an individual’s public image and reputation. But General Douglas MacArthur had already become an adept practitioner. The son of General Arthur MacArthur Jr., a Civil War hero and Medal of Honor recipient, young Douglas learned the importance of positive publicity and started early in shaping public perception for both the army and himself.
Born into the limelight due to his father and family lineage, the press covered MacArthur’s graduation at the top of his class from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1903. His dash and bravery in the Philippine-American War, Asia and Mexico brought notoriety and propelled him up the ranks. He courted the media spotlight and in 1916 became head of the Bureau of Information under the War Department, and essentially the Army’s first press officer. Readily available to the media through press releases, communiques, interviews and photo opportunities, he generated favorable publicity for the army’s successes and acted as a censor for mistakes. Cultivating a network of print and broadcast contacts, in 1917 MacArthur received a letter signed by 29 representatives of the nation’s largest media entities lauding his assistance. These connections would well-serve both the army and MacArthur for decades to come. His gallantry as a commander on the frontlines in World War I earned him a nomination for the Medal of Honor. He was appointed Superintendent of West Point in 1919 and promoted to U.S. Army Chief of Staff in 1930. Becoming Field Marshal of the Philippines in mid-1930s, he further expanded his public reach.
MacArthur was called back to active duty as Commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East in 1941, and appeared on the cover of the wildly popular Life Magazine the day after Pearl Harbor. After a daring escape in 1942 on a PT boat before the fall of Bataan and Corregidor, MacArthur arrived in Australia and became Commander-in-Chief, refusing the title of Supreme Commander, of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific. He prosecuted the war on and off the battlefield, establishing the Public Relations Office for Southwest Pacific Area Command. Macarthur supervised a sophisticated apparatus of trusted senior staff, and many photographers of the Signal Corps were assigned to cover his every move. Granted censorship authority of all war-related information coming out of the region, he controlled much of what the American public and allies would read, hear and see; extolling victories and minimizing losses. He directed Operation Cartwheel, a military operation devised to bypass and isolate Japan’s major base at Rabaul. The retaking of the Philippines was high on his agenda. MacArthur’s triumphant “I Shall Return” moment coming ashore in his cap and sunglasses in 1944 remains one of the most famous photos of World War II.
As Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers and administrator of the successful post-war occupation of Japan, MacArthur’s military genius and larger than life image made him a household name. He was a widely celebrated figure here and abroad, holding press conferences, making public appearances and speaking his mind. When the Korean War broke out in 1950, MacArthur led United Nations Forces and was praised for his brilliant amphibious assault at Inchon, and repelling North Korean communists close to the Chinese border. However, he and the intelligence community were soon shocked when several hundred thousand Chinese communists flooded southward in a deadly onslaught. The surprise attack and huge setback soured MacArthur’s relationship with President Truman, who wanted a more limited conflict. The 5-Star General publicly aired his plans for an expansion of military action against the Chinese communists, and continued to contradict the president’s policies. He ignored gag orders and eventually Truman relieved him of duty on April 11th, 1951.
On his way home for a televised appearance at an April 19th Joint Meeting of Congress, the deposed general was greeted by massive crowds of supporters across the nation. He adapted effortlessly to the new medium of television, with more than 20 million people watching as he boldly explained his hard stance on China and communism. This Farewell Address to end his military career still resounds in his famous quote: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” On the following day millions of people cheered his motorcade in an enormous ticker tape parade in New York City. MacArthur was more popular than the president among many Americans.
Nevertheless, with a war-weary nation and the changing politics and military strategies of the Cold War, MacArthur’s stars began to lose some shine. He had his detractors, particularly in Washington, throwing accusations of arrogance, egomania, dismissive nature and missteps. Also lost was his hope of becoming the Republican presidential candidate for the 1952 election. Still, he remained heralded and supremely respected by a majority of the public, press and military, as well as becoming a pop culture figure. Recordings and songs of his Farewell Speech, MacArthur puzzles, figurines, comic books and even thermometers bore his name. Most of the media connections he established remained, again making the cover of Life Magazine in 1955. In the early 1960s President Kennedy met with MacArthur three times seeking counsel about Vietnam. The retired general advised to avoid a land war in Southeast Asia and hold the line at Japan, Formosa (Taiwan) and the Philippines.
MacArthur again made the cover of Life in January 10th, 1964, less than three months before his passing on April 5th. Another Life cover story appeared afterwards in memorial. He made the covers of both Life and Time magazines six times during his career.
One of the most recognizable people of the 20th century, his cap, sunglasses and corn cob pipe were salient parts of the MacArthur well-crafted signature look. The image embodied his confidence, controversial force of nature character and world-shaping presence. Complemented by an acute understanding and practice of public relations and promotion, his stature remained in the public eye. Legendary actor Gregory Peck played the title role in the 1970 film “MacArthur”. Countless books, articles and documentaries examining both the positive and negative aspects of his career and life continue to be published to this day. More than 5 million people and counting have visited the MacArthur Memorial and vault in Norfolk, Virginia, his mother’s hometown, which he also considered his. One has to ponder how MacArthur would fare in today’s public relations-centric world on the internet and social media. Judging from past performance, it is likely he’d use it quite effectively.
For much more detailed information, visit Norfolk, Virginia’s MacArthur Memorial and its current exhibit: “Command Presence: MacArthur, Media, and Mass Appeal.”
By Scott B. McCaskey, Creative Writer for Armed Forces Reunions, Inc. and AFR Tours.