A Pacific Odyssey: Around General MacArthur’s Manila Stage Set

This article is Part II of a series that describes a journey from the Philippines to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. For Part I, please click here.

Intramuros, Manila, The Philippines, the neighborhood where the Japanese army made a desperate stand during the fighting to retake the city in February 1945. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

From the Malacañang Palace, I caught a tuk-tuk with the idea of seeing several sites associated with the Japanese occupation of Manila during World War II. In particular, I wanted to stop at what had been the Manila Internment Camp, on the grounds of the University of Santo Tomas, and to see nearby the remains of Bilibid Prison, where many American prisoners of war were tortured or killed. I had both stops marked on a map of the city, which I handed to the driver. But I might as well have handed him the Periodic table, such was his confusion over my directions—if not about my ideas for a day out in Manila.

In the end, the driver got me close to the university main building and in the vicinity of Bilibid before giving up on the World War II exercise and dropping me in the tourist-friendly neighborhood of Intramuros, the old city district that surrounds the remains of a Spanish fortress with gift shops and Italian ice.

I had thought I might eat lunch in Intramuros, but the few restaurants I passed made me queasy, from the flies hovering over their hot trays. Instead I chugged cold water and poked around Fort Santiago, which had been the Japanese headquarters in the city, in 1945, when the American liberation forces came calling.

Those attacks, in winter 1945, reduced much of Manila, and certainly nearly all of Intramuros, to rubble. General Douglas MacArthur had always said he “would return,” but he had never indicated that with him would come a tide of destruction.

* * *

At the far end of Fort Santiago, I discovered a small museum dedicated to the memory of the Spanish dissident, José Rizal, who before the Spanish-American war of 1898 was imprisoned for advocating Philippine independence from Spain.

Rizal was a charismatic opposition figure. He had traveled widely in Europe, and in his letters, poems, stories, and novels, he described well the local oppression and spelled out the necessary steps toward freedom from Spain. Even his love affairs captured the spirit of his political opposition.

For the most part, the exhibit at Fort Santiago is devoted to Rizal’s last hours, his martyrdom for the causes of freedom. An ophthalmologist by training, he was on his way to Cuba to treat patients there when the Spanish removed him from his ship in Barcelona and threw him into prison. He was extradited to Manila and charged with sedition. Convicted, he was sentenced to death at the hands of a firing squad.

The centerpiece of the Rizal exhibit is a recreation of the prison cell where he spent his last days. In this rendition, acceptable for school children, Rizal is depicted as a saint. The cell has his cot and trunk, and he is shown, under a single spotlight (God seems to be calling him out), seated at a small desk, writing the manifesto for which he is justly famous. It’s the civil equivalent of Jesus at his last supper, except that Rizal is holding a pen.

A plaque on the wall reads: “In this cell Jose Rizal was detained prisoner from 3 November to the morning of 29 December falsely charged with rebellion, sedition and formation of illegal societies. After the reading of the court sentence at 6:00 A.M. 29 December, he was kept in an improvised chapel until his execution at 7:03 A.M. 30 December 1896 on the Luneta, Bagumbayan Field, Manila.”

* * *

From Fort Santiago I walked along the surrounding streets of Intramuros. For a while I had thought about joining a bicycle tour of the area, but given the small size of the district (just a handful of short blocks), I decided to cover the hallowed ground on foot.

What I mostly wanted to see was a memorial to the fighting that in February-March 1945 liberated Manila from Japanese occupation. I found a plaque on one street that reads: “This monument is erected in memory of the more than 100,000 defenseless civilians who were killed during the battle of the liberation of Manila between February 3 and March 3, 1945. They were mainly victims of heinous acts perpetrated by the Japanese Imperial Forces and the casualties of the heavy artillery by the American forces. The battle for Manila at the end of World War II was one of the most brutal episodes in the history of Asia and the Pacific.”

Unfortunately, at least for the upbeat storyboards of American history, it was U.S. army artillery that killed most of the civilians who were caught between American and Japanese lines. Manila in 1945 was yet another Asian city destroyed so that it could be saved.

On one of the side streets in Intramuros, I came upon One Victoria Street, an old Spanish building that later had served as MacArthur’s military headquarters. He was there when the Japanese invaded the Philippines on December 8, 1941, at the northern end of the Bataan peninsula, and it was from One Victoria Street on December 24 that he retreated to the island fortress of Corregidor, which is in the mouth of Manila Bay, about thirty miles west of the city.

I had thought I might be able to circle Intramuros on top of the old fortress walls, but the path along the ramparts was blocked with a locked gate. I did inspect some rusting cannons and went in search of the field were Rizal was executed, only to find that it’s now part of a golf course that is hard against the looming fortress walls, if not the hazards of colonial repression.

* * *

Had the weather been cooler, I might have been tempted to play nine holes, but I was a captive of the mid-day sun and humidity. I retreated to the nearby Manila Hotel, where MacArthur lived with his second wife and son in their famous suite on the West Wing of the fifth floor.

I had read somewhere that it was possible to visit the MacArthur suite, but when I showed up at the five-star hotel, I was taken to a ground floor function room that has been turned into a hotel museum, with heavy emphasis on the days of the MacArthur residence.

One of the hotel receptionists accompanied me to the museum, saying that MacArthur lived in the hotel from 1935 to 1941. I was shown many pictures of MacArthur in the hotel (in one of them, he’s posing for a picture with his mother, whose life was devoted to advancing his career) as well what purports to have been his hat.

Actually, the headgear that Mac preferred was a Philippine Army Field Marshal’s hat (more gold trimmings than the U.S. army provided to its up-from-the-ranks generals) while the simple military headdress in the hotel museum has the look of something picked up in a local thrift shop.

I wanted some images of MacArthur in Manila to go with the book that I was reading, which was William Manchester’s American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964, the lengthy biography that I had put off reading for most of my adult life. (During World War II my father was a Marine Corps infantry officer at times under MacArthur’s command, and he tended to roll his eyes whenever the general’s merits were under discussion, often adding: “He never minded giving the Marines the dirtiest job around.”)

The MacArthur biography was published in 1978, just as I was finishing graduate school, and since then I had heard rave reviews of it from friends and acquaintances, who more recently—on hearing that I was off to the Pacific—urged me to pick up a copy, which I did finally and added to my Kindle.

Throughout my travels in the Pacific, I would read Manchester’s biography of MacArthur whenever the spirit moved me, and with 793 pages to cover that had to be often.

Having come to the Manila Hotel from Intramuros (which is nearby), I did appreciate Manchester’s descriptions of the fighting to liberate Manila. Of the civilian deaths during the month-long battle, he writes:

GIs fought [the Japanese] hand to hand, room by room, closet by closet. Then enemy survivors retreated into the old walled city of Intramuros, whose stone walls, forty feet thick and twenty-five feet high, had withstood nearly four centuries of earthquakes. MacArthur denied [General George] Kenney’s vigorous request to attack Intramuros from the air; he said he couldn’t permit the use of dive bombers, and particularly napalm, when so many innocent civilians were trapped within. This led to absurd rumors. “A year later back in the United States,” Kenney wrote, “I was told that it was common knowledge that the reason MacArthur did not allow the Intramuros to be bombed, and instead let our troops be killed capturing the place without destroying it, was that he owned a lot of property there.… MacArthur never owned a square foot of property in the Philippines.” In any event, the General did approve heavy artillery shellings, the results of which were so destructive that one wonders why he hadn’t given Kenney the go-ahead; the results were the same. Eventually his cannonades breached the northeast corner of the great wall, but more heavy fighting lay ahead.

In the hotel museum, I reflected on the often-repeated rumor that MacArthur had once been a part-owner in the Manila Hotel, when in the late 1930s he was serving as the Field Marshal of the Philippine Army

No military man ever generated such whispering campaigns against him as did MacArthur. In his pursuit of power and glory, he loved to skirt official norms, which explains how, when he was head of the Philippine army, he was also an American army officer or how later, when he was commander of all U.S. forces in the Far East, he did not mind having his name on the ballot in several presidential primaries.

That said, I never came across any proof that he had a side deal to own shares in the Manila Hotel, even though his presence there was and is its best marketing attraction. But it makes for a lively urban legend, as did much MacArthur’s military career.

Of the MacArthurs’ return to the hotel, Manchester writes: “They toured the ruins of familiar landmarks—the penthouse, No. 1 Calle Victoria, Santo Tomás, the Army and Navy Club, the Elks Club, the University Club, the high commissioner’s home, and Military Plaza. Jean was shocked; the city she had loved looked, she thought, like one vast graveyard.”

* * *

Critics of the Manchester book (and there are many) point out that, overall, he often gives MacArthur a pass on his oversized ego and endless vanities. That said, in the book Manchester does focus much of his analysis on MacArthur’s failure to counter the Japanese invasion of the Philippines; on his strategies to focus on New Guinea as a waypoint to liberate the Philippines and to attack Japan; on his leadership in postwar Japan; and on his handling of the American advance, in the Korean war, to the Yalu River, which prompted a Chinese counterattack on the side of North Korea. It’s as full a picture as we will ever get of the complex MacArthur, and not all of it is idolatrous.

That said, Manchester does admire many of MacArthur’s personal qualities: he dismisses the nickname “Dugout Doug” as misplaced for someone who, in many battles across the twentieth century, was often close to the front lines. He admires his constitutional judgment in postwar Japan, comparing him to Napoleon and his legal codes for France. And he credits MacArthur as one of the few World War II generals who understood that the war would be won with aviation and movement, not by sustaining casualties of World War I proportions.

MacArthur’s divisions in combat suffered lower casualty rates than did those of Eisenhower in Europe, but it is Ike who is remembered for his affability and compassion for soldiers in the line while MacArthur is remembered as vainglorious and foppish. Eisenhower served as his assistant in Manila, and he later quipped: “I studied dramatics under him for seven years.”

At one point in the biography, Manchester writes: “Probably Time’s assessment of him in the summer of 1942 was fairest. He was, said Time, ‘a hero who is brilliant, courageous, a great leader of soldiers, but also a little overambitious, a little garish, a little rhetorical.’”

Before leaving, I spent time looking through what felt like family photographs, not just at the MacArthurs in black tie, getting ready to do battle in a nearby drawing room, but at the parade of American politicians for whom the Manila was their safe haven on Asian tours.

On the wall, for example, there was a photograph of a white-suited Richard Nixon, waving at the camera, as if disembarking from Bradley’s imperial cruise (as he was). Both he and his wife Pat are sporting garlands of flowers. It was on that fact-finding trip in November 1953, which included a stop in Indochina, when Nixon got the idea that nuclear weapons could be used to defend French colonial interests at Dien Bien Phu.

In other pictures there was the young Michael Jackson and astronaut Neil Armstrong, although the museum fails to make the connection that both men were moonwalkers. I also came across a picture of the globetrotting diplomat, Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, shaking hands with someone while holding a bouquet of flowers. Could she have been with Michael on his “Dangerous World Tour?”

And, of course, there were many pictures of the peripatetic Clintons. Bill wrote a thank you note, in his distinctive handwriting, to the hotel staff, thanking them for their service in the MacArthur suite. He ends by writing, as if for TripAdvisor: “Walking into the lobby is always a good experience.”

* * *

For me a less “good experience” was my visit to the Manila American Cemetery, which is located beyond the downtown on the grounds of what was once called Fort William McKinley. I had read about the murals and maps at the cemetery and thought that, while paying my respects to the some 50,000 war dead remembered here, I might also get a good overview of the World War II campaigns that battled north from New Guinea, both to the Philippines and Japan’s home islands (campaigns in which my father had served).

What I had not figured on was Manila traffic, which turned a seven-mile drive into almost a three-hour excursion. I left downtown Manila in a taxi around three in the afternoon but only arrived at the cemetery gates at 5:30 p.m., by which time they were closed.

Using my American passport as a flashcard, I appealed to the gatekeepers to be allowed a quick look at the memorials. It was still daylight, and through the closed gates I could see the long, symmetrical rows of markers and a few people inside looking at headstones, although perhaps they were grounds keepers. But the expressionless security guards told me to come back tomorrow. For them American exceptionalism is a 9-to-5 job.

I thought about a return engagement, but when the drive back to my apartment took another two hours, I gave up on the suburban military cemetery and instead decided to pay my respects by reading some of the passages in Stephen Kinzer’s excellent history of the Spanish-American war and the Philippine occupation, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of American Empire.

Of the harbor that spread out from my Airbnb room, Kinzer writes: “Navy commanders recognized Manila Bay as a magnificent platform from which to project American strategic power into East Asia…. America’s war began in June [1898] as a drive to liberate colonies. By August it had become a campaign to capture them.”

In his book Kinzer traces the roots of American imperialism, at least in the Philippines, to the cronies surrounding President William McKinley, who embraced overseas expansion as if it were a subsidy for the same big businesses that had supported his front-porch campaign and election. McKinley thought American enterprise (roughly defined as his campaign donors or the cronies of his wily campaign manager, Mark Hanna) ought to have the same platforms that Europe countries enjoyed with their colonies in Asia and Africa.

McKinley wrapped this white man’s burden (a popular Rudyard Kipling poem of that time) in a flag of moral convenience, arguing that while America was undertaking the noble burden of opening new markets it was also saving souls.

Kinzer notes wryly that the president “was deeply religious, and his account of this vision was no doubt sincere. Nonetheless he must have recognized the happy coincidence: what God wanted him to do would also be popular with voters. This time, God sounded remarkably like Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge.”

Mark Twain and William Jennings Bryan were members of the opposition that equated this imperial expansion with the death of the American republic. At one of his after-dinner speeches, quoted in Kinzer, Twain said: “When the United States sent word that the Cuban atrocities [perpetrated by Spain] must end, she occupied the highest position ever taken by a nation since the Almighty made the earth. But when she snatched the Philippines and butchered a poverty-stricken, priest-ridden nation of children, she stained the flag. That’s what we have today—a stained flag.”

Kinzer, however, faults Senator Bryan for not doing more to organize the opposition in Congress to the annexations of the former Spanish colonies. (The details were in the Treaty of Paris, which had to pass through Congress.) He writes: “Here lies the great conundrum of Bryan’s career. He was profoundly anti-imperialist, not simply as a political choice but on deeply moral grounds. His speeches on the subject are some of the most stirring in American history. Yet when fate offered him the chance—twice!—to stop the train of American empire, he turned away…. Bryan stood at a crossroads of history. His decision to support the Treaty of Paris reshaped the world. No other act in his long career had such profound long-term effect.”

* * *

In my traffic jams around Manila, I had lots of time to think about the Spanish-American war and some of the other books that I have read on the subject of American expansion in the Pacific.

Two books that stood out in my mind were James Bradley’s The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War (the armada that he writes about was hardly a secret) and Sentimental Imperialists: The American Experience in East Asia by three academics—James C. Thomson, Jr., Peter W. Stanley, and John Curtis Perry—which makes the connection between the 1900 Open Door polices in China to Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution in Vietnam (both of which were drafted to increase the American trade in Asian souls).

Bradley is the more evocative writer, bringing sound and light to the war of extermination that the United States fought in the Philippines during the early years of the twentieth century.

For example, he quotes from a letter that Henry Adams wrote to Theodore Roosevelt, in which the descendant of the famous Adams family said: “I turn green in bed at night if I think of the horror of a year’s warfare in the Philippines [where] we must slaughter a million or two of foolish Malays in order to give them the comforts of flannel petticoats and electric railways.”

Bradley also has numerous passages that make putting down the Philippine “insurgency” sound like an early variation on the massacre that later occurred in Vietnam at the village of My Lai. He writes:

Early in the war, Filipinos shot and cut open the stomach of a U.S. soldier. General Lloyd Wheaton ordered a massacre of civilians in retaliation. In a letter home, a soldier from Kingston, New York, recalled, “Immediately orders were received from General Wheaton to burn the town and kill every native in sight; which was done to a finish. About 1,000 men, women, and children were reported killed. I am probably growing hard-hearted, for I am in my glory when I can sight my gun on some dark skin and pull the trigger.” F.A. Blake of the American Red Cross visited the Philippines and reported, “American soldiers are determined to kill every Filipino in sight.” And there was “fun” to be had with the women: Captain Fred McDonald ordered every native killed in the hamlet of LaNog, save a beautiful mestizo mother, whom the officers repeatedly raped, before turning her over to the enlisted men.”

Such bloodletting was at odds with the Republican slogan used in the presidential election of 1900, which proclaimed: “The American flag has not been planted in foreign soil to acquire more territory but for humanity’s sake.” It echoes the last line from Sentimental Imperialists, in which the three authors write: “If Americans were, as a group, imperialists, their inexhaustible fuel was sentiment.”

* * *

Another book that I thought about, on my long taxi ride to and from the Manila American Cemetery, was The American Pacific: From the Old China Trade to the Present by Arthur Power Dudden, who was a distinguished professor of history at Bryn Mawr College, which is outside Philadelphia.

The “present” in the title is 1992, when the book was published. Reading the book in 2018, however, I found Dudden’s material still to be fresh, as he covers the American presence in the Pacific from the early whaling ships and the acquisition of Alaska through the war in Vietnam and the rapprochement with China. I am sorry that I never had Professor Dudden as one of my college teachers, as I think I would have enjoyed his insights into the American empire, his historical allusions and puckish sense of humor.

Much of what Dudden writes in his chapter, “Destiny in the Philippines,” is set in and around Manila Bay, which was the dramatic view from the 37th floor of my Airbnb apartment building.

Not to miss anything, I would sleep with the curtains open, and awake at odd hours with jet lag, I would stare at the sweep of the harbor, where container ships were moored on the horizon and, closer to shore, coastal fishing boats and skiffs cruised near to the esplanade.

Of the naval battle that began and practically ended the Spanish-American war in the Philippines, Dudden writes: “Most probably Dewey’s spectacular naval victory at Manila Bay toppled all restraints.”

It was after that 1898 battle, which swept Spanish ships from the harbor, that American ground forces were landed and the troops went after “insurgents” without making much of a distinction in judging their political persuasions.

Dudden describes that ground campaign as one of “ever-expanding bloodshed and bewildering complexity,” and he notes that, for all its paternalism as regarded the islands, a generation later in 1941 the United States (and its supreme leader, General Douglas MacArthur) failed to protect the Philippines from the Japanese invasion and its subsequent brutal occupation.

Off the Marcos era, Dudden writes: “The old joke that the colonial history of the Philippines consisted of three hundred years in a convent followed by fifty years of Hollywood is spinning out an ironic sequel.” I cannot imagine that much about President Duterte’s pig-sticking drug dealers or his bromance with Donald Trump would have surprised the worldly professor.

* * *

I spent my last night in Manila planning my trip outside the city to Corregidor and Bataan. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it might be, as one company, Sun Cruises, has a monopoly on the day-tripping industry there, and every time I tried to call the company or make a reservation online, I was told (by a recording or a page on the web) that the company’s system was “down” or that the tours were “full.” Nor had I been able to stop by the Sun Cruises offices during my time in Manila and buy a ticket.

In the end all that I could ascertain from the internet was that, in theory, two boats left Manila each morning for Corregidor—one at 7:00 a.m. and the other at 10:30 a.m. I decided simply show up for the early boat and take my chances about finding space on board.

When I left my apartment the next morning at 5:30 a.m., it was already daylight and Manila Bay was a shimmering mirror that was hard to imagine as a battlefield. That said, in my bag was a quote from Dudden’s book that I had copied to inform myself about the harbor. It read:

Still, between Bataan and Cavite, astride the narrow straits entering into Manila Bay from the South China Sea, lie Corregidor and the tiny islands nearby, with their war-shattered fortifications and barracks. Ghost-like, the skeletal ruins hauntingly evoke memories of tragic encounters in the Philippine Islands between Spain and the United States, between the United States and Japan. The self-proclaimed destinies of these nations urged them toward the rich prospects China excited in their minds. Each seaborne power, in turn, imposed its colonial empire over the Philippine Islands. Eventually, they collided one after the other, staining red with the blood of their sailors and soldiers the waters of Manila Bay and the Philippine Sea. China’s empire has outlasted them all.

In ferrying toward a place to brood about imperial pretensions—at least in East Asia—I knew that I was headed in the right direction. The only trick was figuring out how to get there. 

Next up: To the island of Corregidor, the American Gibraltar in the Pacific.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.