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The American Experience
Suggestions for the Classroom

Themes: U.S. military history, imperialism, international relations, domestic politics, media, propaganda, geography, psychology, social change

    teachers image No soldier in modern history has been more admired--or more reviled. Douglas MacArthur, liberator of the Philippines, shogun of Occupied Japan, brilliant victor of the Battle of Inchon, was an admired national hero when he was suddenly relieved of his command. A portrait of a complex, imposing and fascinating American general. (4 hours)

Before Watching

  1. Discuss the concept of the "great man" in history, and the qualities such a person might possess. Suggest a few people who have at times been categorized as such: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King. How is someone determined a "great man"? Who determines this? Is such a term applicable today? Ask students to designate people they might consider "great men" and "great women," past and present, and discuss their choices.

  2. Locate Pearl Harbor on a map and briefly review the events there leading to American involvement in WWII in 1941. Ask students to compare the roles of the President and the military in deciding on a response to such an attack. Who by law has the most power? Where does the President get his information? Where do military leaders get their information? Whose experience and information is more relevant? What circumstances, if any, allow for a military leader to disregard orders from the President?

After Watching

  1. MacArthur has been described as a "tremendously great man with tremendously great weaknesses." Ask students if they agree with this assessment. Do they consider him "great"? What might make him so? What do they see as his shortcomings? Can a "great man" also have failures and weaknesses?

  2. Why is Part I of the film called "Destiny"? What events shaped MacArthur into the man he was? What was his background like? What was his relationship with his parents like? Why did he strive to become a military hero? Where did his distrust of government come from? How did his experience at Chatillon affect him?


  1. MacArthur's most famous quote, "I shall return," was the last part of a simple statement made to reporters after his escape from Corregidor:

    "The President of the United States ordered me to break through the Japanese lines and proceed from Corregidor to Australia for the purpose, as I understand it, of organizing the American offensive against Japan, a primary objective of which is the relief of the Philippines. I came through and I shall return."

    Ask students to analyze this statement. What does the wording say about the person making the statement? Why is it in first person? Why does MacArthur use the phrase "as I understand it"? Did the President expressly mention relief of the Philippines as a "primary objective"? Why would MacArthur see relief of the Philippines as such?

    Then ask students to collect current news stories from newspapers, magazines, TV, or the Internet. Discuss the concept of "spin" in terms of the stories they bring in as well as the above statement. Why might someone use "spin"? What is the role of media in "spin"? What are the potential effects of spin?

  2. MacArthur predicted that the advent of the A-bomb would make soldiers like him obsolete. Ask your students to discuss what this means. Was he right? How do such weapons change war? How does their use compare with ground fighting or non-nuclear bombing? How do they change diplomacy? Who decides when they will be used?

    Then ask students to research the countries currently known (via public means) to possess nuclear weapons technology. When they present their findings, discuss the meaning of these facts in terms of the world today. How do students think the US should handle military conflicts with countries such as Iraq? Yugoslavia? What sorts of dangers do each pose? Does the UN have the right to search Iraq's arsenals? Who decides which countries, if any, should have such technology?

  3. Ask students to read the poem written by MacArthur's mother to him in 1901, as well as her various other correspondences found in the primary source documents on the web site. Discuss what her own motives might have been regarding her son's career. What does her writing say about a woman's personal power in the world at the turn of the century? In what ways could she gain personal power? What did personal power mean to her? Would students consider MacArthur's mother successful in gaining power for herself? How might mother-son relationships have been different then?

  4. As Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers after the Japanese surrender, MacArthur's first directive in Tokyo was to raise the American flag over the American Embassy there. At the flag-raising ceremony, MacArthur commented, "We stand in Tokyo today, reminiscent of our countryman, Commodore Perry, 92 years ago. His purpose was to bring to Japan an era of enlightenment and progress...It is my purpose."

    Have students research and imagine life as a Japanese citizen before and after the surrender (starting points might be the Enhanced Transcript and Interview Transcripts found on the web site). Ask them to write letters from the point of view of a Japanese citizen residing in 1946-47 Tokyo to relatives or friends living abroad. Are "enlightenment and progress" appropriate terms for describing changes in Japanese life? Did Japanese citizens welcome the foreign command? What effect did the new Japanese Constitution, written by foreigners, have on life? How were women's lives different? farmers? students? How did the role of the Emperor change? Did the Japanese respect MacArthur? Did they resent him?

  5. MacArthur once commented that he "understood the Oriental mind." Have students make a timeline of his extensive experience in Asia, highlighting specific events. Discuss what this experience entailed. In what ways did he interact with Asian peoples? How did he gather his information? What did he mean by "Oriental mind"? Do students agree with his assessment?

  6. When President Truman fired MacArthur in 1951, the general returned home to the biggest tickertape parade in US history. Was MacArthur a success or a failure as a military leader? Divide the class in half, and ask one group to defend MacArthur's military record and the other to repudiate it. Have them cite specific events in MacArthur's career, as well as commentary by historians and colleagues concerning these events, using the film as well as features on the web site (Enhanced Transcript, Interview Transcripts, primary documents, and People and Events). What do historians say about MacArthur? Do they have varying views? What is the basis for their opinions? What did journalists of his day say about MacArthur? What did MacArthur believe about himself? Did he live up to his personal goals? What does his 1951 testimony before Congress (found in the People and Events section of the web site) reveal about these beliefs? How did Congress react to this speech? How did the public?

Educators & Librarians: You may order "MacArthur" at PBS Video.