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Protesters Scuffle with Riot Police Calling for Dismantling of a Statue of Douglas MacArthur in Incheon, South Korea, on Sunday

'We Were Taught That Truman Was an Idiot, but MacArthur a Hero'

The battle between those that idealize General Douglas MacArthur and those that revile him is based on a misunderstanding of the general’s true role in Korean History. Arguing against tearing down a statue of the great man in Incheon, this op-ed article from South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo suggests building more statues instead.

By Kang Kyu-hyung

September 15, 2005

Original Article (English)    


Police block pro-U.S. protesters to prevent a clash with anti-U.S. Protesters on Sunday

When we were children, our teachers told us that General Douglas MacArthur was the man who saved South Korea, and that Korea would have already achieved unification but for “the idiot Harry Truman." MacArthur was our hero, but Truman was the traitor who sacked him. The English text I with deep emotion all but memorized during my high school days was MacArthur's farewell address before a joint session of the U.S. Congress, with the famous phrase "Old soldiers never die; they just fade away."

It was not until I began to study Cold War history in the United States that those perceptions changed. Harry Truman, the “idiot," was one of the most respected U.S. presidents. MacArthur was being evaluated fairly against brilliant achievements like the Incheoon Landing and his darker side -- including arbitrary decisions to ignore presidential instructions and his consequent strategic errors in the Korean War.

Korea is now unexpectedly engulfed in a dispute over MacArthur. Some propose that the Incheon International Airport be rechristened MacArthur Airport, while others wage a campaign denigrating the general. Some organizations held a rally in Incheon’s Freedom Park on Saturday, calling for an end to “60 years of U.S. military occupation.” They attempted to topple the MacArthur statue by force, asserting that he was a warmonger and the ringleader in massacres of civilians and Korea's division. But that, too, is sadly an incorrect evaluation of the general.

South Korean Vet Salutes MacArthur on Sunday

Through his achievements in the Pacific War, MacArthur not only contributed more than anyone to defeating imperial Japan, but also cemented the foundation upon which Japan has been able to develop as a democratic country. In the Korean War, he successively executed the Incheon Landing. On the other hand, excessive self-confidence and sheer willfulness led him to commit errors, like greatly underestimating Chinese forces and misjudgments like plans to bomb the Chinese mainland. [He proposed the use of nuclear weapons].

As a result, the American people deserted him when he sought to be nominated as a presidential candidate after he was discharged from active service. But flawed as he was, MacArthur was a soldier who, convinced that totalitarianism was wrong, endeavored to safeguard liberal democracy.

South Korean War Vet Parade on 55th Anniversary of MacArthur's Incheon Landing

The essence of the drive to tear down the MacArthur statue lies elsewhere. It is anti-Americanism and pro-North Korean sentiment that attaches supreme importance to unification. This notion, which sprouted in the 1980s and has gained force of late, says that the Korean War was a war of national unification that would have ended quickly with far less bloodshed but for U.S. intervention. Our perspective of MacArthur and the United States has become distorted. It is either pro- or anti-American.

The French writer Frederic Beigbeder says in his novel "Windows on the World" that anti-Americanism contains both jealousy and disillusioned love. Doesn't our anti-Americanism, too, contain the anger that arises from unrequited love? It cannot be denied that in our attitude toward the U.S., either for or against, we spout only sentiments, without a cool-headed analysis of America.

When we fail to understand MacArthur, who was a complex man, and the U.S., a country of many facets, we experience the symptoms of extreme jealousy or hatred. One such symptom is a violent attempt to erase the group experience of the U.S. presence and the collective memory of MacArthur, without exchanging them with reasonable thoughts.

Would it not now be better to evoke constructive memories and present a fresh alternative? It might be more effective to erect statues of Yeo Un-hyeong, a leftwing independence activist, and Chang Ji-rak, the hero of our national ballad "Arirang," to compete with images of the so-called conservative forces of Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee and MacArthur. Wrecking a statue cannot make the collective memory disappear.

This column was contributed by Kang Kyu-hyung, professor of Myongji University.

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