Buchanan on Dean, 'MacArthur's Coalition: US and Australian Military Operations in the Southwest Pacific Area, 1942-1945'

Peter J. Dean
Andrew N. Buchanan

Peter J. Dean. MacArthur's Coalition: US and Australian Military Operations in the Southwest Pacific Area, 1942-1945. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2018. 496 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2604-5.

Reviewed by Andrew N. Buchanan (University of Vermont) Published on H-War (November, 2018) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=52135

In this fine piece of scholarship, Peter Dean moves seamlessly back and forth from the elevated levels of grand strategy—“national interest”—and strategic deliberation to the details of operational planning and tactical action. The result is a comprehensive account of the joint US-Australian campaign in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) from 1942 to 1945.

Ordered out of the collapsing US position in the Philippines, General Douglas MacArthur arrived in Australia in March 1942 to take command of the newly established SWPA. It was a moment of great crisis. The short-lived American-British-Dutch-Australian (ABDA) command had collapsed under the hammer blows of the Japanese offensive, and Japanese forces were advancing into New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and even menacing northern Australia. Meanwhile, crack Australian troops were thousands of miles away fighting with British-Imperial forces in the Middle East.

The crisis forced Washington and Canberra and their respective military forces into a close wartime alliance. As Dean shows, this development had not figured in anyone’s prewar planning. The US military’s Plan Orange did—accurately, as it turned out—feature a protracted counter-offensive against Japanese forces in the central Pacific, but insofar as it featured at all Australia was viewed simply as a staging area for US naval forces on their way to seek a decisive battle elsewhere. Similarly, Australian planners expected to be shielded by British naval forces deployed to the Far East as part of London’s “Singapore Strategy.” Both sets of assumptions were shattered by Japan’s dramatic early victories. Lacking the land, sea, or air forces necessary for a major counteroffensive, Washington quickly came to view Australia as a critical area in which to amass its forces while fighting alongside the Australians to contain Japanese advances into the New Guinea-Solomon Island chain. For its part, the Australian government realized that they could expect little assistance from British forces that were already fully committed defending the British Isles and the “imperial lifeline” to India via the Suez Canal. London’s reluctance to release Australian troops from the Middle East deepened Canberra’s resentment, and as Prime Minister John Curtin explained, Australia turned to the United States “without any inhibitions of any kind … and free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom” (p. 2).

This unanticipated coincidence of American and Australian interests underpinned the formation of the SWPA command. Established within the framework of the “combined” military structures set up at the first Anglo-American wartime conference in December 1941, the decision to assign Washington responsibility for the war in the Pacific ensured that SWPA was essentially an integral part of an exclusively American chain of command. The appointment of the imperious MacArthur to lead SWPA ensured that this fundamental relationship was never in doubt. MacArthur ignored instructions from the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington to integrate Australian officers into his GHQ staff. Although Dean does not draw this point out, the contrast between MacArthur’s exclusively American leadership in SWPA and Eisenhower’s carefully integrated Anglo-American AFHQ in the Mediterranean is instructive. Ironically, the marginalization of senior Australian commanders in the SWPA set-up was aided by the attitude of Curtin and other Australian political leaders who appear to have been enthralled by MacArthur’s talent for self-promotion.

In the first two years of the war the paucity of American resources forced MacArthur to rely heavily on Australian forces and this relationship required the creation of at least the appearance of bilateral consultation and integration. Senior Australian general Thomas Blamey was assigned to lead all Allied ground forces and given command of operations in New Guinea. In reality, however, Blamey’s command simply reflected the predominance of Australian ground forces in the early stages of the war, and MacArthur’s leadership style and the structure of his command ensured that the Australian commander was effectively excluded from top-level strategic planning.

Leadership difficulties in SWPA were exacerbated by what Dean refers to as MacArthur’s preference for “cooperative” command arrangements over the “joint” approach practiced in other theaters. There, all the land, sea, and air assets provided by participating Allied forces were placed under the command of a single Allied officer; in contrast, in MacArthur’s SWPA the integration of assets relied heavily on “individual commanders’ abilities to collaborate” (p. 256). In particular, air and naval forces were never placed under a unified leadership. The ability of commanders to forge—or to fail to forge—collaborative relations had major operational consequences in a theater that demanded constant and complex interaction between Allied forces on land, sea, and in the air. The inherent problems of “cooperative” command were compounded by MacArthur’s penchant for micro-managing action at the operational and even the tactical level as well as by his reliance on a narrow clique of senior officers—the so-called Bataan Gang—who had been with him in the Philippines. As Dean highlights, it was very much “his coalition” (p. 5).

A great deal has been written about MacArthur’s arrogant and domineering personality and his habit of claiming all victories and all good ideas as his own, and here Dean travels well-worn ground. MacArthur personality and command set-up meant that life in SWPA was not necessarily easier for senior American officers than it was for the Australians. After distinguishing himself in the fighting around Buna, for example, General Robert Eichelberger found himself sidelined by MacArthur for daring to court publicity for his exploits. Nevertheless, insufferable arrogance does not necessarily imply strategic incompetence and—without fully developing the point—Dean implies that MacArthur’s broad strategic design had more to offer than the rival drive across the central Pacific advocated by the US Navy. In the light of SWPA’s considerable achievements despite the limited naval support supplied by the Navy, it seems to me that this is a plausible, if unpopular, argument.

Dean is particularly good at describing how American and Australian soldiers were able to forge close bonds of collaboration at the operational and tactical level despite the problems of top-level command and initial barriers of mutual misunderstanding and prejudice. In particular, the eager but entirely inexperienced Americans came to appreciate the battlefield smarts of Australian comrades who had been hardened by fighting in North Africa. This deepening cooperation paid dividends. Beginning with the bitter defensive battles on the Kokoda Track in central New Guinea in early 1942, American and Australian forces went on to launch bloody counterattacks against well-entrenched Japanese positions around Buna and Gona on the island’s north shore before embarking on the cunningly conceived and brilliantly executed triphibious offensives that captured Salamaua, Lea, and Madang in spring 1944 and ended the Japanese occupation.

These campaigns are at the heart of Dean’s narrative, and he describes them in great detail. His description of these complex operations is strengthened by an excellent series of maps that allow readers who are unfamiliar with the topography to follow the flow of events. Moreover, Dean intertwines these operational studies with his presentation of developments at the political and strategic levels to create a dense and multilayered account of the whole; the level of detail and complexity—not to mention the numerous colorful personalities—is not for the faint of heart, but the result is well worth the effort.

With the end of major combat operations in New Guinea in spring 1944, the character of operations in SWPA changed dramatically. With American men and material flowing into the theater in large numbers and with American forces mastering the complexities of integrated land, sea, and air operations, MacArthur no longer had to rely on the Australians. As a result, the invasion of the Philippines would be largely an American affair. Australian forces were excluded from SWPA’s main offensive and were instead deployed to secure New Guinea and then to recapture Borneo in summer 1945. Australia remained important to the Americans as a major staging area and provider of supplies—Australia was the only Allied country to which the United States emerged from the war indebted through “reverse lend-lease”—but the Australian military no longer played a major part in US-led campaigns. Reflecting this new reality, Australia’s grandly titled Forward Echelon Advance Land HQ (Forland) was reduced to tagging along behind MacArthur’s GHQ as it advanced to Hollandia and then to Leyte. Forland’s staff officers played no part in strategic planning, and to add insult to injury they were unwelcome at the GHQ mess. MacArthur unceremoniously quashed a scheme to give Australian and British-Imperial forces a greater role in the end game against Japan by leading a new “Commonwealth Army” from Darwin to Singapore and Malaya.

Perhaps not surprisingly given the dramatic change in the American-Australian relationship within SWPA, Dean’s narrative rather loses its way after the victory in New Guinea. The final section on the SWPA in 1944-45 is brief and has a tacked-on feel. This is unfortunate given the importance of “securing” New Guinea and Borneo against not only the Japanese but also against burgeoning movements for national independence, but it is entirely understandable in a study that is focused on American-Australian collaboration.

Dean’s fine book prompts another thought. Dean describes SWPA and the wartime relationship between Australia and the United States upon which it was based as a “coalition of convenience” (p. 370). He is undoubtedly right, and his account highlights the ways in which “convenience” changed as the United States became stronger, more experienced, and less reliant on its Australian ally. The question is: is there ever some other kind of coalition? As a historian who has written on Anglo-American collaboration in World War II, I was struck by the similarities between it and the American-Australian relationship described by Dean. Clearly, there are substantial differences in the relative strength of the participants, but the overall arcs of development—from close collaboration necessitated by the relative weakness and inexperience of American forces, through hard-fought advances in which both sides played a major role, to the increasingly forceful assertion of American predominance—run broadly parallel. In this, perhaps, Dean’s study helps to illustrate the time-based and contingent character of all wartime alliances and to move us away from the old saws about the natural unity of the “English-speaking peoples” that still have such a grip on writing and thinking about World War II.



Citation: Andrew N. Buchanan. Review of Dean, Peter J., MacArthur's Coalition: US and Australian Military Operations in the Southwest Pacific Area, 1942-1945. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52135

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