Power imbalance between men and women in intimate relationships often manifests when there’s a huge difference in their ages, incomes, or cultural backgrounds. What happens when two people are in love but they are vastly different in all three areas? In the case of General Douglas MacArthur’s little-known affair with a young Filipino actress, it was a calamity.
Most people know MacArthur as the iconic World War II general who liberated the Philippines and rebuilt Japan. Few are aware of his scandalous romantic affair in the 1930s. It’s the subject of my historical novel, My MacArthur, which will be released by Sand Hill Review Press on Nov. 1.
In 1930, when MacArthur was 50 years old and divorced, he was the U.S. military’s top dog in the Philippines, an American colony at the time. Any woman in Manila back then couldn’t have chosen anyone more powerful than MacArthur, except Cooper didn’t pick MacArthur. It was the other way around. He saw her across the room during a boxing event and sent her a note on the spot. Reckless? More like hubris. Only someone like MacArthur could break all taboos and get away with it.
Within a few months after MacArthur and Cooper first met, he was appointed as the U.S. Army chief of staff by President Herbert Hoover. MacArthur became the youngest four-star general and one of America’s most powerful men. He arranged for Cooper to be near him (sans marriage) in Washington, D.C. It was vintage MacArthur.
Not a Fairy Tale
A stalwart man falling for a beautiful young woman is the stuff fairy tales are made of, except the MacArthur-Cooper affair didn’t end happily ever after.
While I was researching and writing my novel, the implication of their relationship was not lost on me. Power imbalance doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Considering that the Philippines was an American colony at the time, MacArthur’s relationship with Cooper is arguably a reflection of the power imbalance between the two countries.
In most lopsided relationships, the repercussions are usually worse for the woman, as Cooper experienced. While MacArthur risked his soaring career when he wooed Cooper, she paid a higher price to be with him, judging by the outcome of their careers and lives.
In spite of a four-year relationship, MacArthur didn’t marry Cooper. Perhaps marriage was never in the cards, either because of anti-miscegenation laws back then or other reasons.
History books about MacArthur barely mention Cooper. He certainly kept mum about the relationship in his memoir. When books mention her at all, it’s mostly to depict her as a stereotypical gold digger and femme fatale.
Indeed it’s hard to justify Cooper’s acceptance of money from MacArthur in exchange for her silence, though it’s not hard to imagine her economic hardship after he stopped supporting her. A woman’s financial dependence on a man is a hallmark of an unequal relationship, which serves to perpetuate the dysfunction.
The power imbalance in the MacArthur-Cooper affair was greatly tilted in his favor from the start. Some people attribute it to the conservative norms during the 1930s. In fact, MacArthur and Cooper’s story is relevant today because, unfortunately, gender power imbalance continues in politics, business, and in the most intimate of relationships. If you’ve been following the Kavanaugh hearings, then you know we still have a long way to go.