General of the Army Douglas MacArthur smoking his corncob pipe, probably at Manila, Philippine Islands, 2 August 1945/Naval Historical Center; Photo #: USA C-2413 (Color), photograph from the Army Signal Corps Collection in the U.S. National Archives

The Great Man theory of history seems an idea whose time has gone, although candidates have lately sprung up in Russia, China, and America. The self-fashioned commander embodies his own nation’s identity, and indeed all things to all men, within a legendary pantheon across the centuries: Alcibiades, Napoleon, Mao Zedong. The qualities required include “command presence” defined as occupying more space in a room than one’s actual size; an exalted reputation leavened with flashes of the common touch; a vaguely genealogical mystique; and an oracular rhetorical style of speech in an awareness that words may matter most of all. From boyhood on, something informs such personalities that greatness beckons, yet flaws, sometimes tragic, at other times merely human, will be revealed.

A distinctively unforgettable physical appearance is required. Arthur Herman opens his massive, unfailingly evocative biography Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior with:

You can see him in your mind’s eye. The khaki uniform and pressed pants, the gold braided cap, the sunglasses, the corncob pipe firmly in his teeth and the ramrod straight back . . . as the years passed, Americans came to see him as a pillar of strength—or a tower of vanity. A man ready to be the savior of his country—or a man the country needed to be saved from.

This is not a personage one can imagine coming down the corridor of the D Ring in today’s Pentagon.

In World War I, MacArthur’s appearance was almost insolently unorthodox: a gray West Point sweater with his varsity “A,” a crumpled barracks cap instead of a helmet, a riding crop, and no sidearms—all as visible proof of his supposed invulnerability. As the top American official in the Philippines in 1936, he spent most of an hour each morning primping to sartorial perfection for the delectation of his public and took the title “Field Marshal” of the Philippine Army while costumed in a specially designed uniform of operetta-style grandiosity. Yet on other occasions, MacArthur followed the example of some of history’s supremos by appearing with no medals whatsoever. And at still other times, he would appear in studied dishevelment: when summoned by President Truman to Wake Island in October 1950 to confer on the Korean War, he appeared, as Truman described it, “with his shirt unbuttoned, wearing a greasy ham and egg cap that evidently had been in use for twenty years.” Too much for the former haberdasher to bear.

MacArthur is not a personage one can imagine coming down the corridor of the D Ring in today’s Pentagon.

Beneath his outer garb, whichever mode he chose, MacArthur was sharply assessed by the women in his life, most intriguingly by his mother, who, until her dying day, followed him everywhere in his career—from West Point to Manila and all possible assignments in between with no embarrassment detectable on the part of her son. The general was no hero to his first wife, who mocked him as “a buck private” in bed. Clare Boothe Luce—who surely knew more about famous men than any other woman of her era—noted when interviewing him for Life magazine that he was “actually a small man with narrow sloping shoulders and tiny delicate hands.” But the camera loved him, and those encountering him up-close were invariably awed by his personal psychological dominance. Even Luce had to conclude that he was not a fraud but a “genius.”

A genius of what? Of grand strategy, of possessing what Clausewitz called the coup d’oeil: the supreme commander’s native ability to size up a military situation as though from on high and to dare to act decisively against the odds and obstacles that others would feel compelled to take into account. MacArthur’s was not so much a career as a force of nature continuously directed toward striking in surprise his adversary’s Clausewitzian “center of gravity.” Such decisions invariably are controversial and every operation, in Wellington’s phrase, “a near-run thing.” Herman’s account of MacArthur’s generalship aspires to near-Thucydidean heights as a manual for statecraft and might have come closer to classic status if the author had contained his temptation to explain and justify each episode.

MacArthur’s destiny was played out in the light of his father’s fame: Arthur MacArthur was arguably the greatest U.S. military officer of his time. At a fort on the Rio Grande, when Geronimo was restive, the boy Douglas learned to ride and shoot. He imbibed his father’s profound certainty that America’s future lay in Asia, drawn from reading and writing on China and his own legendary service in the Philippine War; all through his formative years, young Douglas gained a love of the Army “to almost religious idolatry.”

MacArthur’s first heroic escapade came at Veracruz when President Wilson’s incursion into Mexico ran into trouble. His cinematic derring-do with a commandeered locomotive brought a Medal of Honor recommendation, which was denied for lack of witnesses and his own flouting of orders.

MacArthur possessed what Clausewitz called the coup d’oeil.

In the run-up to the Great War, MacArthur forged the “Rainbow Division” to incorporate national guard units from many states as the first truly all-American force. While commanding it in France, he sparked a rivalry with General Pershing that would dog him again and again over the years as MacArthur came to embody the saying that “It is sometimes the order that you don’t obey that makes you famous.” In 1918 MacArthur’s division was in trench-raid combat for eighty-two days, taking almost 2,000 casualties. Beginning what would seem an absurdly large collection of Silver Stars, MacArthur was promoted by Pershing, under pressure from Washington, to brigadier general, with Pershing getting satisfaction by denying MacArthur’s second Medal of Honor recommendation. The Secretary of War countered by declaring MacArthur “the greatest American field commander produced by the war.”

The 1920s and 1930s immersed MacArthur in a mélange of boring assignments, politically dangerous responsibilities, personal embarrassments, and notable achievements: Superintendent of West Point; opposition (apparently) to the court-martial of Colonel Billy Mitchell for excessively promoting air power; leader of the U.S. Olympic Committee as America won the Amsterdam Games. As Army Chief of Staff—unsuccessfully opposed by Pershing—MacArthur faced down fdr in a fight over the defense budget, but then did Roosevelt’s dirty work in breaking the Veterans’ Bonus March, which gained him the label “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” Even more potentially devastating was the discovery by the gossip columnist Drew Pearson that the now-celebrated Army Chief of Staff was keeping a mistress, a Filipina movie star, in a Washington apartment, a scandal covered up by a shady deal before mother learned of it.

With the Second World War on the horizon, MacArthur was assigned an impossible task: plan to defend the archipelago against the amphibious and air attack that surely would be mounted by Imperial Japan. MacArthur’s preparations would be infamously denounced when, on the day after Pearl Harbor, his B-17 squadron counted on to bomb the incoming enemy was, through confused communications, destroyed on its airstrip. MacArthur then took the fateful decision to withdraw his headquarters to the island fortress of Corregidor and commit American troops to defend the Bataan peninsula to the death.

The debacle was swiftly reversed psychologically as the American people, yearning for a hero after all the bad news, saw in MacArthur an inspiring figure single-handedly standing up to the Japanese onslaught. As Herman describes it, untruth, exaggeration, and self-deception all were employed to lift America’s morale.

Suddenly a national icon, MacArthur was ordered to leave Corregidor and set up headquarters in Australia. A reporter overheard him say “I shall return,” a declaration everafter attached to his legend. But he also had vowed “to die with his men on the rock,” words that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

With his flair for the theatrical, MacArthur refused to be taken to Australia by submarine, instead to be carried by Patrol Torpedo boats across vast stretches of open sea patrolled by Japan; it was an irresponsibly stupid decision, and the harrowing mishaps that resulted nearly doomed the general and his entourage several times over until, reaching Mindanao, they were flown over Japanese-held Java and the Dutch East Indies to Australia. There, finally awarded the Medal of Honor, MacArthur took supreme command as Bataan surrendered, and MacArthur’s comrades suffered a living hell before death, or life worse than death as prisoners of the Japanese.

With the Second World War on the horizon, MacArthur was assigned an impossible task.

Herman describes America’s Pacific strategy in immense detail, causing even a well-informed reader to reconsider whether it was strategically sound or seriously distorted by interservice rivalries. Bitter personal and institutional ambitions clashed over decisions for resources, but a grand strategy nonetheless emerged between design and opportunistic case-by-case maneuvering. The glamour would belong to the Navy with its iconic Corsair and Dauntless aircraft, dashing pilots, and rugged admirals as they won Pacific carrier battles highlighted by Midway and “the Marianas Turkey Shoot” and to the unimaginably courageous Marines who stormed ashore to take enemy-held islands.

In the Western Pacific it was otherwise. MacArthur’s army and land-based Fifth Air Force fought along a string of strange names in places still remote today—Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Rabaul, Leyte—all aptly labeled by Herman as “Green Hell” and surely among the worst disease-ridden, god-awful war-fighting terrain in history. Operating nearly separately, yet taken together in the impact they made, the Navy defeated Japan’s forward thrust, while MacArthur’s Army defeated the enemy’s ground forces in a war for the region whose resources were crucial to Japan’s military-industrial power.

The two arms of American strategy then came together in the battle to retake the Philippines, which Fleet Admiral Ernest King would have bypassed altogether. When fdr visited the Pacific theater to tell MacArthur that fighting to liberate the Philippines would be a mistake, he was confronted by the great commander in his full self-fashioned persona: leather flight jacket, Filipino Field Marshal cap, aviator sunglasses, enormous corncob pipe—all enveloped in a silent political aura, the awareness that MacArthur by this time was spoken of as a possible challenger for the presidency. “In all my life,” Roosevelt later said, “nobody has ever talked to me the way MacArthur did.” MacArthur prevailed, and thus came about the war’s most famous photograph: the heroic general sloshing ashore at Leyte from his sandbar-blocked landing craft and then his radio transmission: “People of the Philippines, I have returned!”

From then on, American strategy was less grand than grinding: Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and then—President Truman’s atomic bomb decision to end it all.

MacArthur’s appointment by Truman to be Supreme Commander of Allied Powers in Japan (scap) would be his finest role, actual and theatrical. His arrival, unarmed, at Yokohama at a time when one fanatic diehard might have caused a catastrophe was called by Churchill “the single most courageous act of the war.” His stagecraft for the surrender ceremony aboard ussMissouri in Tokyo Bay was one of history’s masterpieces of performance art. His oratory at that moment recalled the mission of civilization vouchsafed to Aeneas:

Yours will be the rulership of nations,
Remember, Roman, these will be your arts:
To teach the ways of peace to those you conquer,
To spare defeated peoples, tame the proud.

And, like Roman emperors, MacArthur would hear voices recalling him to the reality that he was less than divine, that in fact he was, as President Truman sneered, “Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat, Four Star MacArthur . . . a play actor and a bunko man.”

MacArthur knew that victors across history had suffered severe setbacks from extended occupations of defeated lands and was determined not to follow their example. As Herman assesses it, MacArthur “is still the one occupier of a foreign country in modern history to emerge with his reputation enhanced rather than diminished.” MacArthur met the challenge by first recognizing that this would be the largest administrative task ever undertaken by the U.S. Army. Second, by making it absolutely clear that he fully possessed supreme authority. Third, by preserving the dignity and gaining the trust of a real emperor, Hirohito. And, finally, by seeing the occupation as “the world’s greatest laboratory for an experiment in the liberation of a people from totalitarian military rule and for the liberalization of government from within.”

George F. Kennan, with his unerring propensity for missing the grand strategic point, intellectually assaulted MacArthur at the height of his influence and popularity: too slow on industrial recovery, too much demobilization, all detailed by Kennan in a forty-two-page diatribe against scap and all its works. Japan, Kennan said, should be an anti-communist ally of the United States, not a model for liberalizing Asia. Kennan regarded his 1948 trip to Japan as “the most significant constructive contribution I was ever able to make in government,” believing that he had “tethered” MacArthur and reversed America’s Japan occupation policy. It would take a while, but Japan emerged as both a liberal Asian model as well as a Cold War ally, a product of MacArthur’s more expansive feel for the future.

MacArthur returned to America as more a legend than merely the hero he undoubtedly was.

With the Atomic Age opening, a doctrine of containment was in some sense unavoidably obvious. Kennan’s containment doctrine had a major flaw: what if communism broke through the container at a place where American forces were not unambiguously committed and where political realities militated against a U.S. military response? The Korean War displayed both MacArthur’s strategic genius and his own flaws, revealing his natural coup d’oeil talent and his loss of it through hubris.

In March of 1949 MacArthur’s delineation of Asia’s line of defense did not include Korea, making him the precursor of Acheson’s famous and much-denounced January 1950 speech to the National Press Club, which did the same. War came, shockingly soon after the end of World War II. At age seventy, MacArthur was appointed Commander-in-Chief of United Nations–authorized coalition forces and also given control of the Republic of Korea’s military.

Driven back to the “Pusan Perimeter” on Korea’s far southeast coast, MacArthur devised, and by force of will put into action, an immense amphibious operation all around the peninsula to carry out his surprise Inchon Landing, a strategem that would take its place in history’s annals of improbably daring actions alongside Demosthenes’s seaborne expedition around the Peloponnese to strike ashore at Pylos near Sparta and Wolfe’s scaling the Heights of Abraham to surprise Montcalm at Quebec. The Inchon assault turned the war around. Thereafter, however, MacArthur’s strategic gift, like Napoleon’s by 1812, seemed to lose its magic as he divided his forces after crossing the 38th parallel and advanced to the Yalu border of Mao’s China ahead of intelligence-gathering capacities. Herman sorts through all the complexities of the Korean War’s course up and down and up the peninsula again and makes the best case for MacArthur, but something once there was there no longer. When Washington decided on a ceasefire and a demilitarized zone to divide Korea, MacArthur’s plan was to use atom bombs on Manchuria, to spread nuclear waste along the North Korea-China border, to pull Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese forces from Taiwan into the war, and to move the U.S. Eighth Army across the 38th parallel again—all this while calling upon Mao to admit defeat or face a far wider war. MacArthur’s letter to the U.S. House of Representatives declaring that “there is no substitute for victory” was taken as insubordination to civilian control of the armed forces. As Commander-in-Chief, President Truman relieved MacArthur of his duties in April 1951.

MacArthur returned to America as more a legend than merely the hero he undoubtedly was. The issues his life and career raised still have not been worked out. From the Korean War to the present, and very likely for the foreseeable future, the United States has not fought a war with the intention of winning it: the costs seeming too great to BEAR. So wars, which still have to be fought, go endlessly on until one side grows weary and withdraws—usually our side.

This reality makes MacArthur: American Warrior close to an epic, while at the same time bearing out Thomas Mann’s claim that only the exhaustively detailed is truly interesting. More than a biography, it is a tale of a time in the past almost impossible to contemplate today as having taken place, with MacArthur himself as a figure perhaps too remote to understand, but all the more important to encounter.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 10, on page 76
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