General Douglas MacArthur
General Douglas MacArthur; drawing by David Levine

These reminiscences by General of the Army Douglas MacArthur would be remarkable if for no other reason than that they may very well comprise the only autobiography by a great man which is almost totally free of self-doubt. There is no soul-searching here, none of the moments of despair, inquietude, fits of gloom that are recorded in the lives of even the most self-possessed of heroic men. MacArthur’s solitary attack of desperation—so far as one can tell—occurred when he was nineteen, while still a plebe at West Point. The occasion was the investigation of a hazing incident, in which young Douglas had been one of the victims. Called upon to divulge the names of the upper classmen involved, he was naturally thrown into a state of anguish—all the more wrenching because of the presence at The Point of his mother, who had taught him stern rules about lying and tattling. This same lady (she was of an old Virginia family, and made her home for long periods with the General until he was past fifty) sent him the following poem during a recess of the court:

Do you know that your soul is of my soul such a part
That you seem to be fiber and core of my heart?
None other can pain me as you, son, can do;
None other can please me or praise me as you.
Remember the world will be quick with its blame
If shadow or shame ever darken your name.
Like mother, like son, is saying so true
The world will judge largely of mother by you.
Be this then your task, if task it shall be
To force this proud world to do homage to me.
Be sure it will say, when its ver- dict you’ve won,
She reaps as she sowed: “This man is her son!”

“I knew what to do,” MacArthur adds. “Come what may, I would be no tattletale.”

The last remark is characteristic. For if a serene confidence untouched by that daily incertitude which afflicts most humans is one of the most immediate and striking features of this book, so too is the style, which it should be said at the outset is disappointingly juvenile. When one recalls those august periods which had rallied so many Americans during World War II, it comes as a surprise that here the tone is distinctly flat and insipid, the laborious prose having been set down with that gauche, manly earnestness that one recollects as a prominent characteristic of the adventures of Tom Swift. One wonders what ever happened to the grandiloquent MacArthur, the MacArthur who endeavored through rhetoric to transform the drab reality of American military life into something as rich and as mythic as medieval knighthood—an ideal typified in the address in 1935 to the veterans of his own World War I Rainbow Division:

Those days of old have vanished tone and tint: they have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is a land where flowers of wondrous beauty and varied colors spring, watered by tears and coaxed and caressed into fuller bloom by the smiles of yesterday…We listen vainly but with thirsty ear for the witching melodies of days that are gone…Youth…strength…aspirations…wide winds sweeping…beacons flashing across unchartered depths…movements…vividness…faint bugles sounding reveille…far drums beating the long roll call…the rattle of musketry…the still white crosses.

This is terrible junk, but it has at least a certain impassioned rhythm, while the greater part of the autobiography, when it is not simply boyish in tone, is set down in that lusterless Eisen-howerese which is so favored by corporation executives and which may be the result of MacArthur’s later years at Remington Rand.* At any rate, the book is often something of a struggle to get through.

The quotation above, incidentally, is taken from Richard H. Rovere and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s less than admiring but very fair The General and the President, published in 1951. A course of supplementary reading is as essential to the Reminiscences as it is to Parson Weems’s life of Washington; and the Rovere-Schlesinger work, although it is primarily concerned with the last, or Korean, phase of MacArthur’s career, is the most informative of an abundant selection. Noting the seventeen years MacArthur spent out of the United States before his recall from Korea in 1951, Rovere and Schlesinger make the observation that “MacArthur is our greatest military expatriate; he was as much in rebellion against our civilization as ever Henry James or Henry Miller was, and he probably symbolized the non-homesick American better than they ever did.” The key word here is non-homesick, and certainly Rovere and Schlesinger’s contention is more than supported by MacArthur’s autobiography. For in trying to understand MacArthur it is important to remember how completely his life was dominated by the Army, by the concept of the professional soldier, and how from the moment of his birth the Army became his home and his only home.


Born in 1880, MacArthur was the son of an ambitious and extremely gifted young officer from Wisconsin, a Union veteran who married a Southern woman whose brothers had fought under Robert E. Lee; the family atmosphere seems to have been one of an exhilarating preoccupation with the military tradition and its achievements, past and present. MacArthur’s father, Arthur MacArthur, eventually became the highest ranking officer in the Army. Douglas MacArthur’s boyhood was spent almost entirely on Army posts, mainly in the Southwest, and after an Army education at West Point (his career there was illustrious; MacArthur does not dwell upon the exact nature of his education, but it must have been, at that time, parochial in the extreme) he rose with amazing speed to become, at thirty-eight, a brigadier general and the youngest divisional commander in the American Expeditionary Force. His military record in France was truly spectacular, and his personal courage has never been in doubt; he returned from the First World War loaded down with decorations and glory.

For a man of such—let it be cautiously called—egocentricity, there is little wonder that the following fifteen years and more, dutiful and dedicated as they were, lacked savor, and therefore make dull reading in the Reminiscences: a colorless tour of duty as Superintendent at West Point, a brigade command in the peaceful Philippines, a corps command in Baltimore, directorship of the Olympic Games committee. Even his five years as Army Chief of Staff (MacArthur writes with perfect aplomb that he accepted this high post solely at the demand of his mother, which must be the most awesome example we have of the influence of motherhood upon the national destiny) were singularly devoid of glamour, their only bright moment being his celebrated skirmish with the bedraggled Bonus Army on Anacostia Flats. This wasn’t much of a war. It is understandable that at the age of fifty-five, having risen as high as one can rise in the Army, burdened with too much rank and heading for premature retirement, MacArthur was rent by such a keen nostalgia for the wartime days that it was like a gaping wound, and that in the midst of the early Roosevelt era—when military men were déclassé anyway—he felt the need to give his Rainbow Division speech with its desperate and frustrated longing, its “thirsty ear” for “far drums beating the long roll call, the rattle of musketry, the still white crosses.” He resigned to become chief military adviser to the Philippines, six years before the cataclysm at Pearl Harbor.

If it is impossible to share MacArthur’s nostalgia for war, to share his passionate identity with the world of soldiering, it is at the same time easy to understand that nostalgia in the light of these fifty-five years. Anyone who has lived as a stranger for any length of time among professional military men, especially officers, is made gradually aware of something that runs counter to everything one has been taught to believe—and that is that most of these men, far from corresponding to the liberal cliché of the super-patriot, are in fact totally lacking in patriotism. They are not unpatriotic, they simply do not understand or care what patriotism is. Most of them, having been molded within the microcosm of Service—Army, Marine Corps, Navy, whatever—are spiritually bound to a Service, not a country, and the homage they pay to Old Glory they could pay to anyone’s flag. A true military man is a mercenary (the calling is not necessarily ignoble, but certainly MacArthur’s role in the Philippines was for all intents and purposes that of a mercenary soldier) and it is within the world of soldiering that he finds his only home. This is why MacArthur, owing no spiritual allegiance to his native land, was able to become the very archetype of an expatriate, hostile to America and understanding almost nothing of it. This is also one of the reasons why, during World War II and to a nearly disastrous degree in Korea, he found it so easy to defy civilian authority: what did these Secretaries of the Army and fussy Presidents—who after all were only Americans—know about the Service, which transcends all?

Nevertheless, if one understands the nostalgia for war which marked these years of his break with America, it still remains a nostalgia that is empyreal and histrionic. Only once in his career did MacArthur lead as small a body of men as a company—one somehow feels that the idea of MacArthur, even as a boy, in command of anything less than a division verges on the ludicrous—and this helps explain why his attitude toward the drab brown, smeary side of military life seems so rosy, and why the rare notice he pays to enlisted troops, whether singly or as a lacerated frontline unit, is always so condescending. MacArthur was a genuine militarist, but like all of this breed he was a hopeless romantic, and almost totally without humor; it was his misfortune to collide head-on many times with that strain in the American character which is obdurate, wry, realistic, and comical. Americans have in many ways been a bloodthirsty people, but except in odd spasms they have never been militaristic, and it is this important distinction that one must take into account when one contemplates MacArthur’s amazing career. For MacArthur, military life may be symbolized by “beacons flashing across uncharted depths…faint bugles sounding reveille,” but for many if not most of his countrymen it is something else: it is reveille. It is training manuals and twenty-mile hikes, stupefying lectures on platoon tactics and terrain and the use of the Lister bag, mountains of administrative paperwork, compulsive neatness and hideous barracks in Missouri and Texas, sexual deprivation, hot asphalt drillfields and deafening rifle ranges, daily tedium unparalleled in its ferocity, awful food, bad pay, ignorant people, and a ritualistic demand for ass-kissing almost unique in the quality of its humiliation. The world that MacArthur thrills to makes most of his fellow Americans choke with horror.


Early in his narrative, describing how careful preparation allowed him to win the highest marks in high school, MacArthur says: “It was a lesson I never forgot. Preparedness is the key to success and victory.” In 1939, in a statement not quoted in this book, he was saying complacently of the Philippines: “It has been assumed, in my opinion erroneously, that Japan covets these Islands. Proponents of such a theory fail fully to credit the logic of the Japanese mind.” But the evidence is now that inadequate preparedness on MacArthur’s part was a central factor in the catastrophe that engulfed the Philippines immediately after Pearl Harbor, and that the General’s failure to implement properly certain crucial plans involving supply led directly to the eventual defeat on Bataan. MacArthur naturally does not linger on these matters, querulously placing the blame on the Navy, on something he calls “Washington,” or an even more nebulous something called “my detractors”—a group that crops up with increasing frequency as the book drags on. There is one bracing passage from the Bataan-Corregidor section of the book, however: it is MacArthur’s description of his departure by PT boat from the dock of the island, in the midst of incredible devastation:

The desperate scene showed only a black mass of destruction. Through the shattered ruins, my eyes sought “Topside,” where the deep roar of the heavy guns still growled defiance. Up there, in command, was my classmate, Paul Bunker. Forty years had passed since Bunker had been twice selected by Walter Camp for the All-American team. I could shut my eyes and see again that blond head racing, tearing, plunging—210 pounds of irresistible power. I could almost hear Quarterback Charley Daly’s shrill voice barking, “Bunker back…”

It is at this point that MacArthur begins increasingly to yammer against censorship. He had been incensed when “Washington” forbade the release of information about the Death March on Bataan, and he writes of this incident: “Here was the sinister beginning of the ‘managed news’ concept by those in power.” This statement was made by a man who could not have been unaware that it was public knowledge that he himself ran the most tightly controlled news agency of the war—an organization dedicated to glorifying MacArthur and so firmly under the General’s thumb that one correspondent who was there called it “the most rigid and dangerous censorship in American history.” (“If you capture Buna,” MacArthur once said to General Eichelberger during the New Guinea campaign, “I’ll give you a Distinguished Service Cross and recommend you for a high British decoration.” Then he added: “Also, I’ll release your name for newspaper publication.”) Nevertheless, most of the field generals and even some of the admirals had enormous respect for MacArthur’s strategical sense, and his fight back to the Philippines from Australia by way of New Guinea remains a brilliant achievement. Maybe it is unfair to complain that the General’s account of these operations—which rank high among his genuine triumphs—seems to be abstract, distant, skimpy in its total effect. While it would be wrong to expect a commander of MacArthur’s position to have spent much time on the front lines (although often during the war communiques from “MacArthur’s Headquarters” misled many newspaper readers into believing that he had done just that), and therefore his account cannot be filled with the smoke of battle and the feel of troops and movement, it is precisely this lack that makes for dull reading when a General has reached that stage of command which is both olympian and “global.” Thus MacArthur writes: “On January 2, 1943, Buna Mission fell; Sanananda fell, and the Papua campaign ended.” This is the General’s single allusion to Sanananda, a bitter and horrible struggle—unknown by name to most Americans—which resulted in as many deaths as the bloody and far more famous battle by the Marines for Tarawa. Another reason comes to mind for such a cavalier reference, and it is less pleasant. It is that in this book no less than in his wartime dispatches, MacArthur is concerned with minimizing his own loss of men.

MacArthur’s habit of self-congratulation, beating its rhythmic way through these pages in a rattle of medals, decorations, flattery from underlings, and adulatory messages from chiefs of state, reaches a crescendo as the Philippines are re-taken and it becomes clear that the war is going to be won. Certainly the work of no modern military leader is filled with so many utterances of admiration, love received and bestowed, and pure vanity; by comparison, the autobiography of Fleet Admiral halsey, no mean hand himself at the immodest appraisal, seems a work of anemic self-abasement. Indeed, by the time MacArthur has reached Manila, the need to describe the charisma of his own physical presence has become so obsessive, and the narcissism is so unremitting, that the effect is somehow vaguely sexual, as if the General had begun to lure the unwilling reader into some act of collaborative onanism. He describes, for example, his first visit to the infamous Santo Tomas prison camp.

When I arrived, the pitiful, half-starved inmates broke out in excited yells. I entered the building and was immediately pressed back against the wall by thousands of emotionally charged people. In their ragged, filthy clothes, with tears streaming down their faces, they seemed to be using their last strength to fight their way close enough to grasp my hand. One man threw his arms around me, and put his head on my chest, and cried unashamedly. A once-beautiful woman in tatters laboriously lifted her son over the heads of the crowd and asked me to touch him…I was kissed, I was hugged…

It is callous and offensive enough—even more so since it was written from the vantage point of mellow reflection—that this passage has for its dominant image not that wretched suffering itself but of a man confusing himself with Christ. It becomes unspeakable when it seems very likely that MacArthur was employing characteristic fantasy in order to obscure the pathetic truth. Protesting MacArthur’s similar description of the “liberation” of another Manila prison camp, Bilibid, a survivor recently wrote a letter to Life magazine—where part of this book was first published—and claimed bluntly that the General’s account was a lie. The prisoners were freed and taken elsewhere, he said, then “unaccountably” brought back to the prison, where MacArthur shortly joined them with his entourage of newspapermen. There was no grateful outburst of welcome, only “wobbly ranks of thin, terribly tired men standing in stony silence.”

MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific command was one prong of a two-pronged assault on Japan, the other being Admiral Nimitz’s Central Pacific force composed primarily of the Navy and Marine Corps. At the beginning of the war MacArthur bitterly opposed this division of the power, and he hated the Navy with a passion; it comes as a pleasant surprise, therefore, that he nowhere makes the claim of having won the war in the Pacific singlehandedly; and the General earns points by offering praise where praise is due, paying tribute to Halsey and Kinkaid and such Air Force men as Kenney and even Major Bong, who contributed so much to the success of his own operations. MacArthur’s unselfish respect for the achievements of other military men is very Prussian. Also it cannot be denied that his own great sweep up through New Guinea and its island outriders to the Philippines was a brilliant feat of aggressive warfare. A kind of exultant momentum seems to take hold of MacArthur as the war concludes, and it carries him through to his undoubtedly fine achievements as the absolute dictator of a conquered Japan. Free of “Washington” at last, MacArthur seems to have undergone in Tokyo a kind of benign metamorphosis. Sternly aloof, authoritarian, he was able nonetheless to display enormous understanding, tact, and even a heretofore concealed strain of magnanimity—as when he firmly resisted the yowls from America and its allies that Emperor Hirohito be tried as a war criminal. No less able a witness than Ambassador Edwin O. Reischauer has paid his earnest compliments to MacArthur’s job of democratization, and similarly Roger Baldwin of the American Civil Liberties Union returned from Japan impressed by his reforms in such areas as constitutional rights, labor, and the enfranchisement of women. Yet both Reischauer and Baldwin think that he outwore his stay and Baldwin has felt that with such central issues as the unionization of government workers the General sided with reaction.

Typically, MacArthur’s long account of his visitation to Japan is Promethean and lacking in any flaw; it is one of the General’s failings that often as soon as he has begun to win the reader over with a sort of hulking charm he loses him by a sudden convulsion of self-righteousness. Thus, despite his magnanimous treatment of the Emperor, he was ruthless in his disposal of the case of General Homma, “the Beast of Bataan” who had reputedly engineered the Death March. In his excellent book, But Not in Shame, John Toland has offered convincing evidence that MacArthur was simply out to get his old enemy of the Philippines and that he rigged a trial that did not faintly resemble a display of justice. Homma, aside from being a man of great personal dignity and humanity, had no inkling of the atrocities taking place at that distant edge of his command. Our hero must have known this, yet in reviewing the trial he ordered Homma peremptorily executed with a statement priggish and insufferable even for MacArthur:

The proceedings show the defendant lacked the basic firmness of character and moral fortitude essential to officers charged with the high command of military forces in the field. No nation can safely trust its martial honor to leaders who do not maintain the universal code which distinguishes between those things that are right and those things that are wrong.

In 1951, recalled from his command in Korea by President Truman, MacArthur received the grandest welcome ever accorded by the American people. The General notes this fact with pride in his Reminiscences, though perhaps at last it is some aberrant modesty which prevents him from recording what had already been spoken and written of him: “the greatest living master of English” (this from Dr. Norman Vincent Peale), “the greatest man alive,” “the greatest man since Christ,” “the greatest man who ever lived.” To these must be added the highest encomium ever received by an American—certainly in the halls of Congress—when after MacArthur’s famous speech to that body, Representative Dewey Short of Missouri, a man educated at Harvard and Oxford, said: “We heard God speak here today, God in the flesh.” (In the Congressional Record he later revised this statement to read, “A great hunk of God in the flesh.”) MacArthur had made a tragic blunder in Korea—failing, as he had with the Japanese in the Philippines, to prepare adequately for Chinese aggression—yet his terrifying plan to extend the war onto the Chinese mainland had been cheered on, in one of those rare militaristic spasms, by vast numbers of Americans. Why they had done so may have best been explained by the British scholar Geoffrey Barraclough:

Whatever view one may otherwise take of his actions, he took his stand on American interests. It is perhaps understandable, in the tense international situation of 1950, that Truman and his advisers found it difficult to acknowledge in the face of the world that the United States had an imperial role in Asia, shaped by long history, which it was going to defend. MacArthur made no bones about it. He cleared the air of cant.

That “Washington,” this time in the form of Harry Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, foresaw that he would “involve us in the wrong war, at the wrong place, with the wrong enemy, at the wrong time,” provided the margin of our salvation.

In spite of his noble protestations, MacArthur had a simple lust for war. Though he was an alien to our civilization, perhaps in the end he was really not so remote from it that it is possible for us to rest easy with his sentiments, his yearning, and with those men who share his yearning. Toward the last days of his career he claimed over and over to be a lover of peace, a man who hated more than anything the idea of war. Yet he gave a final supposedly extemporaneous speech at West Point. And the lines of farewell from that speech recorded on the last page of the book—for a peace-lover they seem inappropriate but they do not surprise us; we have seen those very words before—are filled with the same old nostalgia:

The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished tone and tine they have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears, and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen vainly, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll…the crash of guns…

This Issue

October 8, 1964