Digging Out Doug

American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964

by William Manchester
Little, Brown, 709 pp., $15.00

General Douglas MacArthur
General Douglas MacArthur; drawing by David Levine

Dugout Doug, as some GIs called him, was actually brave beyond belief, courting death hundreds of times to set his troops an example. He was in fact our greatest soldier, a field general in three wars over a third of a century (1918-1951) who commanded more troops in battle with fewer casualties than any other American. He also got into more public controversy. His vanity constantly showed through, and when it came to politics people sensed that he had no social or economic program to substitute for victory. His performance in war and as a latter-day Shogun in Japan made history, but that is essentially what they were—performances.

William Manchester has combed the archives and sifted through the mountain of memoirs until he can describe what Douglas MacArthur did and quote what he said almost day by day. This gives his portrait the verisimilitude of local color, with historic events crowding the book. Yet the exploits in MacArthur’s career are so various—“noble and ignoble, inspiring and outrageous, arrogant and shy,…protean,…ridiculous,…sublime,” as Manchester writes—that each event leads back to the question of personality: What self-image motivated MacArthur? What did he think he was doing?

Mr. Manchester does not psychologize MacArthur in the Eriksonian manner but he provides the bits and pieces so that his readers can do so on a do-it-yourself basis. American Caesar is a psychic Erector set. The girders, nuts, and bolts are all laid out, inviting us to put together our own model of the general’s remarkable personality.

The first element is the hero father. In November 1863 when 18,000 Union troops, exceeding orders, stormed the heights of Missionary Ridge above Chattanooga, Captain Arthur MacArthur of the 24th Wisconsin planted the first flag on the summit. He showed himself absolutely fearless in a dozen other battles and at age nineteen became the youngest colonel in the United States Army. After that, however, army life was reduced to Indian wars or military politics in Washington, and Arthur MacArthur was made brigadier general only when sent to Manila in 1898. In charge of catching Aguinaldo and suppressing the Philippine Republic, he was already creating the MacArthur style—a smart professional soldier and imaginative field commander, fearless in exposing himself to enemy fire, considerate of his troops, generous in rewarding subordinates (who included Peyton March and John J. Pershing), given to global pronouncements with a prosy grandiloquence (“ethnological homogeneity,” wrote Arthur MacArthur, “induces men to respond…to the appeals of consanguineous leadership”), intolerant of civilian interference, eager for praise, convinced that Washington was against him, and inclined to censor journalists’ dispatches.

According to his aide, “Arthur MacArthur was the most flamboyantly egotistical man I had ever seen, until I met his son.” Unable to work in tandem at Manila with William Howard Taft, he was ordered home in 1901, but “he simply could not refrain from speaking out of turn,” criticizing the…

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