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 War Department or the White House or prophesying war with Japan or Germany. Lieutenant General MacArthur, though the army’s senior general, was passed over for chief of staff, and at sixty-four he resigned his commission, bitterly disappointed. His son Douglas followed in his footsteps but went farther in every direction.

The second influence was a determined mother, a southern belle from Norfolk, who nightly told little Douglas, “You must grow up to be a great man like your father” (or alternatively “like Robert E. Lee”). She dressed him in skirts “and kept his hair in long curls until he was eight.” But at West Texas Military Academy he made himself shortstop and quarterback, top scholar and valedictorian. For a competitive examination to get his West Point nomination, his mother got him a special tutor. He scored 99 1/3 percent. During his four years at West Point she lived just off the plain at Craney’s Hotel and he usually saw her daily before dinner.

These parental compulsions were visited upon a young man of great innate ability and personal charm whose first recollections were of bugles and riding boots at forts on the Wild West frontier and whose whole life aimed at military leadership. At West Point he wound up as first captain of the corps, like Robert E. Lee and John J. Pershing. Wars were correctly spaced to give him opportunity. His exploits were amazing—at forward reconnaissance, for instance. In France, MacArthur not only led his men over the top, at night he crawled through battlefields to appraise the results. The night after the American victory at Saint Mihiel, he and his adjutant crept through no-man’s-land and through the German lines, and from a hilltop observed the enemy’s disorder. He reported an attack could make a breakthrough, but headquarters had its own preconceptions and the chance was lost. In France MacArthur received seven Silver Stars for bravery.


His personal get-up was already distinctive and contrary to regulations—a four-foot muffler, a turtleneck sweater, no helmet, no gas mask, a riding crop but no arms. This visibility and his front-line courage were part of his charisma as a leader of men. But he also mastered his planning and paperwork, never forgot anything, and trained his staff to handle their specialties while he was with his troops.

From the archives Mr. Manchester has also exhumed the seamier record—servile letters toadying to superiors with heavy-handed flattery. For example, a letter from his mother to Pershing soliciting her son’s promotion to brigadier general:

…a little heart-to-heart letter emboldened by the thought of my late husband’s great admiration for you…. I know the Secretary of War and his family quite intimately, and the Secretary is very deeply attached to Colonel MacArthur and knows him quite well…. I am told by the best authority that if my son’s name is on your list…he will get the promotion.

He made brigadier general in 1918. Later, after becoming a major general in 1925, he wanted to be chief of staff, and in 1930 he wrote the secretary of war, Patrick J. Hurley, that Hurley’s routine report on the Philippines was “the most statesmanlike utterance that has emanated from the American Government in many decades…a great and courageous piece of work and I am sure that the United States intends even greater things for you in the future.” Hurley of course agreed.

In 1932 MacArthur got his worst public image as Hoover’s chief of staff when he used tanks, gas, bayonets, and brutality to disperse the unarmed crowd of 25,000 jobless veterans, some with families, who had converged on Washington as “bonus marchers” seeking relief. (Their pitiful story is in William Manchester’s The Glory and the Dream. A Narrative History of America 1932-1972.) His assistant, Major Eisenhower, kept telling him it was a purely politica situation, but MacArthur treated the starving veterans as an enemy force.

Manchester also documents MacArthur’s readiness to flout regulations and disobey instructions, particularly his penchant for making political pronouncements, and his animus toward military administrators and superiors, beginning with the colonels like George C. Marshall at Pershing’s headquarters, who seemed ever ready to cut him down and hold him back. In short, the psyche within this dazzling military personality lived aloof in its own dramatic world, unique, not part of a team or community. By comparison, Mao Tse-tung and other world shakers seem lacking in self-confidence. Egotism made MacArthur tick. The fact that it ultimately torpedoed him like a Greek king hit by hubris is only incidental. Egotism helped him to do the unexpected in battle, play the hero, and rule Japan. But it put off the press, many of his peers, and the American public.

As Manchester sifts through the record, MacArthur attracts some devoted followers, wangles his way in military politics, but fares poorly in public controversies. While superintendent of West Point in 1922 he married a millionairess, Louise Cromwell Brooks, in whom the chief of staff, Pershing, was also interested. For this he was ostracized by Pershing for a tour in the Philippines (where he mapped the Bataan peninsula). But Louise divorced him in 1929. Unlike him, she had a sense of humor. As she later told a Georgetown neighbor (my mother), “When Doug was striding about upstairs practicing a speech, I called up to him, ‘When you want applause, flush the toilet,’ ‘Don’t be vulgar,’ he said.” During the 1948 election she told a reporter, “If he’s a dark horse, he’s in the last roundup.”

Under Roosevelt, to whom he seemed as dangerous as Huey Long, MacArthur set up the Civilian Conservation Corps with his usual efficiency. But when Pershing phoned him from retirement to urge a star for George C. Marshall, he appointed Colonel Marshall instead to be the instructor of the Illinois National Guard. After four years as chief of staff trying to preserve the bare bones of a skeleton army, MacArthur went off to head a US military mission to the Philippines, with Eisenhower still his chief assistant. After the Philippines, became a Commonwealth, MacArthur became its first field marshal and resigned from the American army’s active list. His mother had died and he married another Southerner, Jean Faircloth, whose grandfather had been one of the defenders of Missionary Ridge. She gave him complete support and a son named Arthur MacArthur IV.

His American Caesarism had two opportunities to flourish, when he commanded the Southwest Pacific Theater 1941-1945 and when he was Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP) in Japan 1945-1951. In both these posts he controlled the ingress of persons, tried to manage the outflow of news, planned his operations and worked his staff with great effectiveness, and in short dominated the action as the military commander. Thus he kept the Office of Strategic Services out of his theater entirely and kept the Office of War Information’s nominal representative at his headquarters so disciplined that when we finally got him to a conference in Washington, he said nothing.


MacArthur’s theater received minimal supplies. “Never was the Southwest Pacific allocated as much as 15 percent of the American war effort.” Yet he made eighty-seven amphibious landings, all successful, and his casualties in the two years between Australia and the Philippines totaled 27,684, which may be compared with 72,306 at Anzio alone and 28,366 in Normandy. (That “he” did all this is the way he thought about it to himself and the way he got it put in the news record and into the public mind.)

“New weapons,” said MacArthur, “require new and imaginative methods.” Except early on at Buna, he avoided the slugging matches that killed so many US Marines on Guadalcanal and Iwojima in the Navy’s sector of operations. Instead MacArthur practiced “leapfrogging,” a new form of enveloping the enemy by sea and air power. Manchester brings out the fact that bypassing the 100,000 Japanese dug in at Rabaul was probably Marshall’s idea. But once started, MacArthur leaped to the Admiralties, to Hollandia, and eventually to Leyte. Alanbrooke, Liddell Hart, and others agree his generalship “outshone Marshall, Eisenhower, and all the other American and British generals including Montgomery.

In Manchester’s study of the major controversies, MacArthur comes off better than he has usually been pictured. To be sure, his planes were caught on the ground on Pearl Harbor day, as though the Japanese surprise had disoriented him (like Stalin no doubt when Hitler attacked). But his withdrawal to Bataan was skillfully done, except for the neglect of food supplies, and on Corregidor, where he stood outside to watch the Japanese bombers, he became firmly resolved to die with his men. Churchill, Roosevelt, and Marshall were convinced by Australian Prime Minister Curtin that MacArthur must be brought out to defend Australia (otherwise Curtin would withdraw the three Australian divisions from El Alamein, opening Egypt to Rommel). When he left his troops under Wainwright on Bataan, it was MacArthur’s one bitter defeat. He said “I shall return,” he named his plane “Bataan,” and when he took Japan’s surrender on the Missouri in Tokyo bay, Wainwright, though much thinner, was beside him.

Once the Japanese were on the defensive, MacArthur’s chief competitor was Nimitz and the Navy. The Navy’s success with its carriers, driving straight for Japan, had already bypassed Stilwell’s war to stabilize China as a base for bombing Japan, and as our bombing technology continued to develop, MacArthur’s theater was also in danger of becoming a strategic sideshow. It was saved from this partly by Marshall, a war planner unencumbered by vanity or self-concern. The issue whether to take Luzon or Formosa (Taiwan), as advocated respectively by MacArthur and by Nimitz, was resolved when they met with FDR in Honolulu in July 1944. Manchester accepts the suggestion of the historian D. Clayton James* that President Roosevelt and General MacArthur, whose presidential hopes had already been dashed, made an informal or implicit deal, that MacArthur’s triumphant return to the Philippines would come in time to bolster FDR’s fourth-term election in November. It came, at any rate, in October.

MacArthur began his shogunate in Japan by landing essentially unarmed and unprotected at Atsugi airport, the old kamikaze training base outside Yokohama, amid rumors that some of these diehard fanatics were waiting for him. Churchill called this the bravest of “all the amazing deeds in the war.” He found 30,000 Japanese troops with fixed bayonets lining his path into the city with their backs to him, as if for the emperor. Like nearly all his other calculated risks, this one worked too. One of his motives, inherited from West Point, was to keep ahead of the US Navy, whose admirals were flocking ashore at Yokohama.

In the occupation MacArthur’s Supreme Command was guided by the initial postsurrender directives worked out by Japan specialists like Hugh Borton under the State Department, but Manchester’s colorful account leaves this obscure. We are confronted with the paradox that the MacArthur who brought oligarchic collaborators like Roxas and Laurel back into power in the unrevolutionized Philippines some how became a social-minded liberal when he moved 1,000 miles north. It is only realism to note that he had full instructions what to aim at in the occupation, and it was not a one-man job, although like all MacArthur operations it may have seemed so from a distance. Indeed, the fascination of MacArthur studies, which will have a continuing future, lies in the way this imperious, ready-to-die virtuoso out of the American army fitted into the Japanese need for authority in adversity.

Mr. Manchester also neglects to expatiate on the shogunal tradition that for almost 700 years until 1868 had allowed a conquering warrior’s descendants to rule Japan in the emperor’s name. The question of how MacArthur and the part he played fitted with Japanese history and culture hardly figures in the crowded pages of American Caesar. The chapter on the occupation also ignores the planning that fed into SCAP and does not penetrate the question of MacArthur’s relations with his variegated staff. We do not learn, for example, how land reform got going under the American agricultural expert Wolf Ladejinski, or how the MacArthur constitution was really put together. These are all matters of a different, more analytical order than MacArthur’s fast-paced career. Manchester’s work on Japan continues to mine the same journalistic and I-was-there memoir sources; he goes no further into the scholarly literature than Edwin O. Reischauer’s most popular survey, The Japanese. Never mind. Hubris is yet to come.

It was prepared for by MacArthur’s Inchon landing which, in September 1950, enveloped and destroyed the North Korean forces that had overrun South Korea after June 25. Inchon, the harbor for Seoul, was a mud flat passable for modern vessels only during the thirty-two-foot high tides of September 15 or September 27, and then only at dawn or dusk. Every admiral and general who heard of MacArthur’s plan to land in Inchon considered it insane, until he addressed them in convocation: if they were so against it, he argued, then the Koreans too would not expect it. The landing worked, Seoul was recovered, and MacArthur was a genius more than ever. The UN invasion of North Korea began in this euphoria. Crossing the thirty-eighth parallel was not just MacArthur’s idea. Marshall as secretary of defense gave it the green light and the UN General Assembly endorsed it forty-seven to five.

When President Truman, unaccompanied by Marshall or the chiefs of staff, flew to Wake Island to see MacArthur on October 1, Manchester believes the general was ambushed. Truman’s motive was political, to get public support for the congressional elections; the “off-the-record” discussion was recorded by a hidden stenographer and later used by Truman. Douglas MacArthur and the one-time artillery captain did not see eye to eye. After the Chinese intervention stalemated the Korean War, MacArthur wanted to expand it and flouted orders by taking his case directly to the American people in unauthorized policy statements. He even spoiled Truman’s well-prepared effort for a truce and was quite properly cashiered for insubordination on April 10, 1951. The policy issue turned on the desirability of limited war—whether to accept stalemate as a substitute for victory, thus avoiding the expansion of the war and the use of nuclear weapons. The military daring that MacArthur personified had been outdated by the atom bomb. Mr. Manchester carries his colorful story through to MacArthur’s funeral in 1964 but has rather little to offer on his career’s significance, or even on the motives of his climactic insubordination.

Since the inhibition on the use of nuclear weapons has lasted for thirty-three years, while wars and armaments have continued to be major investments worldwide, we are plainly in a new era. Setting an example of personal courage in the face of enemy fire is no longer a possibility for general officers. Even enveloping the enemy by sea and air power may be as ineffectual as it proved to be in Vietnam (although one cannot help wondering what MacArthur might have done there with say two thousand helicopters). Consequently a reader who responds to MacArthur’s daring feats and to his patriotic rhetoric in American Caesar can only conclude that we are now in serious trouble. Human impulses toward righteous combat in defense of freedom and staking all to achieve the glory of victory don’t seem adequate to our needs any more. Yet MacArthur made history with them not very long ago, and just after his death, though contrary to his advice to both Eisenhower and Kennedy, we followed the martial impulse into another limited war in Vietnam and met frustrations even greater than those his romantic egotism could not abide in Korea. Can we put his brilliant military example behind us and keep it there?

This Issue

October 12, 1978