Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior

Image of Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior
Release Date: 
June 13, 2016
Random House
Reviewed by: 

There has been a revival of interest in the life and career of General Douglas MacArthur, perhaps because the United States has “pivoted” to the Asia-Pacific in its current foreign policy. MacArthur’s military career spanned five decades, and included commanding U.S. forces in the southwest Pacific in World War II, administering postwar Japan, and commanding U.S. and U.N. forces during the Korean War.

In the last three years, at least five books have appeared covering some aspect of MacArthur’s long, illustrious, and controversial career. Arthur Herman’s Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior is the best and most comprehensive of those books, and takes its place alongside William Manchester’s American Caesar and Geoffrey Perret’s Old Soldiers Never Die as excellent one-volume biographies of the General.

Herman’s avowed purpose in writing the book was to give “this larger-than-life figure his full due by peeling back the layers of myth, both pro and con, and revealing the marrow of the man and his career.” And what a career it was.

MacArthur graduated first in his class at West Point in 1903, earning some grades and awards that remain unsurpassed. “The years at West Point,” Herman writes, “created the essential core of the Douglas MacArthur the world would know the rest of his life, the framework of values, habits, and attitudes that would sustain him for the next half century.”

Soon thereafter, he accompanied his father, General Arthur MacArthur, a Civil War hero, on a lengthy tour of the Indo-Pacific region, including visits to the Philippines, Japan, and China. There, he fully absorbed his father’s belief that America’s future was bound up with Asia and the Pacific Rim.

His baptism by fire occurred in Mexico in 1914. U.S. troops occupied Veracruz, and Captain MacArthur was dispatched behind enemy lines to secure railroad engines for transporting troops. Coming under hostile fire, he displayed, Herman notes, “coolness under fire, an instinct for instant decision under desperate stress, and a willingness to take the initiative and risk his own life to accomplish a dangerous mission.”

MacArthur would demonstrate those traits repeatedly during the First World War, when he commanded the famed Rainbow Division in France. He was determined, writes Herman, “to make himself famous, as his father had, by a combination of bravery and leadership that would make him stand far above his colleagues.” He succeeded. “No other officer,” writes Herman, “risked life and limb more than MacArthur.”

He was awarded two Distinguished Service Crosses, seven Silver Stars, and at age 38 became the youngest major general in the army’s history. “On a field where courage was the rule,” read one citation, “his courage was the dominant factor.” War Secretary Newton Baker called MacArthur “the greatest field commander produced by the war.”

After the war, the army downsized and MacArthur became superintendent of West Point, where he began the process, against considerable institutional resistance, of bringing the tradition-bound military academy into the 20th century.

In the mid-1920s, MacArthur married (it did not last long), was stationed in the Philippines, headed-up IV Corps Area near Atlanta (where he toured some of his father’s Civil War battlefields), served on the panel that court-martialed airman Billy Mitchell (“one of the most distasteful orders I ever received,” MacArthur said later), and presided over the U.S. Olympic Committee.

In the late 1920s, he returned to the Philippines as commander of the Philippine Department. In 1930, President Hoover named him army chief of staff—at age 50, the third youngest in the nation’s history.

The new chief of staff’s image and reputation suffered when he personally participated in breaking up the so-called Bonus Army that was composed mostly of economically distressed veterans (and some communist agitators) who pitched tents and built makeshift huts along the banks of the Anacostia River. Herman carefully sifts through the facts of this incident and persuasively acquits MacArthur of any direct blame for the tragedy.

To nearly everyone’s surprise, President Franklin Roosevelt kept MacArthur on as army chief of staff.  But the two titans repeatedly clashed over army budgets and America’s role in an increasingly dangerous world. It was the beginning of a difficult but important relationship that would last until FDR’s death in April 1945, and would shape the Pacific War and the postwar world in Asia.

Herman gives high marks to MacArthur as chief of staff, crediting him with building up the Army Reserves and ROTC, overseeing the development of the M-1 rifle, B-17 bomber, and the 105 mm howitzer and, most important, saving the U.S. Army “from dwindling to impotence.” MacArthur, writes Herman, saved FDR’s legacy “by giving him an army that could respond to the sudden challenge of war in December 1941.”

After his tenure as chief of staff, it was back to the Philippines, this time as military advisor to the Philippine government. He married a second time (this time it lasted). He was also named Field Marshal of the Philippine Army, an arrangement that later raised questions of divided loyalties when some Filipino officials explored declaring neutrality after Japan invaded the islands.

His principal task was to make the islands defensible against a possible Japanese attack. But there were not enough resources or enough time to accomplish that. And America’s war plan (Rainbow Five) did not envision defending the Philippines.

When Japan did attack, MacArthur’s forces were not ready, and ever since then he has been roundly criticized by historians, especially for losing so many planes on the ground at Clark Field. Herman reviews the evidence and concludes that there was plenty of blame to go around, including “MacArthur’s failure to keep better track of what was happening to his air force in those confusing but crucial hours on December 8.”

U.S. forces retreated to the Bataan peninsula and the small island of Corregidor, where MacArthur oversaw the rout of his army. As the Japanese inexorably advanced, he was ordered by FDR to escape to Australia for the purpose of leading U.S. forces to retake the Philippines. “I came through,” MacArthur announced upon his arrival in Adelaide, “and I shall return.”

Allied strategy prioritized the defeat of Germany and the Navy focused its efforts in the Central Pacific theater. As a consequence, MacArthur’s Southwest Pacific command did the best it could with scarce resources.

Herman, like most military historians, lauds MacArthur’s innovative coordination of land, sea, and air forces during the New Guinea campaign. MacArthur understood, explains Herman, “how airpower could isolate the enemy from support by land or sea,” and foresaw how amphibious operations “could give his troops decisive mobility to jump from island to island with the support of [the] air force and [the Navy’s] carriers and cruisers.”

MacArthur fought with the Navy and persuaded FDR to back his campaign to liberate the Philippines. The fighting, however, was much tougher than MacArthur predicted. “MacArthur,” Herman writes, “had made his return to the islands a matter of both personal and national honor.” Indeed, for MacArthur they were one and the same.

FDR chose MacArthur to plan and lead the anticipated invasion of Japan’s main islands, but the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki made that unnecessary.

President Truman chose MacArthur to accept Japan’s formal surrender in a ceremony on the battleship Missouri. It was a memorable performance, and many believe it was the General’s finest hour.

Truman also selected MacArthur to oversee the occupation of Japan. At that moment, Herman notes, MacArthur commanded more than a million and a half soldiers and airmen, and was the sole ruler of eighty million Japanese. “Douglas MacArthur,” writes Herman, “was now the most powerful American in history.”

Under his leadership, Japan was transformed from a militaristic imperial monarchy into a peaceful, stable democracy. It was a great feat of statesmanship.

Herman’s most interesting and controversial chapters deal with the Korean War, including the brilliant amphibious landing at Inchon and the Truman-MacArthur confrontation. Here, Herman turns conventional history on its head, bravely siding with MacArthur. This is revisionist history at its best and, hopefully, will reopen a debate about the judgment of history and MacArthur’s place in history.

MacArthur’s flaws were many. He was vain and egotistical, and could be petty and vindictive. He was loath to admit mistakes or failure, and quick to blame “enemies” in Washington when his suggestions were not followed. He engaged in self-promotion that was frequently at odds with the truth.

But, “[i]n the end,” Herman notes:

“the flaws that detractors pointed out sprang from the same larger-than-life frame as the virtues that admirers celebrated. The same man who could make some of the most monstrous mistakes in the history of American arms was also capable of some of the most inspired. The man whose vanity and thirst for adulation knew almost no bounds was also capable of touching acts of charity, and unshakeable courage under fire.”

Herman’s final judgments are that MacArthur had no equal in American history as a military commander, thinker and strategist, and his personal stamp on the history of the 20th century rivals that of Winston Churchill.