Old Soldiers Never Die: The Life of Douglas MacArthur 
by Geoffrey Perret.
Deutsch, 663 pp., £20, October 1996, 9780233990026
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Know your enemy, and know yourself, and you may fight a hundred battles and not lose one.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War, c.450 BC

The historian William Manchester, who served with him in the Pacific, said he was the greatest soldier in American history. Never much regarded in Britain, he is still recalled with loathing in Australia. When Americans remember him, it is with something close to embarrassment, while his contemporaries Truman, Eisenhower and Marshall grow in stature with the years. To Malcolm Muggeridge, who encountered him in Tokyo after World War Two, he resembled ‘a broken-down actor of the type one meets in railway trains or boarding houses’. His battles are little studied professionally. Only those tireless tourists, the Japanese, regularly visit his tacky, Napoleon-sized mausoleum in Norfolk, Virginia, built as part of a murky property deal by a crooked mayor who was later murdered. We still don’t know what to think about General Douglas MacArthur; almost all of us, it seems, would rather forget him.

Except writers. There have been more than a dozen biographies of MacArthur. Part of the fascination is his contradictoriness: could the same MacArthur really have been a military genius, a colossal blunderer, a proto-Fascist and a world-class charlatan? Another attraction is the record-setting length of his service in the US Army (61 years – like their equivalent field marshals, five-star generals never retire) and its unrepeatable breadth – gunfighter in Mexico, dredger of harbours in the United States, the most decorated American officer of World War One, Superintendent of West Point, Army Chief of Staff, defender of Corregidor, victor in innumerable Pacific battles, liberator of the Philippines, ruler of Japan, saviour of South Korea. His career may have ended in defeat and disgrace; but so did Napoleon’s. Why, then, does it seem so laughable to rank MacArthur with Grant and Lee, let alone with Marlborough and Cromwell? Why has no one pinned down the MacArthur mystery? One reason is that MacArthur’s most notable innovations were in propaganda and politics, fields in which few soldiers (or military writers) feel at home. But the task is important: MacArthur is still in many ways the most modern soldier of our time. The trap into which he fell is still set. This new biography by Geoffrey Perret, an Anglo-American soldier-turned-historian, is not the last word; but it is a big improvement on its forerunners, and Perret has dug up important new material.

MacArthur was born in a dusty US Army post at Little Rock, Arkansas, on 26 January 1880. His first memory, he often said, was ‘the sound of bugles’. The MacArthur clan were not, as he often hinted, fierce Highland warriors; his lawyer grandfather had emigrated to the US in 1828 from Glasgow. His father, then Captain Arthur MacArthur, already had genuine military credentials, despite his lowly rank. MacArthur Sr had enlisted in the US Army as a student during the Civil War, from which he emerged, aged 21, a full colonel. Joining the regular army, he dropped in rank to second lieutenant and spent 23 years as a mere captain in primitive Western forts pacifying recalcitrant Indians – one of them the famous Apache chief Geronimo – before he was posted to the Adjutant-General’s staff. Being in Washington gave him the chance to lobby for, and to secure, America’s highest decoration for bravery, the Congressional Medal of Honour, for leading a Union charge up Missionary Ridge near Chattanooga 26 years earlier. Doggedly collecting what he considered due to his courage was to be a lifelong obsession of his youngest son.

At high school, the West Texas Military Academy, MacArthur shone at oratory and amateur theatricals. His mother, a Southern beauty with a melodramatic imagination – she had a fragment of the skull of one of her brothers who had been wounded in the Civil War set as costume jewellery – badgered and beseeched politicians to further her son’s career. In 1899 Douglas passed the difficult examination for entry into West Point. A year earlier his father, a general at last, had left to pacify rebels in the Philippines, newly detached from Spain but denied independence by the United States. His mother moved into a hotel near West Point to supervise her son’s studies. Thus encouraged, MacArthur graduated first in his class. On his father’s advice, he chose the engineers; not for any family love of set squares or slide rules, much less the prescience that future wars would be fought with machines, but because promotion was painfully slow in the glamorous cavalry, or even in the infantry (as his father’s glacial career testified), whereas the unfashionable engineers had serious peacetime duties, rose faster and could transfer back at a higher rank in the event of war.

The ploy worked. MacArthur was never much of an engineer, but he learned the basics of harbours, pontoons and bridges, knowledge which would one day come in handy on remote Pacific islands. In 1914, as a captain in the engineers, he was sent to reconnoitre the harbour of Vera Cruz, Mexico, through which, it was suspected, Germany planned to run arms to one faction in an impending civil war. On his own initiative (according to his later account), Captain MacArthur set off on a hand-propelled flatcar, accompanied by bribed Mexican railway workers, in search of rolling stock. Forty miles inland he found three heavy locomotives under armed guard. After a brief fire-fight he returned with the locomotives and reported that three bullets had gone through his clothes, without leaving a scratch. The locomotives were certainly real but the fire-fight depended on the word of Mexican civilians who had already betrayed their trust for money. MacArthur was recommended for the Medal of Honour, whose regulations called for ‘incontestable independent proof’. The Decorations Board in Washington declined to award, and MacArthur had to wait another forty years to match his father’s attested valour. The incident was, however, enough to get him out of engineering and into a staff job in Washington.

Public relations was invented in the United States around the time of the First World War. Many commanders have realised the value of clever words in building soldiers’ morale and some with the necessary talent, like Napoleon, regularly wrote their own imaginative communiqués. With the advent of mass democracy, it became clear that the morale of the ‘home front’ was no less important, and that newspaper reports, which were supposedly independent, would be more persuasive than statements by generals with their own bugles to blow. In March 1916, as America was edging towards intervention in Europe, Major MacArthur was appointed head of a new Bureau of Information, with the secret mission of preparing the American public for conscription if, as the Army fervently hoped, the US entered the war. His mother again in tow, MacArthur moved at army expense into the Ontario, one of Washington’s fanciest addresses, and began courting journalists. ‘I am working very hard with my newspaper men,’ he reported. He was the first American officer to exploit the propaganda potential of the off-the-record leak, the exclusive interview opportunity and the headline-filling phrase, and – despite his belief that the press should be rigidly controlled in wartime – the young major who was always good for a quote was popular with newsmen, 29 of whom later joined in public praise of his handling of the Washington press. Only America’s entry into the war ended this ground-breaking assignment.

MacArthur had learnt a lot, however. The first American units to fight in France were clearly going to reap a lot of publicity. MacArthur argued that one of these units should be neither from the regular army, nor the National Guard – both of which were closely tied to their states of origin – but from a new formation with men from every state which would ‘stretch like a rainbow’ across the nation. Perret credits MacArthur not only with the idea, but, more characteristically, with the catchy name, Rainbow Division. His reward was to be made its chief of staff, and a colonel. He was 37, unmarried, and still living with his mother.

MacArthur was a much publicised hero of the War to End Wars, and in some ways he was a genuine one. The reservation – as so often with MacArthur – was the showiness of his soldiering. In his first 19 days in France he had won two Silver Stars, the Croix de Guerre and the Distinguished Service Cross, all for leading or taking part in trench raids which were no part of his duties as divisional chief of staff. In one, he captured a German colonel by thrusting a swagger stick into his back. He went into action wearing a cap modified to droop around his ears (he declined to wear a British-style steel helmet), a thick turtleneck sweater, highly polished cavalry boots and, draped around his neck, a seven-foot puce muffler knitted by his mother. He refused to use a gas-mask and was twice lightly gassed, earning two of his 20 citations for wounds and decorations for bravery. It is hard to avoid the thought that he wanted bystanders, particularly the newsmen who flocked to his headquarters, to see how brave he was.

The kind of courage for which MacArthur won his many medals – relatively brief exposures, with MacArthur picking when they took place, buoyed by adrenalin and his public role – more closely resembles the courage needed by the war correspondents by whom he was usually surrounded in the field. A different kind, seldom recognised by medals or publicity, is asked of those who, when filthy, hungry and exhausted, often without hope of relief or even survival, hold positions against repeated attacks or prolonged shelling, and can still overcome doubt and fear enough to function. It is this less flashy form of courage that is more useful in high command.

By the end of the war, MacArthur was the most admired brigadier-general in the victorious and scarcely blooded US Army. In 1919, only 39, he returned to West Point as superintendent. His mother moved back with him. Two years later, Louise Brooks, a lively, 31-year-old divorced mother of two and heiress to one of the biggest fortunes in America, drove up the Hudson to West Point with friends for the day. Brooks had already been the mistress of General John Pershing and had helped break up the marriage of the British admiral Sir David Beattie. She was introduced to the glamorous young Superintendent. It was, in Perret’s view, a case of mutual and instantaneous lust. Others diagnosed the meshing of public images. The New York Times report of their wedding, on St Valentine’s Day 1922, was unsubtly headlined mars marries millions.

Pershing, now the Army Chief of Staff (and inspired, Perret thinks, by jealousy) had MacArthur banished from West Point to an all but non-existent command in the Philippines. The couple might conceivably have stayed together on the New York-Washington circuit; but in Manila disillusion soon set in. Louise loved parties; MacArthur seldom went out, except to football games and all-male Masonic functions. When they appeared together, he required that they arrive punctually and leave promptly. When he protested that a lengthy toilette would make them late, she struck him on the head with a hand mirror. At the same time, MacArthur was deeply preoccupied by military considerations. The problem that absorbed his days, and most of his nights, was never solved: how could the US defend the Philippines with the slender resources it was ready to deploy? Only one nation threatened the Philippines; but Japan’s growing navy was already dominant in the Western Pacific, where muddle-headed British and American policies had put the islands at Japan’s mercy.

Americans never knew why they wanted the Philippines in the first place. When the US Pacific squadron destroyed a Spanish fleet in Manila Bay in 1898, Filipinos assumed that the Americans had come to liberate them. President William McKinley, however, believed that God had instructed him, in a dream, to save the islands for Christianity (most Filipinos were, and are, Catholics). American businessmen knew that the Philippines had exploitable resources (although sugar, rum and cigars competed with products nearer home) and in some unspecified way might facilitate US trade with China. The Filipinos rose in revolt against their liberators; MacArthur’s father put the insurrection down. Thereafter, the US Congress had been unwilling to commit serious resources to the Philippines because there was no economic or strategic American interest worth defending. Britain, in the meantime, was slow to see that her alliance with Japan was completely one-sided. Over strenuous objections by Australia, Canada and the American West Coast, Britain pushed the Versailles conference of 1919 to mandate the Gilbert and Caroline Islands, and the Marianas group, all formerly German, to Japan. Japan promptly, and illegally, fortified them. Japan’s supply lines to its new possessions crossed America’s communications with the Philippines, which also lay athwart Japan’s access to the only oil in the region, in the Dutch East Indies: a war was itching to happen.

When MacArthur first studied the problem, in the Twenties, he had 500 men under his command to defend 7100 islands. The US Navy made it clear that, if war came with Japan, its ships would withdraw to Hawaii, a strategy from which it never wavered. Even Manila could not be defended, MacArthur reasoned, without holding the Bataan peninsula, which curves around Manila Bay, but this in turn was dominated by a small offshore island, Corregidor. He planned to make Corregidor a kind of Oriental Gibraltar, pierced by a system of tunnels, proof against bombing. Despite living in an American protectorate, the Filipinos would, he decided, have to defend their islands themselves, with a minimum of American troops; he had in mind a system of universal militia along the lines of Switzerland’s. But Switzerland was not a colony – nor was it a protectorate.

When Pershing retired, MacArthur, whose mother had lobbied furiously, was promoted to major-general, the youngest in the Army. His application for a medal for his locomotive-liberating exploit in Mexico ten years earlier was, however, turned down: ‘Extraordinary heroism not displayed; duty not considered one of great responsibility and exceptional merit not displayed. Not sufficient gallantry in action displayed,’ the Decorations Board reported, in words that would have discouraged most medal-hunters. When Louise proposed that he leave the Army and become a stockbroker, he returned to Manila alone. Six months later, she filed for a Reno divorce. Lonely and lustful, MacArthur took a 16-year-old mistress – a half-Scottish Filipina chorus girl named Isabel Rosario Cooper. In August 1930, at 50, MacArthur was appointed chief of staff of the Army. He returned to Washington, to live once again with his aged mother. His teenage mistress followed by the next ship to become a discreetly kept woman. The affair eventually cooled, and MacArthur was lucky not to have had his career ended by scandal when the journalist Drew Pearson got wind of the arrangement. Discarded, Isabel eventually killed herself.

Perret is able to clear up perhaps the bitterest public controversy of MacArthur’s long career: his dispersal of the ‘bonus army’ of unemployed ex-servicemen. Some 3.5 million First World War veterans had been promised $1000 each, payable either on the death of the holder or in 1945. In July 1932, ten thousand of them, led by a former artillery sergeant, marched on Washington, occupying derelict buildings and demanding immediate payment. One bonus marcher was shot dead in scuffles with the police, and other police and marchers were injured. President Herbert Hoover ordered MacArthur to use troops in order to disperse the ragged squatters, who included women and children. MacArthur donned full uniform, with all his medals and badges, and did what he was told. At a press conference, he boasted that he had saved the country from ‘incipient revolution’. Next morning, Hoover rebuked MacArthur for exceeding his orders, but Perret convincingly shows that he had not. The incident guaranteed Hoover’s defeat by Roosevelt in the subsequent election, and probably also doomed MacArthur’s own hopes of ever being elected President.

When his term as chief of staff expired, MacArthur could have retired on a general’s pension, any other posting being a step down. But he still had his destiny to fulfil. In a speech to veterans of the Rainbow Division, he made it clear that it would, he hoped, be a military one: ‘However horrible the incidents of war may be, the soldier who is called to offer and give his life for his country is the noblest development of mankind.’ It was Manuel Quezón, the playboy President of the newly semi-independent Commonwealth of the Philippines, who gave MacArthur what he wanted. In return for acting as his military adviser, Quezón offered him the rank of field marshal – held by no American before or since – a handsome salary and a secret commission of 46 cents on every $100 spent equipping a locally-raised army, the Philippines Scouts. MacArthur designed his own uniform, which included a gold fieldmarshal’s baton and a hat bearing the American eagle (he was still a member of the US Army) with gold braid looped on every sewable surface. Greatly taken with his dazzling headpiece, he wore it for the rest of his military career. With his elderly mother in tow, he set out once again for Manila. On the ship he met Jean Faircloth, the daughter of a Tennessee flour miller, 20 years younger than himself. They were married soon after his arrival, and ten months later had a son, Arthur. In public MacArthur called his wife ‘Madame’; she called him ‘Gen’ral’ or ‘Sir Boss’. He had found a compromise between rich, spirited Louise and poor, biddable Isabel. For 29 years the couple passed few nights apart.

In Manila MacArthur began collecting the loyal aides (some said sycophants) who were to be his military family for the rest of his career (he had no formal staff training, and no experience of the business-school methods increasingly favoured by modern general staffs). One of the brightest, Major Dwight Eisenhower, retreated to Washington after a few years. The oddest, Charles Willoughby, who had begun life as Karl von Tscheppe-Weidenbach, was the son of a German father and an American mother. A fussy one-time historian with a thick accent and pince-nez on a silk cord, he became MacArthur’s intelligence chief, and stayed beside him to the stormy end of their joint careers. Although the coastline of the Philippines is longer than that of the US, MacArthur insisted to a procession of sceptical visitors that the islands could resist a Japanese invasion. Pallid (he seldom went out into the sun), he paced his headquarters high on the ancient walls of Manila, demonstrating with pencils arrayed on an ornate desk how his Philippine Scouts would destroy invaders at the beaches, how locally-built torpedo-boats (only two were ever launched) would sink incoming landing-craft and how the new B17 bombers would account for the Japanese fleet far offshore, although no manoeuvring ship had yet been sunk by air attack. ‘He’s either a great fraud or a genius,’ Clare Boothe Luce reported to her husband Henry, owner of Time magazine. ‘Probably both.’ Hearing his plans, Admiral Thomas Hart, commander of the grandly-named US Asiatic Fleet, wrote to his wife: ‘Douglas is, I think, no longer altogether sane ... he may not have been for a long time.’

When Japan attacked the Philippines, four hours after Pearl Harbor, the sceptics were proved right. The handful of B17S, lined up wingtip to wingtip, were destroyed on the ground. The Japanese landed unopposed. Manila was abandoned without a fight. MacArthur, with his family and President Quezón, withdrew to the Corregidor tunnel. Singapore fell on 15 February 1942. The Australian Prime Minister John Curtin had already called on America for help, ‘free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom’. Small numbers of American troops heading for the Philippines were diverted to Australia. To reassure Curtin, Roosevelt ordered MacArthur to escape from Corregidor and take command of them. The fighting American retreat to Bataan is still admired by soldiers, but it was not directed by MacArthur, who left his tunnel only once to inspect the buckling line (the taunt, ‘Dugout Doug’, followed him the rest of his life.) On the night of 11 March, MacArthur, his wife and son and most of his inner circle, left Corregidor by PT boat. Shortly before, MacArthur’s staff drew up, and Quezón signed, a cheque for $500,000 (now worth almost six million dollars) as MacArthur’s advance commission on the arms the Philippines would have bought up to 1945. (Later offered $60,000 by Quezón, the more prudent or scrupulous future President Eisenhower politely refused.)

Arriving red-eyed at Darwin, MacArthur told reporters that he had been ordered to ‘break through the Japanese lines’ – not a shot had been fired – ‘for the purpose, as I understand it, of organising an American offensive against Japan, the primary purpose of which is the relief of the Philippines’. Pausing dramatically, he added: ‘I came through – and I shall return.’ The most famous words ever spoken in Australia, they seemed at the time no more than an egotistical boast. For as long as he could, MacArthur clung to the fiction that he was still directing the defence of the Philippines from Melbourne, where his HQ telephones were answered with the word ‘Bataan’. Seven weeks after MacArthur’s flight, the heroic defence of Corregidor finally ended. More than fifty thousand Americans and Filipinos went into cruel captivity, made bitterer by the promises of American help that never came. MacArthur’s own future was uncertain. Braggart, fop, lecher (only recently reformed), financially slippery and now a deserter of a lost cause, MacArthur seemed near the end of a career worth a footnote in history, if that.

The US Navy had its own plans for defeating Japan, in which the Philippines had no part. First, the Japanese Navy was to be crushed. Then the US Navy’s own infantry, the Marine Corps, were to thrust directly across the Central Pacific, using the captured Japanese island bases as stepping-stones, while the Japanese home islands, bereft of raw materials or adequate food supplies, were to be strangled by blockade. The Marines had been rehearsing the seizure of the Japanese bases since the Twenties; moreover, the plan fitted well into the overall Allied priority of defeating Germany first. Luckily for MacArthur, the Japanese threat to Australia (which, postwar study shows, was slight) was taken seriously in Washington. Two weeks after he left Corregidor, MacArthur was awarded the Medal of Honour, at last surpassing his father’s chestful. Despite the objections of the US Navy, he was given a theatre command – the South-West Pacific Area, taking in Australia and nearby New Guinea but conspicuously omitting the Philippines – in what was otherwise an all-Navy ocean. Still, MacArthur now had a crack at what his tattered reputation and the morale of the Allies, shaken by an endless string of Axis triumphs, most needed: a victory, however small, to show that the Japanese were not supermen.

Pleased as we were to see him, Australians – a schoolboy, I was one of them – were less than enraptured by MacArthur’s idea of the privileges appropriate to his rank. He soon moved his headquarters to Brisbane, still a thousand miles from the nearest Japanese, where he took over the best hotel in town. He progressed through the city with a noisy motorcycle escort. His cars had the first vanity number-plates we had ever seen: USA-1 for his, USA-2 for hers, but there were few signs of any American army for him to command. In military terms, the situation was desperate: of the five best Australian divisions, two were in the Middle East (one had held Tobruk for eight months against the Afrika Corps), two were being rushed home, and one, the Eighth, had been captured in Singapore. There was not a single American infantryman in Australia. The US fleet had been crippled at Pearl Harbor, the British sunk off Malaya. Not surprisingly, the Australian General Staff prepared a fallback plan for a fighting retreat down the long coast of Queensland, served by a single exposed railway, to last-ditch positions north of Brisbane, the nearest big city. MacArthur’s memoirs claim that Australia was ready to write off its north and west, and that only his own inspired words had warded off defeatism. As Perret says: ‘There is not a word of truth in MacArthur’s claim.’ The hypothetical ‘Brisbane Line’ was to sour Australian domestic politics for years after the war.

It was November 1942 before MacArthur was ready to try for his first small victory. On the northern coast of New Guinea the Japanese had set up bases in two remote mission outposts, Buna and Gona, defended by malarial swamps, jungle and ingenious fortifications. Improvising an airlift over the mist-shrouded Owen Stanley mountains, MacArthur’s forces attacked them head-on, without artillery preparation. The Japanese showed a tenacity in defence not seen in war since the Middle Ages. The Australian Seventh Division suffered 7500 casualties taking Gona, defended by 4000 Japanese. The American 32nd Division was so badly mauled at Buna that it was out of action for almost a year. But MacArthur had his victories. As the first Allied general to have recovered land from the Japanese, his command was now secure. ‘Our losses in the Buna campaign were low,’ he boasted in his communiqué. ‘The utmost care was taken for the conservation of our forces.’

‘As travesties of the truth go, this one would be hard to beat,’ Perret remarks. Strict accuracy was not MacArthur’s forte, but for almost two years, as he battled along the northern coast of New Guinea, bypassing Japanese strongpoint after strongpoint, he never again launched a frontal attack. Dazzled newspapermen wrote as if MacArthur had invented the indirect approach. As he said himself, it is among the oldest stratagems of war. Starved of air and naval support, he learnt to make the most of what he had. ‘Probably no commander in American history has been so poorly supported,’ he wrote to a friendly reporter. ‘If I had not had the Australians I would have been lost indeed. At times it has looked as if it was intended that I should be defeated.’ There was, of course, a simple explanation – MacArthur’s jungle campaign, while getting him closer to the Philippines, was contributing nothing significant to the defeat of Japan.

MacArthur’s heroic image was set in stone in the summer of 1944, when he was unexpectedly summoned to a mysterious conference in Honolulu. It turned out to be a meeting with Roosevelt and two US Navy admirals to discuss the next move in the war. By this time the Navy was able to put the mightiest amphibious force ever deployed, 12 infantry divisions covered by 1000 carrier-borne aircraft, ashore anywhere in the Pacific. Where to strike amounted to a simple choice: either to invade Formosa, on the direct route to Japan, as the Navy proposed, or to realise MacArthur’s own obsession and return him to the Philippines. Arriving by unheated C-54 cargo plane from Brisbane, MacArthur disembarked in Honolulu wearing his field-marshal’s cap, a leather flying jacket and RayBan aviator’s sunglasses, with an enormous corncob pipe, as favoured by destitute hillbillies, clutched between his teeth (in private MacArthur smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes, a packet a day). ‘Hello, Douglas,’ FDR said. ‘What are you doing with that leather jacket on? It’s darned hot today.’ ‘Well, Mr President,’ MacArthur replied, pointing to the sky, ‘I’ve just landed from Australia, and it’s pretty cold up there.’ But MacArthur sweated in his jacket through the ensuing photo session, making the most readily recognisable military fashion statement of the war. Generals have often had a trademark: Napoleon his redingose grite, Montgomery his two beret badges, Patton his pearl-handed pistols. Characteristically, MacArthur pushed the idea to the edge of parody, if not well beyond.

From a strictly military point of view, if there is such a thing, the admirals were right: Formosa (now Taiwan) is a lot closer to Japan than the Philippines are. MacArthur asked for, and got, ten minutes alone with Roosevelt. The President, as they both knew, planned a fourth term. The election was due in November 1944; MacArthur said he could land in the Philippines in October. In private with Roosevelt, he denounced the Formosa invasion as leaving ‘seventeen million Christian American subjects to wither in the Philippines under the conqueror’s heel’, adding: ‘Politically, it would ruin you.’ Calculations in Washington showed that Formosa could not be invaded before February 1945, while MacArthur promised a firm date: 20 October. ‘I will push on that plan,’ Roosevelt advised him. On the appointed day, a quarter of a million American troops invaded the island of Leyte. Resistance was light. Looking, with his beak nose and sunglasses, like an avenging American eagle, MacArthur waded ashore with the third wave, to produce the most famous action photograph of the war (Perret says it was not posed). Two weeks later, Roosevelt was re-elected by a three million majority. Both men had been returned.

MacArthur had, Americans believed, honourably redeemed both his own and his country’s promise to the Philippines, and few noticed how little he had contributed to Japan’s eventual surrender. On the day Emperor Hirohito accepted defeat, 15 August 1945, MacArthur became Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers – the head of the Occupation. Whereas Eisenhower had accepted Germany’s surrender in a dull provincial schoolroom, MacArthur spent two weeks choreographing the Japanese surrender ceremony aboard the battleship Missouri, with himself as centrepiece, apparently dictating terms to a group of obscure Japanese generals and politicians, among them the one-legged Mamoru Shigemitsu, who had opposed war with the US. The tableau strongly suggested that MacArthur had personally defeated Japan. If any man could make this claim it was Admiral Ernie King, the Chief of Naval Operations, architect of both the blockade that crippled Japanese industry and the seizure of the bases from which Japan was bombed into helplessness. But King, a rough-tongued, hard-drinking sailor who loathed journalists and never gave interviews, was not present, and has been largely forgotten. Like many posed propaganda images, the surrender photograph achieves an effect rather different from the one intended: the diminutive Japanese look more like victims than villains.

MacArthur’s last military act of the war had the same effect. General Tomuyuki Yamashita, the victor of Singapore who later defended the Philippines against MacArthur’s counter-invasion with dogged skill, was arrested after the Japanese surrender and charged with failing to prevent the troops under his command committing atrocities, including the burning of Manila. Yamashita’s lawyers pointed out tha the was many miles away at the time, had not given the order and that MacArthur’s troops had systematically destroyed Japanese communications. Yamashita’s death sentence came to MacArthur for review. ‘Let history decide,’ MacArthur said sanctimoniously, returning to his carpeted headquarters while Yamashita went to the gallows, for what two dissenting judges of the US Supreme Court called ‘a legal lynching’. By any notion of military honour, MacArthur the soldier should have excused himself from deciding the fate of a troublesome opponent; but MacArthur the politician, unwilling to ruffle public prejudice, prevailed.

It is not easy to separate MacArthur’s successes in democratising Japan during the Occupation, 1945-52, from MacArthur-inspired hype, and Perret wisely does not try. One of the first moves by the MacArthur HQ was to censor the Japanese press. Mention of Hiroshima, or of even scientific papers about the atom bombs, was suppressed, along with anything that was in the censors’ opinion ‘destructive criticism of the Allied forces of occupation’ – which included its chief. Foreign correspondents stationed in Japan had to be accredited to HQ and accept the same censorship. (John Hersey wrote his famous 1946 article, ‘Hiroshima’, the century’s most influential piece journalism, in the offices of the New Yorker, be yond the reach of MacArthur’s censors.) An endless string of self-serving interviews with MacArthur portrayed the Occupation a one-man band in which he had single-handedly brought democracy to a people said to be hopelessly addicted to militarism. In private, the correspondents, who knew better, called Japan’s autocratic new ruler ‘the MacArto’. A dangerous delusion – that American generals, simply because of their nationality, could impose democracy wherever needed – had been born.

In fact, as Perret says, the Occupation mostly implemented policies devised by liberal New Dealers in Washington. Claiming to understand what he called the ‘Oriental mind’ – based on reading his father’s books on China, and two short visits to Japan, in 1905 and again in 1935, when he briefly met Emperor Hirohito – MacArthur in fact knew few Japanese, apart from the postwar Prime minister, Shigeru Yoshida, who spoke fluent English. He travelled little in Japan, and knew next to nothing about Japanese history or culture. His recommendation that Hirohito not be tried as a war criminal was based on simple expediency: the Occupation lacked the troops to disarm five million Japanese soldiers without the Emperor’s cooperation. The pacifist Section Nine of the Japanese Constitution was proposed by the Japanese themselves, as their best guarantee against a new military dictatorship; as the Cold War intensified, MacArthur regretted endorsing the idea. Japan still has an army far smaller than the quarter of a million strong force MacArthur wanted it to raise in 1950.

In two crucial areas, military ones at that, MacArthur’s Occupation was a dismal failure. Training was neglected and fraternisation tolerated, while the Occupation troops passed their time black-marketing American supplies and patronising the mass prostitution of half-starved Japanese women. Meanwhile, MacArthur’s intelligence chief, charles Willoughby, obsessed with tracing supposed links between Japanese and American leftists, overlooked the ominous build-up of forces on the border between North and South Korea, the latter still within MacArthur’s area of strategic concern, although the American garrison there had been reduced to a few hundred advisers. On 26 June 1950, the North Korean Army, led by Soviet-built tanks, crashed over the border, and by nightfall was in the suburbs of Seoul. ‘Complete collapse is imminent,’ MacArthur advised Washington. Truman, to MacArthur’s astonishment (he had never hidden his snobbish contempt for the former haberdasher), decided that the United States would fight in Korea and MacArthur was hard pressed to rush three ill-trained divisions from Japan into a last-ditch line around the port of Pusan in the far south. North Korea held the rest of the peninsula.

MacArthur had fought this battle before, on Bataan. There, the Japanese had command of the sea and air, making the defence of the peninsula all but impossible. This time, MacArthur held the advantages. The communications of Korea run through seoul, which is well connected by rail and road with its port, Inchon, thirty miles away. MacArthur was almost the only exponent of large-scale amphibious war. He had a division of US Marines, specialists in opposed landings, with US Navy and Air Force backup. Perret describes MacArthur’s landing at Inchon on 15 September 1950, as ‘one day ... when he was a military genius’. It is the subject of the eulogistic film about him financed by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. It is on Inchon that MacArthur’s military reputation rests.

The landing certainly worked; MacArthur’s detractors cannot deny that. However, by then, even opposed landings were no longer the desperate gambles they had once been. Formerly, with communications intact on the landward side, the defender could reinforce faster than the attacker could bring troops and supplies over his beachhead, with the grim result seen at Gallipoli. This is why ports, with their elaborate infrastructures, always had heavy fixed defences, to ward off surprise attacks. Airpower, however, enables the attacker to seal off his invasion site, reducing the element of risk to the business of getting ashore with an overwhelming force for the breakout. As North Korea had no navy and little air power, South Korea had built no substantial fixed defences at Inchon; MacArthur’s air reconnaissance told him that the North Koreans, engrossed in the siege of Pusan, had not had time to build any either. His landing was all but unopposed. North Korea had naively gambled that the world’s strongest air and naval power would not intervene. Within weeks, Seoul was retaken, and the North Korean Army cut off and destroyed, while the survivors fled northwards hotly pursued by the ‘United Nations’, as MacArthur’s command was now called. Inchon was well planned and well executed, but hardly another Austerlitz.

The overjoyed American public disagreed. It seemed the Korean War was all but over, thanks to MacArthur’s well publicised wizardry. ‘Your military objective is the destruction of the North Korean Armed Forces,’ the Chiefs of Staff in Washington directed, warning that he was to use only South Korean troops in the provinces bordering China and the Soviet Union. When South Koreans crossed the border into North Korea, China sent a warning to Washington, via an Indian diplomat: ‘an American intrusion into North Korea will encounter Chinese resistance.’ MacArthur claimed that his air power, and, if necessary, the use of nuclear weapons, could prevent any large number of Chinese crossing the Yalu River, Korea’s border with China. When American troops crossed into the North, the Chinese smuggled nearly a hundred thousand men over the Yalu, striking at the leading South Korean regiments and all but wiping them out. Willoughby, MacArthur’s faithful, incompetent intelligence chief, advised that there could not be more than 16,000 Chinese in Korea. MacArthur resumed his advance, in two columns, with American troops in the lead.

In late November the Yalu freezes. Bombing the Yalu bridges could then achieve nothing. Reinforced to more than 300,000 men, the Chinese attacked the Americans at night, yelling and blowing bugles in wild suicide charges. MacArthur had made an elementary blunder in generalship, dividing his force in the face of the enemy. The Americans were separately driven back through the snowy mountains, the Chinese taking heavy losses – half a million altogether, Chairman Mao Zedong later admitted – but not pausing until, by January 1951, they had recaptured Seoul. In a self-pitying interview MacArthur blamed his defeat on the restrictions placed on him by Washington – ‘an enormous handicap,’ he claimed, ‘without precedent in military history’. He called for another 200,000 reinforcements, otherwise ‘the United Nations Command should pull out of Korea.’ Then the Chinese withdrew (or were pushed – their archives are still closed) from Seoul back to the 38th parallel, the border between North and South Korea, where they dug in – offering, in effect, to end the war where it had begun. On his own initiative MacArthur issued a long, blustering statement threatening to extend the war to China’s coast and interior, followed by a letter to the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives with the slogan, ‘There is no substitute for victory!’ and an interview with two right-wing newspapers, the Freeman and the Daily Telegraph, in which he described America’s – that is, Truman’s – decision to seek peace in Korea as ‘ludicrous’. ‘Rank insubordination!’ Truman fumed in his diary. Advised that MacArthur should be asked to resign, Truman barked: ‘The son of a bitch isn’t going to resign on me. I want him fired.’ At 1 a.m. that morning the White House announced that General MacArthur had been summarily relieved of all his commands. A famous cartoon the next day showed the General incredulously reading Truman’s order, and responding: ‘Who does he think he is – the President?’

Some have seen pure vanity as the key to MacArthur. His loss of nerve in Korea was followed by a political fiasco back in the US; his plan for victory in Korea, which turned out to involve firebombing Chinese cities and laying a barrier of nuclear waste along the Yalu, was rejected by all but the right-wing lunatic fringe – just as well for the rest of us, because the Soviet Union, a nuclear power since 1949, was bound to have supported China, with a new world war, this time of nuclear attrition, the gruesome and inevitable result. A clumsy campaign to get him the Republican nomination fizzled, and he was mortified to see his one-time adjutant, Eisenhower, a quiet, conciliatory figure who held not a single decoration for bravery, elected President in 1952. MacArthur was wrong about the world situation: there was a substitute for his unattainable victory, patience, which resolved the Cold War without poisoning the planet. That such an intelligent man could seriously want to ignite a nuclear war in a fit of hurt pride has baffled more than a few of his biographers. Perret suspects that MacArthur was simply bored with me Korean War, could-see no more glory in it, but only endless, frustrating negotiations with the Chinese, and deliberately provoked Truman into dismissing him, as a misjudged springboard to the Presidency. The ploy, if such it was, showed how little MacArthur understood his own country.

A more sophisticated analysis sees MacArthur not as a monster of egotism but as wretchedly insecure (the two often go together, of course). Certainly, his emotional development seems to have been stunted by the relentless manipulation of his domineering mother. Pushed into a calling for which he was temperamentally unsuited (he told a friend, late in life, that he envied men in independent professions like law), MacArthur spent his career testing himself, half-persuaded by each new triumph that he really was the Great Man of 19th-century romantic myth practising the noblest vocation, soldiering, but never free of the dread that some personal failing or professional setback would show the world that he was not really the man his father had been, or that his mother insisted he become. MacArthur was a performance artist, permanently on stage, and in character as a faultless hero: ‘an old soldier who tried to do his duty’ as he said in one of his maudlin farewell orations. When the script went wrong, he was lost, without the self-knowledge, or the common sense, to amend it. Somehow his troops picked this up; never popular with them, he was often booed by Americans when he flashed onto Australian cinema screens.

Why, then, do writers still find him so fascinating? Because, unwittingly, MacArthur pointed the way to the future that is our own present. Although his ideas were simple and old-fashioned – he introduced table manners and ballroom dancing to the curriculum at West Point, but not psychology or political science – the methods he developed were ultra-modern. The basic nature of war – a contest of wills, between opponents who react – has not changed; but the way it is waged, what generals actually do, has been transformed by late 20th-century technology. Once, for example, generalship called only for evaluating intelligence, drawing up a plan, and then managing the resulting battle, because, as the ancient Chinese military writer Sun Tzu reminds us, plans seldom survive contact with the enemy. These operations can now be left to a competent staff, or even reduced to a set of computer disks, as they were in Desert Storm. But war is, and always will be, about politics, its only cause. The political side of war used to be the business of the civilian politician, who set the aim to be achieved, and made sure that his war was being supported on the home front while his general silently handled the technical details. Those days are dead. Nations at war now want to see their general at work, in real time, and hear from his or, some day soon, her own lips how well things are going. The sound bite, the news cycle, the snap opinion poll, the striking action clip are among the indispensable new tools of the general’s art. MacArthur pioneered them all, and when he was good – as in his Philippines landing photo opportunity and the politicking that went before it, or in selling his Inchon plan – he was very good indeed. Desert Storm was, in fact, a very MacArthur-like campaign, even down to the wily Third World opponent who made up his own rules and refused to accept defeat. We are going to see a lot more like them. At his best, MacArthur was the first, and perhaps the only 20th-century general who would have been thoroughly at home in the 21st. It is not something to look forward to.

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Vol. 19 No. 6 · 20 March 1997

In his perceptive analysis of the career of General Douglas MacArthur (LRB, 6 February) Murray Sayle seems to have overlooked one important point. It is true that the dispersal of the ‘bonus army’ in brutal fashion in July 1932, while MacArthur was in very obvious and characteristically dramatic charge of events, ‘doomed his own hopes of ever being elected President’. However, as a recent television programme on the life of FDR pointed out, MacArthur’s second in command during this tawdry affair was none other than Dwight D. Eisenhower. His subsequent progress to the White House did not seem to suffer any harm or hindrance from this incident. This may well have been, as Sayle shrewdly remarks, because the future President ‘retreated to Washington after a few years’, at a goodly distance from the General’s not always benevolent influence.

Wylie Horn

Vol. 19 No. 9 · 8 May 1997

Murray Sayle’s review of John Perret’s biography of Douglas MacArthur (LRB, 6 February) missed one of the most irritating and disturbing details in the book: the use of inflated casualty figures for the proposed invasion of Japan in late 1945. Perret claims that President Truman’s Joint Chief of Staff, General Marshall, ‘feared’ there would be ‘275,000 dead and wounded’ in the campaign to seize Kyushu, which was to have started on 1 November and was known as Operation Olympic. Marshall was indeed worried about high casualties but the figure Perret quotes does not appear in the documents put before Marshall by military planners. The plans for Olympic were very detailed and have been studied by a number of historians.

MacArthur’s first submission estimated a total of 125,000, which would represent thirty thousand-plus deaths if the battle continued until March – about the same rate of loss as at Okinawa or on the Normandy beaches. The figures do not come close to Perret’s 275,000. MacArthur submitted another estimate which amounted to 105,000 casualties. These were the figures Marshall found disturbingly high. MacArthur assured him that there would be no ‘excessive losses’. After the war, both Truman and Churchill referred in their memoirs to deaths and casualties – the two have long been interchangeable in this dispute – of between 500,000 and a million. Even to reach the lower end of the range, the invasion of Japan would have had to entail far more losses than throughout the war in the Pacific and Europe combined.

It may well be that the total losses on both sides, including civilians and POWs, would have amounted to many hundreds of thousands if the war had continued well into 1946, but it has to be said that the motive for revising the figures upwards has been and still is to make the case that atomic bombs ‘saved lives’ – the more the better – and to discredit arguments that Japan might have surrendered before an invasion.

Tony Barrell

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