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American Caesar

American Caesar, Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964

As a youth in a 1950s working class family, when the Cold War was approaching its highpoint, I recollect occasions when my father would opine that our nation would have been more secure if "Truman had allowed MacArthur to use the atomic bomb against the Chinese and Russians." 1 I also recall other adults involved in the conversations nodding vigorously in assent. During my early years I therefore came to view MacArthur as a victim of Harry Truman's poor judgment and as a patriot. I have since learned these impressions were not unique. MacArthur was then very popular; many wanted him to be the President. Following his firing by Truman, he returned to the United States and received accolades from the public, the press, politicians, and foreign leaders. In retirement, the Congress and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson would seek his counsel. His death in 1964 was a momentous national occasion. The funeral ceremonies reflected the single-most important institution in his life - West Point.

As is true with most complex issues, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. You have to dig deeply into any subject in order to best understand it and form an opinion based on fact rather than hearsay. William Manchester's exhaustive biography is by far the most popular and readable work about the legendary five-star general. Based on facts supported by solid scholarship listed in an extensive bibliography, it covers every period of MacArthur's life, from the womb to the tomb. It gives the reader a thorough factual basis for developing an opinion about the man, his accomplishments, and his flaws. Another MacArthur biographer has opined that Manchester's book "...seldom probes beneath the surface of the general's self-proclaimed accomplishments. Aside from some mild criticism of MacArthur's ego, the tone is worshipful. Treatment of the years after 1945, surely the most important part of MacArthur's public life is thin." 2 I disagree with this author's assessment. Manchester's book is far from worshipful. It is respectful of the the general's lengthy and distinguished military service, from Vera Cruz to the Korean conflict. The opinions he cites represent both sides of the aisle, from MacArthur's detractors and proponents. That's how it was. People either idolized the general or detested him. There was never really a middle ground. Manchester leaves it to the reader to reach a verdict based on the evidence. His narrative is objective and balanced; it is not biased. There are lengthy chapters covering his public life after 1945 which aptly chronicle the general's activities in Japan, Korea, and retirement.

General Douglas MacArthur was a very complex person. He was talented, cunning, pompous, ambitious, and biased. At his best, he was a masterful tactician and inspirational leader. At his worst, he was "Dugout Doug" and insubordinate. He was a doting father and a devoted husband; between marriages he paid hush money to a Eurasian mistress. He prayed and read the Bible daily, but never attended church services. He often invoked the Almighty in his eloquent speeches and writings, yet "...many thought that he knelt only before mirrors." 3 He loved the Army, yet had an "...undiminished ambition to become President of the United States." 4 He never accepted responsibility for failure unconditionally; the fault laid with his enemies in Washington who were out to get MacArthur (it was commonplace for the general to refer to himself in the third person). Like the wily tenant in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into the Night, MacArthur was cagey. He could hide behind a corkscrew.

I believe the key to his downfall is found in a statement he made to a Senate committee: "I find in existence a new and heretofore unknown and dangerous concept, that the members of our armed forces owe primary allegiance or loyalty to those who temporarily exercise the authority of the executive branch of the government rather than to the country and its Constitution which they are sworn to defend." 5 Here lies the rub. MacArthur could not accept the authority of the President of the United States. His repeated disobedience and interference in foreign policy could no longer be tolerated. While the cunning political fox, FDR, either ignored or out maneuvered MacArthur's defiance, the Buck Stops Here President would not tolerate it. In essence, MacArthur had posed a challenge to one of the fundamental principles of American government - civilian control of the military.

As I write this article I am at my condo in Florida, enjoying the comfortable November weather. A few days ago my wife and I lunched at a popular restaurant in Dunedin called the Lucky Dill. It has deli sandwiches on par with those at the Carnegie Deli in Manhattan. While we were enjoying our pastrami on rye treats, an elderly gentleman accompanied by his grandchildren was seated nearby us. He used a walker, and was wearing a cap which proudly proclaimed he was a World War II veteran. He was also wearing a tee shirt with "NAVY" printed on it. Despite his failing legs, he was clearly alert, sharp, and hungry. With our lunch consumed, I paid the check and we made ready to get underway. As we neared the veteran's table I asked my wife to wait. I touched the veteran's arm, apologized for my intrusion on his luncheon, and told him I just wanted to thank him for his service to our country. He looked up at me and with tearful eyes thanked me. I bid his grandchildren and him farewell, and we began our 30-minute drive home.

Once back, I returned to my makeshift office on the lanai to organize my thoughts about MacArthur and Manchester's biography. It was then that the thought came to me that if I had ever had the chance to meet General MacArthur, I probably would have said the same thing I told the veteran. Despite his flaws, egotism, failures, and challenge to a bedrock pillar of our Constitution, here is a man who served our country for not just a few years, but for most of his adult life. In the wake of the Pearl Harbor disaster and other Japanese incursions elsewhere in the Pacific, we needed giants like MacArthur to rally our spirits and marshal surviving Allied forces. Yes he was disliked by his peers and was probably the biggest prima don in American military history, yet even the politicians in Washington knew he was an indispensable force in the battle to defeat Dai Nippon. With that objective accomplished, he became the autonomous ruler of postwar Japan. There he loosed the archaic bonds imposed by militarism and Shintoism, and set the conquered nation on course to become the free and peaceful society of today. As supreme commander of the United Nations police action on the Korean peninsula, his indispensability became less certain. MacArthur had always fought with one goal - to win. Here the objectives were less certain and the policies less clear. His arrogance and his challenges to civilian authority increased. The outcome was inevitable. He had to go.

Assuming I had ever had the chance to meet the general, I would also have wanted to ask him one specific question. It is: "Why did you accept a $500,000 payment from Philippine President Manuel Quezon in 1942?" 6 Its circumstances make it seem a sinister event. Three authors have written about it. There is a range of speculation about what the payment could be for. I believe that given the huge sacrifices the American people were asked to make as the gears of war began after Pearl Harbor, there would have been a substantial negative public reaction if the payment had been revealed then. But its existence, though known by FDR and the War Department, was not disclosed or stopped. The truth and the players belong to the ages. The affair decided me. Even though I view MacArthur as a fundamental player in defeating Japan and checkmating Communist aggression in Korea, the payment's speculative quid pro quo disturbs me. How it affected expense of American effort, treasure, and blood in the Philippines will always affect how I view MacArthur. For me, he will always be a dark American Caesar.

In a October 1939 radio broadcast, Winston Churchill said, "I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest." I believe the same thing could be said about MacArthur, with the "key" being his self interest. Manchester's biography helps you understand the influences that shaped MacArthur's character and egocentricity. Armed with this knowledge and the factual scholarship on the events in MacArthur's career, the reader accrues a firm basis for forming an opinion about the man and his historical standing. Richard Boeth, a Newsweek reviewer, said the book is "Gracefully written, impeccably researched, and scrupulous in every way - a thrilling and profoundly ponderable piece of work." 7 I believe MacArthur would have enjoyed this quote. More than forty years have elapsed since his death. Scholars continue to "ponder" his career and unwrap its mysteries and riddles. And MacArthur will remain one of America's colossal military figures and will be prominent in future works on the Pacific War.


1. MacArthur's written plan for ending the Korean War called for "...the atomic bombing of enemy military concentrations and installations in North Korea and the sowing of fields of suitable radio-active materials, the by-product of atomic manufacture, to close major lines of enemy supply and communication leading south from the Yalu, with simultaneous amphibious landings on both coasts of North Korea." MacArthur, Douglas, Reminiscences, p. 411.

2. Schaller, Michael, Douglas MacArthur: The Far Eastern General, p. ix.

3. Manchester, William, American Caesar, Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964, p. 512.

4. Ibid., p. 520.

5. Ibid., p. 631.

6. The details concerning this payment are in a separate article I posted on October 26, 2009, The Pacific War: The Strategy, Politics, and Players that Won the War. The payment was first revealed by another author in 1981, three years after Manchester's book was published.

7. Manchester, American Caesar, Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964, back cover.