Of all the great American captains of World War II, none remains more controversial than General Douglas MacArthur, whose genius and folly have taken on mythic proportions. MacArthur alone among them fought in all of America’s major 20th-century wars as a general — World War I, World War II, and Korea — and he was the most versatile military figure since Ulysses S. Grant, as a combined tactician, strategist, geostrategist, diplomat, and politician.
Yet history has not with the same zeal sought to balance the strengths and weaknesses of the often hard-to-like MacArthur as it has with, for example, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was a brilliant organizer but often strategically obtuse; George S. Patton, who was a dazzling field general but mercurial; and Omar Bradley, who was a media favorite but often plodding.
The more experienced MacArthur saw himself as intellectually superior to younger presidents and so talked down to both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. He thought the wisdom of his strategy of island hopping through the Philippines should be judged by all as his personal redemption for his earlier loss of the archipelago. And by 1943, his “I shall return” press releases seemed to conflate his huge land, air, and naval forces with his own person, in a manner that had already irked Eisenhower, worried George Marshall, and frightened Roosevelt. Early on, MacArthur saw himself as a figure uniquely favored by God. In World War I, all on his small patrol near the Côte de Châtillon were killed by a surprise artillery barrage — a disaster known only by MacArthur’s own testimony, which would later be questioned. MacArthur remarked of his amazing survival: “It was God, He led me by the hand, the way He led Joshua.”
Third, MacArthur was not just a controversial man of the Right — so were Generals Curtis LeMay and George S. Patton — but was actually, for nearly 20 years, seriously considered a possible ultra-conservative Republican candidate for the presidency. His unwavering Manifest Destiny notion of an ascendant capitalist, democratic, and Christian America as savior of the world was at odds with almost all the major political currents of his time — the post-Versailles romance with world government and disarmament, then the 1930s Depression-era flirtations with socialist redistribution, and finally the late-1940s naïveté that considered the Soviet Union a misunderstood socialist country rather than a grasping Stalinist empire with the blood of millions on its hands. At one time or another, MacArthur found himself at odds with members of the pantheon of liberal heroes — FDR, Truman, Marshall, Dean Acheson, and George Kennan. As a result, no other general in American history has been judged as much on his political beliefs as on his performance on the battlefield.
Arthur Herman, the polymath popular historian and author of a number of incisive studies on subjects ranging from Western notions of decline to the rivalry between Churchill and Gandhi, applies his trademark sterling prose and engaging narrative skills to rehabilitate MacArthur in Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior. The result is a nearly 1,000-page volume that revisits the most egregious charges against MacArthur and summarily refutes them. Herman’s aim is not to offer newly found archival evidence for MacArthur’s genius, but to retell MacArthur’s epic life in a fashion that is generous, fascinating, and balanced — and he does all that quite well.
MacArthur was derided as “Dugout Doug” for his retreat to Corregidor and subsequent flight from the Philippines, but he was also, we often forget, felt to have been irreplaceable, as the sole senior ground commander in the Pacific in 1942 with substantial military experience and knowledge of the vast theater from Hawaii to the Chinese coast. He was often on the front lines; Herman reminds us that few officers in World War I had been more personally courageous and so often deliberately exposed themselves to fire alongside their men. The story of MacArthur between his late thirties and his early seventies was often one of walking into fire, flying over combat zones, and cruising through enemy waters.
His superb leadership in World War I should have earned him even speedier promotions and a Medal of Honor, but he had gotten on the wrong side of a vindictive General John J. Pershing — whose animus MacArthur did not reciprocate when, as Depression-era chief of staff of the Army, he fought successfully to ensure Pershing’s generous pension. Herman believes that many of America’s key weapons — including the M-1 rifle and the B-17 bomber — were used early in the war, and in force, thanks to MacArthur’s earlier advocacy.
At times, however, Herman’s fascinating story seems to outrace details and a number of slips pop up, both fundamental and incidental. A few examples: General Lewis Brereton could not have requested a preemptive attack in December 1941 on Formosa “using his B-29s” — given that the plane’s first prototype did not fly until nearly a year later, in September 1942. The Royal Navy did not have “only one modern battleship, the King George V, and two fleet carriers” after the disaster at Singapore. In fact, apart from a number of serviceable battleships, battlecruisers, and carriers, it also had the modern battleship Duke of York, of the King George V class, and four relatively new Illustrious-class fleet carriers. It was likely that General LeMay himself, rather than “one B-29 pilot,” grumbled that the B-29 had “more bugs than the Smithsonian Museum.” Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army was not responsible for Japan’s “70-day blitzkrieg that had captured Manila and Singapore”; Manila fell to General Masaharu Homma and his 14th Army. General Matthew Ridgway was called “Iron Tits” not because he wore two grenades but because he wore one, alongside a medical kit. “George” Pershing must refer to General John J. Pershing.
On larger issues: In many ways the retaking of the Philippines was, pace Herman, a costly detour; the Marianas, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima were equally bloody conquests, but one could at least argue that they led to the establishment of B-29 fields within reach of Japan, a valuable halfway base for damaged bombers and escort fighters, and a final launch pad for an envisioned invasion of the Japanese mainland.
And, contrary to Herman’s suggestions, the relationship between General Ridgway and MacArthur was always rocky, owing mostly to MacArthur’s ego and his inability to square a political and military circle of his own making: Paradoxically, he hoped that the brilliant Ridgway could save his nearly lost Korean campaign, while resenting that the White House and the Pentagon were using Ridgway’s epic restoration of the theater to contradict MacArthur’s serial gloomy predictions of catastrophe. Ridgway later displayed genuine surprise and hurt that MacArthur had so often praised him to his face only to criticize his brilliant salvation behind his back — “a puzzle,” Ridgway later lamented, “for which I have no satisfactory answer.”
Contra Herman, the split-force advance up to the Yalu was poorly planned and conducted and was ultimately MacArthur’s responsibility, however distant he often was in Tokyo. And the pell-mell Army retreat — the longest withdrawal in U.S. military history — was even more wildly and poorly led.
Regarding MacArthur’s dismissal by Truman, it may be true, as Herman asserts, that MacArthur technically never disobeyed a clearly written, direct order, but he had created a politicized climate in which his entire staff scoffed that Washington was not only foolish but dangerous. This was perhaps accurate, but such views created an unsustainable situation for a five-star general in the midst of a Cold War theater war that threatened to engulf much of Asia. After MacArthur was relieved of his command, his star faded because he could not articulate to Congress a coherent strategy that would unite the Koreas, win the support of the American people, and not lead to the use of nuclear weapons or a wider war with China and the Soviet Union, all while securing the continued commitment of United Nations forces and the support of the European allies. There may well have been a way to thread that needle, but the relieved MacArthur soon proved unable to present a convincing argument to Congress and the public.
Arthur Herman’s aim was not necessarily to litigate these endless controversies that surround the long career of Douglas MacArthur, but rather to offer an engaging and balanced reassessment of one of the most mystifying figures in 20th-century American history, by exploring another side that we now rarely encounter. And he largely succeeds — by showing that the flawed MacArthur was not just exasperating, vain, and sometimes lax but, more, more often, professional, brave, and competent during some of the nation’s darkest moments.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals. A version of this piece originally appeared in the August 1, 2016, issue of National Review.