A Twentieth Century Custer

Review: Arthur Herman, ‘Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior’

Douglas MacArthur
Douglas MacArthur in 1945 / AP

To read about Douglas MacArthur, to think about the life and achievements of the American general, is to be forced to two conclusions. First, that he really was a great man. And second, that the nation was lucky to survive him.

Perhaps it’s a testament to the strength of America’s republican traditions, at least through those mid-twentieth-century years in which MacArthur flourished, that we didn’t collapse into constitutional crisis simply from the fact of his outsized existence. Or perhaps the nation’s survival is a testament to MacArthur’s own deeply American character and political virtues. The popular historian Arthur Herman certainly thinks so, and to prove his point, he’s penned a 900-page biography, Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior.

These days, seventy years after the Second World War, we can forget what a figure MacArthur seemed at the time and how large was the stage on which he strode. At the end of the war, leading the Allied forces in the Pacific and assuming military governorship of Japan, he had personal command of more than a million men at arms and absolute rule over an entire country. It made him, Herman insists, "the most powerful American in history"—and given the damaged state of the rest of the world at that moment, together with the relative firepower that America deployed in 1945, one could even argue that he was the most powerful person in the history of any nation. Yes, he had checks on his command and domestic opponents happy to employ them (as his 1951 clash with President Truman proves). But no great commander has ever been entirely free from constraints, and for a moment, in the late 1940s, General Douglas MacArthur controlled power that few, if any, have ever matched.

It’s not surprising that many words would have been spilled over the years, trying to make sense of such a man. MacArthur’s own Reminiscences appeared in 1964, followed by Clayton James’s scholarly three-volume biography The Years of MacArthur, published from 1975 to 1985. William Manchester’s unsympathetic portrait in his 1978 American Caesar remains the most influential view, but Geoffrey Perret’s 1996 volume Old Soldiers Never Die was an important contribution.

Add in all the rest of what has been written about the man—2014 alone gave us Mark Perry’s The Most Dangerous Man in America and Seymour Morris’s Supreme Commander—and it’s hard to imagine what is left to be said. Nonetheless, readers in 2016 have already seen three attempts to reassess MacArthur’s role on the world stage: James P. Duffy’s War at the End of the World in January, Walter Borneman’s MacArthur at War in May, and now, for June, Arthur Herman’s book.

Of them all, Herman’s is the most revisionist—the most determined to replace Manchester’s disparaging account with a paean. In his introduction and conclusion, Herman is willing to admit that MacArthur was a mixture of good and bad, success and failure. As he writes, "In the end, 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."

But under the pressure of describing each of MacArthur’s actions through the bulk of the book, the mistakes are oddly downplayed. Herman recognizes that the received account dismisses the man as a fool—"a dumb son of a bitch," in Truman’s words. And he understands that, as Truman’s reputation has risen in the decades since his presidency, so MacArthur’s has fallen, as though they were joined together on history’s seesaw. But, determined to raise MacArthur back up, Herman finds himself defending nearly all of his subject’s actual deeds.

Thus, for example, Herman praises MacArthur’s train-stealing adventure during the American occupation of Vera Cruz in 1914—which is probably right. It was a stunt, but exactly the kind of stunt a rising young officer with a lot of moxie would be expected to pull off. With equal reasonableness, Herman lauds MacArthur’s command of the Rainbow Division in the First World War. Things get a little more tendentious, however, when the biography reaches the next stage of his subject’s career, the command of West Point.

MacArthur may have accepted the academy posting simply because it allowed him to keep his wartime rank of brigadier general, but during his command he undertook needed reforms at the school. Unfortunately, he did so at the cost of alienating nearly everyone with whom he came in contact. It was the clearest early proof that he was incapable of having subordinates and equals who did not agree with him. Or worship him, for that matter.

Promoted to major general, he was working as Army chief of staff when President Hoover used the military to expel the Bonus Army of unemployed veterans from Washington in 1932. Herman works hard to exculpate him, and maybe fairly, but the incident tarnished his reputation—as did his assignment as a judge in the 1925 court martial of Brigadier General Billy Mitchell ("one of the most distasteful orders I ever received," he would write).

MacArthur’s adventures in the Philippines are the least defensible of his actions. His friendships and political dealings there led him to accept a huge (and probably illegal) payment and, after the war, to excuse politicians and businessmen who collaborated with the Japanese. It was in the Philippines, as well, that he committed his worst military blunder: first rejecting the plan to concentrate his forces in the Bataan peninsula in anticipation of a Japanese attack in 1941, and then, when the attack finally came on December 8, wasting hours that might have saved his planes and his Philippine allies.

Of course, after this retreat there came his New Guinea campaign, in which he made some mistakes but learned to handle a theater-wide campaign as well as anyone. Then came his masterful retaking of the Philippines, and the surrender of Japan—which he ruled from 1945 to 1949. And then came Korea.

What remains to be said about MacArthur and Korea? Herman is judicious in pointing out that the Inchon Landing may have been the single-most successful large American military maneuver ever attempted, a daring plan brilliantly executed—with much of its brilliance frittered away in the two weeks MacArthur’s forces took to advance the twenty miles inland to Seoul, where they might have trapped a large portion of the North Korean forces.

In any event, MacArthur won the Korean War, until, suddenly, he didn’t. Herman rightly points out that almost no one in the American military or intelligence communities predicted the massive influx of Chinese forces. But MacArthur was not no one. His carefully cultivated aura—from early on, he employed press agents and publicity managers—was injured by his mistake, and Truman took the miscalculation as an opportunity to rid himself of a general who was increasingly (and ridiculously) criticizing American policy.

In the end, it’s all too much. Douglas MacArthur was talented, decisive, and forceful as an American military commander, and incident after incident proves that he was physically brave beyond measure. But he was not some impossible combination of Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S Grant. If we have to seek a historical model, he was basically George Custer—or, rather, a competent Custer, if that’s not too much of an oxymoron. Yes, MacArthur succeeded when the nation needed him to, but, like Custer, he was vainglorious, conceited, pigheaded, weirdly opinionated, and politically disastrous. America was fortunate that the level-headed Eisenhower, rather than the mercurial MacArthur, was the five-star general who gained the presidency after the Second World War.

The problem, really, is that Arthur Herman likes his subject too much. Every historian faces a constant temptation to be a revisionist simply for the sake of revisionism—especially when, as in the case of Herman and MacArthur, the historian has conservative leanings and the subject is a favorite whipping boy of a liberal academic establishment. I’ve been an admirer of Herman’s work since his wonderful 1997 volume, The Idea of Decline in Western History, but when he asks us to pronounce Douglas MacArthur a maltreated pawn of history and a nearly flawless American hero? No, that’s a bridge too far.