Highest West Point grades since Robert E. Lee. Seven Silver Stars in World War I. Superintendent of West Point. Commander at Manila. Youngest major general and Army chief of staff in American history. Architect of the pacification of Japan. Chief military officer in Korea. There may never be another resume quite like that of Douglas MacArthur.
And yet MacArthur — commander of one of the greatest air, land, and sea campaign in the history of the world — is remembered today as the man who faded away after a fateful firefight with Harry S. Truman, and his name, no longer festooned with glory and draped in heroism, is now invoked principally as shorthand for a military man out of control and out of sync with his commander of chief. Today his is a cautionary tale, not an inspirational one.
He was, as Mark Perry says in his brisk but dazzling biography, “The Most Dangerous Man in America,’’ a complex mix of ego, ambition, and brilliance, possessed of “rakish eccentricities.’’ He was also, in Perry’s deft portrayal centered mainly on MacArthur’s World War II years, engaged in a struggle, for power, predominance, and prestige, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The two — one distinguished by his cigarette holder, the other by a corncob pipe, both held between the teeth at about the same angle — were joined in what Perry describes as a “volatile bond that helped define the course of the American republic.’’
The two first met in 1916, when the future president was assistant secretary of the Navy. The man who would lead the 1933 presidential inaugural parade and deliver a crisp salute to the new chief executive had none of the natural affinity for the Navy nor the romance of the sea that ran through the young Roosevelt. And with their contrasting political views, “by the time Roosevelt became president,’’ Perry tell us, “the two circled each other warily while feigning a comfortable friendship.’’
FDR’s strategy was to use MacArthur, regarded on the left as the villain of the Bonus March of 1932, as a conservative counterweight to the liberal tone that predominated in his administration. This is the sort of insight that emerges in what is not so much a biography of MacArthur as a dual biography of the general and the president, crafted by a writer whose 2004 dual biography of U.S. Grant and Mark Twain stands as a shining example of the genre.
When MacArthur, who was Army chief of staff, and FDR clashed in the early years of the Roosevelt administration over military budgetary matters, the very fact of the dispute helpfully underlined FDR’s efforts to bring the budget under control. A deft move by the man MacArthur described as “that cripple in the White House.’’
As a political theorist, MacArthur was a natural acolyte of Niccolò Machiavelli. As a military thinker, Perry argues, he was shaped less by Lee and Grant than by Napoleon and Genghis Khan, masters of speed and surprise, whose movements and tactics he applied to tanks, light mobile units, and aircraft.
Obsessed with a crisp crease in his khakis and devoutly committed to shined shoes, MacArthur was fastidious in dress and in comportment, much like FDR himself, and their meetings — the one over the future of the Philippines, in 1937, for example — took on a predictable form, in Perry’s rendering, “unfailingly polite, they maneuvered, parried, lunged and retreated, then lunged and retreated again, all the while testing each other’s strengths and weaknesses.’’
MacArthur’s relationship with a different future president would be different, however. “He’d like to occupy a throne room surrounded by experts in flattery,’’ Dwight D. Eisenhower said in 1938.
But MacArthur sometimes didn’t deserve flattery; one example is the destruction of US warplanes under his command at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines a day after Pearl Harbor. Perry’s view: “MacArthur and his staff were stunned by the sheer violence of the [Hawaii] attack and struggled to respond to it.’’
This of course launched the entire World War II drama of the Philippines, which in turn buttressed the MacArthur myth, though his heroism (rather than his theatrics) were no myth. Outnumbered and overmatched in the Pacific, seemingly abandoned by FDR, lacking the resources he needed to prosecute the kind of war he wanted, and mired in service rivalries, MacArthur nonetheless eventually prevailed.
Through all this, MacArthur’s tendency to self-promotion could not be repressed, and Perry holds out as repellent examples the commander’s failure to commend success by others and the issuance of press releases far from MacArthur’s actual location designed to enhance his reputation. “The issue here is not whether MacArthur was courageous,’’ Perry says, “but whether he was honest.’’
With FDR’s death MacArthur fatefully regarded himself the brightest star in the American firmament. “He was MacArthur the great general . . . the American Genghis Khan,’’ Perry writes. That perhaps sowed the seeds of his downfall, for his failure to imagine that Roosevelt’s successor — whom MacArthur regarded as “a play actor and bunko man’’ — was a figure to be reckoned with wrecked his career and began the process whereby MacArthur, the ultimate old soldier, faded away.David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.