The Magazine

Big Mac of the Pacific

The fascinating/infuriating General MacArthur

Aug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By MITCHELL YOCKELSON
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) was undeniably one of history’s greatest Army officers. During a remarkable career of 48 years, he graduated first in his class at West Point, fought in three wars, and earned numerous decorations, including seven Silver Stars, a couple of Purple Hearts, many Distinguished Service Medals and Distinguished Service Crosses, and, most prominently, the Medal of Honor. During World War II, at the peak of his greatness, MacArthur received the adoration of the American people. Like a movie star’s, his image graced the covers of magazines, while newspapers reported on his every move. Then his stellar military career came to an abrupt end, when Harry Truman sacked him during the Korean War.  

The fascinating/infuriating General MacArthur

The fascinating/infuriating General MacArthur

MacArthur has become an endless source of fascination for biographers and historians, and most reach the same conclusion: He was brilliant, obstinate, and arrogant. Mark Perry has essentially the same opinion as others who have written about the general. MacArthur was, indeed, a complicated and sometimes rogue officer who might have wrested more control if it hadn’t been for Franklin Roosevelt’s concerted efforts to tame him. FDR loathed the egotistical general but needed him just the same—specifically in the Philippines and, later, as Pacific Theater commander in World War II.  

The title of this book is taken from a private comment that then-New York governor and newly minted Democratic presidential nominee Roosevelt made after reading about how MacArthur had turned on the Bonus Marchers in Washington in the summer of 1932. MacArthur was chief of staff of the Army under Herbert Hoover, and he had used his authority to forcibly remove a group of World War I veterans from their Washington encampment. In Roosevelt’s mind, MacArthur was “The Most Dangerous Man in America,” with Huey Long a close second. 

From the moment FDR entered the White House, he formed a “volatile bond” with MacArthur—one that was “seeded by mutual suspicion.” They respected each other’s skills: MacArthur as a highly decorated general and FDR as a brilliant politician. Their relationship lasted for 15 years, and, despite rocky moments when FDR had reason to sack MacArthur, he kept him in command for “sound military reasons.” However, MacArthur’s arrogance and self-loathing grew tiresome, and Roosevelt exiled him to the Philippines as a military adviser to President Manuel Quezon (and not as high commissioner, a post MacArthur actually sought).    

Perry only scratches the surface of the influence MacArthur’s parents, Arthur and Pinky, had on their son. For a while, Arthur MacArthur, a hero in the Civil War and Philippine Insurrection, was considered the Army’s most promising general, until his career stalled after run-ins with Washington’s political leaders. Pinky was a doting mother: She followed her son to West Point and watched over him during all four years. 

Perry addresses MacArthur’s First World War service in passing, but he dwells on MacArthur’s disdain for the “Chaumont Crowd” without giving the phrase a point of reference. For the record, MacArthur was clearly jealous of the handpicked staff officers who served at the pleasure of General Pershing in Chaumont, the site of American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) headquarters in France. 

Perry’s main focus is MacArthur’s command decisions during World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, both FDR and MacArthur believed that the Philippines could be defended, but this proved wishful thinking. “Japan’s officers,” Perry points out, “were leading a highly trained army that was supported by more artillery and aircraft than the United States could then deploy in any battlefield, anywhere.” The Philippines did, of course, fall to the Japanese, and FDR ordered MacArthur to vacate and head to safety in Australia. From there, he led Army operations in the Pacific.  

Much to his detriment, MacArthur learned from the chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, that the Pacific Theater was deemed by the Allied leaders to be of lesser importance than the fight against Hitler in Europe. This meant that MacArthur played second fiddle to the European Theater commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been his aide for several stormy years and who had frequently disagreed with his boss over the training and organizing of Filipino forces.