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MacArthur: the last American hero?

The Years of MacArthur, Vol. III, by D. Clayton James. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 817 pp. $29.95. He was the latest in the long series of American military heroes, and he may well be the last.

With the computerization of weaponry, the fear of nuclear destruction, and the healthy growth in the abhorrence of all armed conflict, we may doubt that a career such as Douglas MacArthur so obviously gloried in can ever be seen again.

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He was, in the modern manner, a swashbuckler, a man who loved the panache of war, who, as Shakespeare wrote, delighted in ``seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon's mouth.'' He was not averse to braggadocio, as when he not a little vaingloriously promised the Filipinos, ``I shall return.'' His exaggeratedly underslung corncob pipe, his floppy braid-bedecked cap, his dark glasses, his every manner -- all were the stuff of which self-conscious military gallants are made. Yet he was, beyond cavil, a man who amply deserved his exalted reputation.

True, he made his full quota of egregious mistakes, as when he insisted on chasing the North Koreans too close to the Chinese border, and when he failed to realize that, great as was his reputation and power, that of the President of the United States was greater still. But in his inspired direction of Japan's development toward postwar democracy, his many brilliant moves in the Korean war, his sincere love for America and for what it stood, he deserved the epithet of military hero.

And only a handful of his countrymen have ever left the public scene more brilliantly than did he when, in his speech before a joint session of Congress he told them, ``Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.'' Perhaps the only American general to end his career in a more sensational blaze of publicity was Gen. Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

Certainly no American official in the nation's history ever wielded for so long a time or in so important an area such extraordinary power as MacArthur did in Japan. It is one of the most ironic events of the 20th century that, having participated in history's greatest war to purge the world of the dictatorial regimes of Germany, Japan, and Italy, the US immediately reposed virtually full dictatorial power in the hands of the Allied proconsul in Japan. No preceding Japanese government, however absolute, held such power over Japan's destiny in its hands. Fortunately, this power was exercised with a fundamental goodwill and with the purpose of inculcating a respect for democratic processes.

And this purpose was achieved to a degree which may be said to have exceeded logical expectations. The enormous energies and disciplined outlook of the Japanese people have been channeled into a peaceful (however self-centered) effort to conquer the world rather than into a military one. The steps whereby MacArthur laid the foundation for this change in Japan's experience are both carefully detailed and perceptively analyzed in this third volume of Professor James's biography.

As this book makes clear, this career would soon face a test as severe as that confronting MacArthur during the Japanese conquest of the Philippines. For the brilliant successes of the opening phases of the Korean war would dissolve into the bitter criticism of his decision to push on to the Chinese borders, an action which tragically widened the war, cost a large number of United Nations casualties, deprived South Korea of the wide areas it had won from North Korea above the 38th parallel, and left Korea in its present unsatisfactory state. If the first phase of the Korean war showed MacArthur at his militarily most brilliant, the second phase showed him at his personally most overweening and vainglorious.

With many military figures the disaster at the Yalu River at China's hands would have induced a period of humbling self-examination. Not with MacArthur. And thus began the saddest episode in his sensational career. When President Truman imposed the concept of limited warfare MacArthur openly defied presidential authority and was removed from command. It was a classic Greek tragedy example of the hero undone through hubris.

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James's trilogy is the definitive MacArthur study to date. It is enormously detailed, carefully researched, and written with balance. It should long remain a respected source work on one of America's most remarkable men and most historic periods.

Joseph G. Harrison is a former managing editor of the Monitor.

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