DOUGLAS MACARTHUR – A Man Deeply Flawed: How Did He Do It? Part I

“It would mean a great deal to me if you have a moment in which to favor me with a letter from the man who, I think, is the greatest general in the history of the United States Army.”


February 1946

“Thanks—I only wish I merited so high an opinion.”


DOUGLAS MACARTHUR’S BATTLEFIELD career rates him a seat of honor in any military Valhalla. But generals nowadays not only have to win wars, they have to win the peace. For his performance in Japan, Douglas MacArthur rates a seat of honor in the peace Valhalla as well. Richard Nixon, in his list of seven twentieth-century leaders who changed the world, cited Douglas MacArthur (along with Shigeru Yoshida).

Leaders can be classified as two types, normal and extreme. Normal leaders fit well in an organization and seek minimal risks and incremental returns. Extreme leaders are self-centered and narcissistic, and attribute success to their own unique capabilities. More than normal leaders, they will take risks that may have a low probability of success but offer exceptionally high rewards. When they are successful in concluding an enterprise nobody else would have undertaken, they are called geniuses—and fabulous reputations are made.

Military organizations rarely have an egotist like MacArthur at the top. They are, after all, highly homogenous institutions in which officers have gone to the same types of schools and undergone the same rigorous training and the same intense evaluations at every step of their careers—meaning that potential wild cards get weeded out. MacArthur in 1935 was essentially “finished,” and so he took a job with Quezon in the Philippines. Only the onset of World War II brought him back into the U.S. Army full-time, and the only reason Truman chose him to run Japan was that he had just come back from Potsdam and knew he needed a general who would be tough with the Russians. In a sense, therefore, MacArthur owed his appointment as much to Joseph Stalin as to President Truman.

Truman knew he was taking a risk with MacArthur, but Japan was ten thousand miles away, a place safe to assign a man who might succeed brilliantly—or fail catastrophically. Said George Marshall to Henry Stimson in 1944: MacArthur was “so prone to exaggerate and so influenced by his own desires that it is difficult to trust his judgment.” Be that as it may, no one could question the man’s idealism, intellect, or capacity for hard work. The job was a big one, and called for a man who was aggressive and daring, not a yes-man. Japan in 1945 was in desperate straits. It needed a man capable of making a huge impact.

One might describe this situation as the “plight of the conqueror.” In a book about her service during the occupation, Honor Tracy identified what MacArthur was up against:

The people of an occupied country can have no sincere feeling towards the conqueror, except to wish him gone. No matter how laudable are his intentions, or even how useful he may sometimes be, his presence is odious; he is a blot on the landscape and a constant reminder of disgrace and defeat, and of the fact that one is nothing but a second-class citizen in one’s own country.

The conqueror undertaking this task was a man with serious flaws. He compared himself to Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon and excelled all of them, or so he thought. He was unsociable and not particularly likable, though he could also be a charmer and could pour it on thick in a one-on-one meeting. He was isolated and lived in his own dream world, reinforced by a wife who called him “General” and ate up every word he said. He was self-centered, egocentric, and vain. He told a group of historians: “I don’t care how you write history, gentlemen, so long as it agrees with my communiqués.” When he heard the band playing the “Star-Spangled Banner,” he told his wife, “Listen, Jeannie, they are playing our song.” He thought grandiose. He dreamed of being president of the United States. He wanted to be George Washington. The only reason he was not a tormented, unhappy man was that he loved to work and got immense satisfaction from doing it well.

Ironically for such a peacock, he tended to be underestimated. He invited derision and occasional scorn for his antics, such as the time he had a pontoon bridge flown all the way from the United States to Korea so he could cross a river, thus giving his enemies and skeptics another opportunity to exult: “Whatever else MacArthur could do he could not walk on water.” So when he pulled off a brilliant stunt like Inchon and proved he sometimes could perform miracles, his mockers were doubly amazed. He insisted on total control of his image. Unlike the navy where the head commander, Nimitz, shared the glory with Halsey and King and Spruance, with MacArthur there could be only one ray of light—and woe to any man who might share part of it. The great jungle fight in the South Pacific was Buna—100 percent won by Eichelberger. MacArthur later told him, “Bob, those were great days when you and I were fighting at Buna, weren’t they?”—and he laughed. It was a veiled warning: Woe to anyone who dared disclose that MacArthur had had nothing to do with Buna. When Eichelberger appeared on the cover of Time, MacArthur called him into his office and read him the riot act: “Do you realize I could reduce you to the grade of colonel tomorrow and send you home?” In 1948, Eichelberger got ready to leave Japan and came to MacArthur’s office to say good-bye. MacArthur was too busy to see him.

As the most famous American general of the 1930s and 1940s, MacArthur had powerful enemies—not just Truman. Secretary of State Dean Acheson, State Department advisor George Kennan, and Army Secretary William Draper were out to get him—and George Marshall was no friend. World War II secretary of war Henry Stimson observed:

MacArthur stands out as the manifest personality who has won the right to command the final land attack on Japan by virtue of his skillful work in the Southwest Pacific and the Philippines, but his personality is so unpleasant and has affronted all the men of the Army and Navy with whom he has to work that it is difficult to get combined assent on the proposition.

Secretary of State and former general George Marshall accused MacArthur of surrounding himself with sycophants and creating a court befitting a satrap—biting words from someone as reserved and taciturn as Marshall. Another name given to MacArthur’s men: “the Knights of MacArthur’s Round Table.” Eisenhower, who had worked for MacArthur in the Philippines for seven years, said he was a “man of no character” who had “spent a life of hate and envy.” The list grows. Robert Eichelberger called his boss a “strange character who wonders why he has so few friends and eternally blames the other fellow.” The Australian head representative to SCAP, Macmahon Ball, said the real fault of the occupation was not that it accomplished so little but that it claimed so much. Omar Bradley once teased Eichelberger that if he teamed up with Marshall and Eisenhower to write an exposé of the occupation, he would become the hottest item in Washington (an offer Eichelberger had the good grace to refuse).

The British historian Lord Acton is famous for the epigram “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”—a saying that most definitely did not apply to Douglas MacArthur, who until Korea was careful not to step on any Washington toes while enjoying the prerogatives of an emperor, a shogun, and a president all rolled into one. But Acton was closer to the mark in his next comment: “Great men are almost always bad men.” With MacArthur the order needs to be reversed: a man of major weaknesses who managed to accomplish extraordinary things.

How did he do it?

FIRST A FLASH-FORWARD to a more recent occupation. After the victory in the Gulf War of 1991, the secretary of defense argued against taking over the country:

Once you’ve got Baghdad, it’s not clear what you do with it. It’s not clear what kind of government you would put in place of the one that’s currently there now. Is it going to be a Shia regime, a Sunni regime or a Kurdish regime? Or one that tilts toward the Baathists, or one that tilts toward the Islamic fundamentalists? How much credibility is that government going to have if it’s set up by the United States military when it’s there? How long does the United States military have to stay?

So spoke Dick Cheney, who ten years later would have to answer these questions in the Iraq War. There is no evidence he ever examined the record of MacArthur, who called his occupation of Japan “the greatest reformation of a people ever attempted.” Nor, it would appear, had Cheney considered how MacArthur would have handled an enemy on the run. A MacArthur fighting the 1991 Gulf War would not have stopped at the first victory and let Saddam Hussein escape and stay in power. Had MacArthur been fighting the 2003 Iraq War he would have fought just as Gen. Tommy Franks did: a “light footprint” blitzkrieg. But once in control, he would have had a plan and enough troops for the difficult part: the occupation. MacArthur’s concept of “total victory” meant not only the fighting part, it also meant the follow-up. If you attack a country and you win, you have to repair and fix it, even if it involves top-to-bottom changes in the system of governance, the constitution, the civil code, the penal code, the status of women, the school system, censorship of the newspapers, property rights, separation of church and state, food distribution, and repairing the infrastructure. If he were around in 2013, he would be horrified about the 1,000 people killed by chemical warfare in Syria, but he would be even more appalled by the Obama administration’s loose talk of using airstrikes and drones “to send a message.” War is not a legitimate tool of statecraft. Nor is there any such thing as “war on the cheap.”

When MacArthur started his assignment as supreme commander, the prospects of success were dismal. Military occupations are notorious for their lack of permanent impact. Japan looked like an especially difficult case, given how ferociously it had fought the war. Even after the occupation was up and running and MacArthur was saying it was time to go home, naysayers like Ball, the Australian delegate to the Allied Council, were claiming the exact opposite: “In my own view some form of Allied control of Japan will be necessary for many years.” Talk of twenty, even fifty years was commonplace. The Japanese could stymie MacArthur, knowing time was on their side, as Shigeru Yoshida did when he told local authorities there was “no need of adopting SCAP’s costly new education system, because the Americans soon will be gone anyway.”

MacArthur understood this. Military occupations don’t last long. He must move quickly and decisively. “The minute I left Japan,” he said, “so would the changes. These things had to come from the Japanese themselves, and they had to come because the Japanese people sincerely wanted them.”

Japan in late 1945 was a country where the red light had suddenly turned green. Due to the shock of the atom bomb and the final, belabored realization of total defeat, supported by the emperor’s ability to influence people to accept the surrender, the spirit of militarism had miraculously evaporated overnight. Into this void stepped MacArthur, literally dropping out of the sky in his plane. Observed Rovere and Schlesinger: “The overpowering need was for faith, for a mystique, for a moral revival in the midst of moral collapse. The powerful and dedicated figure of MacArthur filled that need” in administering “neither a soft peace nor a hard peace.”

All leadership is largely situational, the right man in the right place at the right time (Winston Churchill is a perfect example). What makes MacArthur an unusual leader is how significant his success was throughout his entire life. He was not a one-shot wonder. Beginning with West Point, where he was first in his class, he had always risen to the top. He was America’s most decorated soldier in World War I. After delivering an even more brilliant performance in World War II, he faced a totally different challenge: winning the peace. Fortunately for him the factors for continued success were in place: a country that had surrendered without being invaded, an industrious people who admired success (as opposed to resenting it), a fully functioning local government, a cooperative emperor, and substantial Washington support in terms of staff, resources, and money. And, of course, unlimited power to feed his colossal ego and keep him happy. He was in his element.

In the late 1950s William Ganoe, a former aide to MacArthur at West Point, identified MacArthur’s treatment of subordinates as key to his leadership. He shared his ideas with Gen. Jacob Devers, head of the 6th Army in Europe during World War II and one of America’s top generals. Interestingly, Devers had never worked with or even met MacArthur, he only heard about him through his friend Ganoe and through Robert Eichelberger, his West Point classmate. But MacArthur’s reputation was so well known throughout the army that Devers agreed to collaborate with Ganoe on a book about MacArthur’s leadership. Together they developed what they called the “MacArthur Tenets.” No explanation of the tenets was provided, just a list of questions. There were seventeen of them, mostly dealing with obvious fundamentals such as delegation and responsibility: Do I act in such a way as to make my subordinates want to follow me? Do I delegate tasks that should be mine? Do I arrogate everything to myself and delegate nothing? Do I understand my subordinates by placing on each one as much responsibility as he can stand? Is my door open to subordinates? Other tenets address matters of personal comportment. Am I a constant example to my subordinates in character, dress, deportment, and courtesy? Do I correct a subordinate in the presence of others? Am I interested in the personal welfare of each of my subordinates, as if he were a member of my family?

Several other tenets were quite specific, inviting response concerning MacArthur’s performance:

Do I heckle my subordinates or strengthen and encourage them?

MacArthur looked after his men and let them know how much he valued them—at least when he needed them. He told Eichelberger: “Bob, if you get a bloody nose, I’ll give you every man I have.” When Cappy Harada came up with the idea of inviting American baseball players to Japan for a series of exhibition games, he put Harada on the plane to America and told him, “Get it done.” In 1950 America’s greatest baseball star came to Japan. The crowds went wild as the great Joe DiMaggio came onto the field, and the man escorting him and basking in the limelight was not MacArthur, it was Harada.

He never threw his subordinates to the wolves to boost his own position. Informed by the president of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain that so long as he kept “radicals” like labor advisor Theodore Cohen he could not hope to get the newspaper chain’s support for the presidency, MacArthur stood his ground and gave his beleaguered employee a big promotion. Such supportive treatment of subordinates applied also to senior Japanese officials. When he had to overturn their draft of a new constitution and have his men redo it, he resisted attempts to call it “a MacArthur constitution” and insisted that the Japanese be given full credit.

Do I use moral courage in getting rid of subordinates who have proven themselves beyond doubt to be unfit?

MacArthur had a problem with his long-standing Bataan chief of staff, Richard Sutherland, because Sutherland was too narrow-minded and inflexible to handle diplomatic duties. When Sutherland committed the double sin of having an affair with a WAC officer and trying to go around his boss and build his own coterie of loyalists, MacArthur fired him on the spot.

Whenever someone was unfit, MacArthur always dealt with him face-to-face. “To take up a painful matter by letter or other communication,” he said, “is not only the rankest cowardice but the ruination of morale.”

Have I done all in my power by encouragement, incentive, and spur to salvage the weak and caring?

From day one, MacArthur made it clear that he was on a humanitarian mission. One of his very first commands was that American troops not consume any of Japan’s precious food supplies. He ordered food and medical supplies to be brought into the country, and set up local distribution centers throughout Japan to provide relief and to stamp out the local black markets. It was done quickly, and compares in size only to Herbert Hoover’s massive food relief in Belgium and France after World War I.

MacArthur knew that helping the weak and vulnerable required more than just providing handouts and freebies. In supporting the formation of labor unions and women’s equal rights, he gave people who could not protect themselves the means to become self-reliant and independent.

Do I know by NAME and CHARACTER a maximum number of subordinates for whom I am responsible? Do I know them intimately?

MacArthur had a phenomenal memory that dazzled his staff. Just as he could read a memo and recite it back an hour later almost word for word, he carried in his head a huge bank of names and other valuable information from many years in the past.

Did MacArthur know people intimately? No. In Japan he adopted a totally different style of management from his days as a general, when he was everywhere, mingling with his troops and running to the scene of gunfire. No longer was he the general who had once said “a commanding officer is best when he has observed the situation himself.” Instead he withdrew into the four walls of his office and ventured outside only for lunch. Observed General Willoughby: MacArthur “knew his authority would be greater if it came from a Jovian distance.” Such distance would create a “deliberate mystique.”


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