In His Own Write

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In April of 1951 I was ten years old and living with my family on Chicago’s South Side when the newspapers reported that General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was to be paraded past our neighborhood as part of the clamorous tour of American cities that followed his recall from Korea. The news put my father in a quandary. He knew that MacArthur represented a big part of our history and that it would be wrong to deny me a look at him. But he also saw MacArthur’s dismissal not as the tragedy the general and his admirers believed it to be but as the most forceful evidence that the Constitution still mattered, that it was incumbent upon even the most exalted soldier to follow the orders of his civilian commander in chief.

My clearest memories of that day are not of the parade but of my father walking with me across the grassy Midway, gravely explaining why, while it was okay for us to have a glimpse of the general, we wouldn’t be sharing in the wild enthusiasm the crowds were sure to show. A mighty cheer went up as, first, police motorcycles appeared, and then the big open car in which the general sat. My father did not cheer, and so, of course, neither did I, and I’m not sure how much of my memory of how the old soldier looked that day is authentic, how much garnered from photographs seen afterward, but there was the battered campaign hat, the khaki greatcoat, the raptor’s nose and lordly wave.

Almost forty years later I was asked to write a brief profile of the general for the National Geographic . I found it curiously difficult to do. I visited the Philippines, where he spent a quarter of his professional career, and found surprisingly few traces of him: the penthouse atop the Manila Hotel in which he lived just before the war is gone, blown up by the Japanese on the final day of their occupation of the city and now replaced by an opulent suite indistinguishable from similar suites anywhere else on earth, and even the coastline where he first waded ashore and redeemed his pledge to return has shifted, so that the life-size bronze statuary that marks this historic spot is now landlocked.

I consulted the literature, everything from sycophantic memoirs by former aides published during his lifetime that would have deeply embarrassed a less vainglorious man to hostile studies in which his every word and deed is disparaged; from MacArthur’s own ornate but curiously opaque Reminiscences and William Manchester’s best-selling American Caesar to D. Clayton James’s magisterial three-volume study The Years of MacArthur . But as James admits, the private man behind the familiar props remains maddeningly elusive: “There are aspects of his ... personality which neither I nor any other writer will ever comprehend fully or explain satisfactorily. This is true because of not only his complexity but also the extent and nature of his personal papers, which are disappointingly few and unrevealing.”

Then a handful of revealing personal papers did turn up. A friend lent me a catalogue of MacArthur’s unpublished love letters, recently uncovered and put up for sale by an autograph dealer, Joseph M. Maddalena. MacArthur wrote the letters, seventy-five of them, between 1921 and 1925 to Louise Cromwell Brooks, the wealthy divorcée who became his first wife.

No man’s love letters should be held against him. The amorous Douglas MacArthur is neither more nor less foolish-sounding than the next eager suitor: “Are you really mine, you beautiful white soul—you passion breeding woman—you mirthmaking child—you tender-hearted angel—you divine giver of delight—you pulsing passion flower—you exquisite atom of crystalline purity?”

But these letters reveal a good deal more about MacArthur than mere besottedness. There is, first of all, the tilt toward the theatrical that would later lead Dwight Elsenhower to say that he had “studied dramatics” under MacArthur. Here, after sliding onto his finger the gold ring that signaled his engagement, MacArthur broods on its greater meaning: “Lovely Lady: As I write, my hand with its rings fascinates me. That hand has been with me so long, has seemed so commonplace, what strange magic on my finger changes it into a dream of wonderment? I have watched it as it fought for me on many a bloody field. I have heard its trigger fingers release the leaden load, I have seen it close on more than one sinewy throat, I have felt it drive the steel home,—and I have grinned at its cool readiness and skill as a killer, wondered if the day would come when it would be a second too slow—a flash too late; loved it—and thought of it no more. But today its sight thrills me, rapture shivers shake me as I muse on it, it seems to point no longer pistol or dirk but towards the immortal road to Paradise, its flash sweeps like a flush through my veins, and I laugh with the Gods in rapturous glee at the wonder forging of those brilliant circlets that bind us together.”