In His Own Write

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Now, MacArthur was an authentic warrior. He did indeed “release the leaden load” on at least two occasions before World War I, killing outright two bandidos who unwisely attacked him while he was surveying in the Philippines and knocking from their horses seven armed men while on a secret mission behind Mexican lines in 1914, and it is true that no officer on the Western front saw more up-close combat than he. But nowhere, even in his Reminiscences , does he claim to have strangled Germans with his bare hands or stabbed them, either with bayonet or “dirk"; in fact, it was part of MacArthur’s gaudy mystique as commander of the Rainbow Division that he carry no weapons at all into battle, charging into the enemy lines armed only with a riding crop.

Other letters reveal the poisonous resentments that never seemed to leave him, the certainty that anyone who differed with him did so out of the basest motives, that there were always enemies plotting behind his back, that the country’s welfare and his own were invariably synonymous—beliefs that would eventually alienate every one of the superiors, civilian or military, to whom he had to answer.

MacArthur was forty-one years old when he met Louise Brooks in 1921, just two years into his term as superintendent of West Point and still struggling to institute a body of controversial reforms aimed at bringing the academy up-to-date. She was six or seven years younger, attractive, lively, and very rich, and she had been seen on the arm of several other officers, among them the chief of staff, Gen. John J. Pershing, who, MacArthur was convinced, was his sworn enemy.

On October 21, 1921, after just two meetings, MacArthur proposed and Mrs. Brooks accepted, although they agreed not to announce their engagement until January. Two weeks later MacArthur learned that Pershing intended to transfer him to the Philippines long before his four-year term was up. He was outraged, convinced that the chief of staff was exiling him out of simple jealousy; he had won the woman Pershing wanted and was being punished for it. In letter after letter to his fiancée he railed against Pershing’s “cowardice” and his “vulgar villainy,” called him a “blackguard,” urged her to get an appointment with the Secretary of War, John W. Weeks, so that she could lay the whole matter before him.

His recently uncovered love letters reveal a lot more than mere besottedness. They show theatricality, fear, and narcissism.

And he persuaded himself that his fate and that of the whole Warren Harding administration were inextricably linked. Among the fourteen numbered points he wished her to put forward when she saw the Secretary: “My relief … will be regarded throughout the service and the country as an effort to discredit me and the progressive policies which I introduced. … Hundreds of thousands of men … all will fail to see anything other than the venting of a personal spite. A sensation will be caused which will be utilized by the Democratic party to the utmost and will undoubtedly be costly to the administration in votes. Nobody likes injustice.”

In the end no votes were won or lost. Pershing explained that MacArthur was simply being sent abroad to get some overseas experience, but rumors about his relationship with the new Mrs. MacArthur had spread so far that he felt obligated to grant an interview to The New York Times . “It’s all damn poppycock,” he said. ”… If I were married to all the ladies that gossips have engaged me to, I’d be a regular Brigham Young.”

No one may ever know the whole truth about this incident, but this newly discovered cache of letters lays bare, as does nothing else I know, the fear and narcissism that would one day bring MacArthur down.

“You do not know what a comfort it is to have your help even if it comes to nothing,” MacArthur told his wife-to-be while still struggling to hold on to his post at the academy. “To know that my back is being protected from foul blows gives me a sense of security I have never known ...” That sense of security did not last long. The marriage would end within eight years and is summarized in MacArthur’s Reminiscences in a single icy sentence: “In February 1922 I entered into matrimony, but it was not successful, and ended in divorce years later for mutual incompatibility.” In the end he came to feel that his wife, too, had joined the long list of those who had betrayed him.

As MacArthur’s letters demonstrate, the exact words of the men and women who made history are essential to our understanding of it. Two recent decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan— Harper & Row v. Nation, Salinger v. Random House —seriously threaten the concept of fair use, by which writers have traditionally been free to quote briefly from unpublished material without permission. The Authors Guild and other concerned groups are currently attempting to persuade Congress to enact legislation that will ensure the historian’s right to continue to tell his or her story using the actual words of those who lived it.