- Historic Sites
Homer Lea & The Decline Of The West
Early in the century a young American accurately predicted Japan’s imperialism and China’s and Russia’s rise. Then he set out to become China’s soldier leader.
May/June 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 4
In October 1941 Clare Boothe Luce, the playwright, journalist, politician, and wife of the magazine tycoon Henry Luce, had dinner with half a dozen army officers in their quarters on top of an ancient Spanish fort beside the harbor of Manila. The main topic of conversation was the threat of war with Japan. Everyone assumed that if hostilities began, the Philippines would be target No. 1 of the Japanese war machine.
Col. Charles A. Willoughby, who would go on to glory of sorts as one of Douglas MacArthur’s most devoted staff officers, drew a map of Luzon on the tablecloth and traced arrows at Lingayen Gulf and Polillo Bight pointing toward Manila. “The main attacks will probably come here,” he said.
“You’re not giving away military secrets?” Mrs. Luce asked.
Willoughby laughed. “No. Just quoting military gospel—according to Homer Lea.”
Mrs. Luce was not the sort of woman who liked to admit any gaps in her knowledge. But she was forced to ask, “Who is Homer Lea?”
Willoughby said he was a self-appointed “general” who had written a book in 1909 predicting a war between America and Japan—a war that America could lose because of chronic unpreparedness. Lea had described with meticulous detail exactly how the Japanese would capture the Philippines and, if they were sufficiently audacious, Hawaii and the entire West Coast of the United States.
“I read him at West Point,” one of the officers said. “Damned convincing, militarily.”
Willoughby advised, “Next month, when you get home, brush up on the general.”
Back in New York Mrs. Luce did not give a thought to Homer Lea until the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor and newspapers began printing maps of the Japanese assault on the Philippines. Then she saw the “sinister little arrows” on the maps showing the Japanese landing in Lingayen Gulf. The invaders drove from there and Polillo Bight across Luzon in a pincer movement toward Manila. Mrs. Luce went to the public library and found The Valor of Ignorance by Homer Lea. It had been taken out three times since its publication in 1909.
By the time she finished the book, the Japanese had occupied Manila. In his book Homer Lea had predicted that they would capture the Philippine capital in three weeks. It took them twenty-six days. Lea had declared that it was pointless to try to defend the islands with twenty-one thousand white and native troops, the garrison in 1909, or even with three times that number. MacArthur’s fifty-five thousand men were soon smashed by two hundred thousand Japanese invaders.
With a ferocity that chilled Mrs. Luce’s blood, Lea insisted that unless the Philippines assembled a great mobile army, only a substantial fleet, based just outside Manila, could save the country, and the flaccid, pacifist democracy called the United States of America would never build one. In 1941 the U.S. Asiatic Fleet had only 1 heavy cruiser; 2 light cruisers, one of which, the Marblehead , was “old enough to vote”; 13 overage destroyers; and 29 submarines. Against them the Japanese had committed 10 battleships, 10 aircraft carriers, 18 heavy cruisers, 18 light cruisers, 113 destroyers, and 63 submarines.
Mrs. Luce found another Lea book, The Day of the Saxon . It held an equally gloomy prophecy. It predicted that the “Kingdom of the Saxon”—Great Britain—was doomed because her people, sapped by pacifism, had lost the martial spirit that had built their empire. Britain’s global enemies—Germany and Japan and Russia—would reduce her to impotence in one or two terrific wars. Then Germany and Japan themselves might be equally humbled, leaving the English-speaking world defenseless, beyond the undependable power of the United States, against the third great player of the global game, Russia. That was to be the subject of a third book, which Lea never wrote: The Swarming of the Slav .
Mrs. Luce stared at the picture of Homer Lea in the frontispiece of The Valor of Ignorance . She saw “a plain-faced boy, certainly in his early twenties, with a hard, wide mouth, intense wide eyes, a wide brow with long lank hair parted unevenly in the middle.” The boy was wearing a uniform with gold epaulets, and his tunic was covered with medals. It was a foreign uniform and looked doubly strange in concert with the “strong young American face.”
Mrs. Luce’s mind would have been even further boggled had she been able to see beyond the carefully posed picture to the reality of the man in the uniform. He was a hunchbacked dwarf, who stood barely five feet high. The luminous eyes with which he gazed so boldly at the reader were virtually useless. The general was almost blind.