- Historic Sites
My Search For Douglas MacArthur
An overheard remark sent the author off on a years-long quest to discover the truth about a man whose power to inspire both rage and reverence has only grown after his death
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
In the Summer of 1958 I joined the army straight out of high school and two years later found myself, by now an Army journalist, flying into the Philippines. Strapped into a bucket seat aboard a C-54, I was seated next to a pair of sergeants, both of them combat veterans of World War II. As the plane began its descent toward Clark Field, the two NCOs started talking about the disastrous Philippine campaign of 1941–42.
“MacArthur had too much faith in those damned Philippine Scouts,” concluded one sergeant. “He thought they could beat the Japs.” The other man agreed with him. If only MacArthur hadn’t based his plans on foolishly exaggerated notions about the fighting abilities of the Philippine Scouts, the Japanese might have been thwarted.
This was the first criticism I had ever heard of MacArthur’s generalship. I remembered his tumultuous homecoming in 1951, since when I had become accustomed to hearing him lauded as the greatest general in American history. It was both appalling and intriguing to discover there were men who had fought in World War II who found serious fault with MacArthur the field commander. I was hooked. My curiosity about him began right there. After a while I found myself trying to retrace his footsteps whenever the opportunity arose.
Journalistic assignments took me to Japan a number of times, and I never passed by the Dai Ichi Building, from which he had run the occupation for five years, without thinking about MacArthur. I found the American Embassy complex in Tokyo interesting only because MacArthur had lived there during his time as Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers.
When I went to Korea in early 1961 to write about a training exercise being mounted by the 503d Airborne Battle Group, I was able to stand where MacArthur had stood on June 29, 1950, as he watched the defeated Republic of Korea army streaming out of Seoul and across the bridges spanning the Han River.
What MacArthur accomplished at the Cô te-de-Châtillon in October 1918 remains one of the greatest exploits by an American soldier in the 20th century.
Shortly afterward I returned to the United States via Wake Island. The Military Air Transport System had recently begun operating Boeing 707s, and the runways at Wake were being extended. This tiny island was virtually covered in concrete, and bulldozers were still agitating the coral. The small building where MacArthur and Truman had met alone in October 1950 for a forty-minute getting-to-know-you session had already been razed.
The airport administration building, however, was still standing. Here MacArthur, Truman, and their respective retinues had discussed the Korean War and weighed the possibility of Chinese intervention. I persuaded a civilian official at the airfield to let me take a look at the room. For ten minutes I tried to picture the men in this starkly unprepossessing setting. I failed, probably because I did not know enough.
What I knew was little more than the legend, a tale of fabulous success but leading, as in a Greek tragedy, to hubris—culminating, inevitably, in a spectacular downfall.
No one in American history had led a more adventurous, or a more controversial, life than Douglas MacArthur. He was famous for being phenomenally intelligent, almost unbelievably handsome, and immensely egotistical. He was either intensely loathed or fervently admired. Few people seemed able to look at him objectively. In fact I could not even be sure about those few; I had never met one.
Born in 1880, MacArthur had graduated from West Point in 1903 as the number one man in his class and 1st captain of the Corps of Cadets. He was reputed to have had the highest grades ever attained at the academy. He went on to become the most highly decorated American soldier of World War I: two Distinguished Service Crosses, seven Silver Stars, and two Purple Hearts, plus several French awards for bravery. Only because he had antagonized Pershing, the story ran, was he denied the Medal of Honor.
Despite a long-running feud with Pershing, he became, at fifty, the youngest Chief of Staff in the history of the U.S. Army. Having reached the summit of his profession, he dragged his glory into the gutter when he led the infamous attack on the Bonus Army.
This “army” consisted of unemployed men, mainly World War I veterans. The Depression had robbed them of jobs and paychecks, cruelly plunging them into poverty and despair. They gathered in Washington in the steamy summer of 1932 to lobby Congress for early payment of a veterans’ bonus that would come due in 1945. The Washington police force tried to evict marchers from condemned buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue that some had moved into. The result was clashes that led to shootings and serious injuries. Washington seemed poised on the brink of a major riot; the district commissioners asked President Herbert Hoover to send in the troops before the police lost complete control.