- 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 Argonne forest I walked over the site of his greatest feat in World War I, the Côte-de-Châtillon. It was up this steep hill that MacArthur as a young brigade commander led his men against some of the strongest German defenses on the Western Front. The Côte itself rises vertiginously seven hundred feet above flat farmland—ideal terrain for a determined and well-armed defender. Here was the linchpin of German defenses across much of the Argonne, and the 1st Infantry Division, Pershing’s pride and joy, had been bled white in a futile attempt to take it by storm.
MacArthur’s division was pushed into the line to replace the Big Red One, and his brigade spearheaded the new assault on the Côte in mid-October 1918. The first day, hundreds of men were killed around him, and another failure seemed certain. When night fell, he personally led a patrol that found the one weak spot in the defenses. Every member of the patrol but MacArthur was killed by an artillery barrage. He marveled at his survival. “God took me by the hand,” he said. The next morning he led his badly mauled brigade into the German rear and drove the enemy off the Côte-de-Châtillon, a feat of arms that remains one of the greatest exploits by an American soldier in this century.
At Chaumont I saw the château where Pershing had established his World War I headquarters. In my mind’s eye I could see the big open automobiles of the time crunching over the gravel of the semicircular driveway and depositing American colonels and generals, including MacArthur, at the bottom of the imposing sweep of steps that lead up to the main entrance.
A Country Made by War was followed by an account of the wartime Army, There’s a War to Be Won, and a sequel on the wartime Army Air Forces, Winged Victory. In the course of researching these books I came across diaries, letters, unpublished memoirs, and oral history transcripts by people who had known MacArthur. While a few could not stand him, most were deeply impressed by the man. So although MacArthur’s public reputation was going down, my own esteem for him was rising, sometimes despite myself. I resolved to write my own book and arrive at my own conclusions.
I too had long believed that MacArthur had defied Hoover’s clear instructions and attacked the Bonus Marchers. It was a shock to discover how wrong I had been.
Shortly after I began research on my MacArthur biography, I visited his birthplace. He had been born at what, in 1880, was called the Little Rock Arsenal, a collection of twenty-six buildings. Only one of these remains, the red-brick structure in which baby Douglas arrived in the world. There is a handsome octagonal tower at each end, and it stands as the centerpiece of what has become yet another MacArthur Park. His birthplace is no longer an officers’ billet but a natural history museum, complete with guides, gift shop, and refrigerator magnets.
During World War II, when MacArthur’s popularity was at its zenith, the woman who ran this museum, Bernice Babcock, wrote to him asking for mementos. The birthplace had become a shrine, and, she wryly pointed out, many visitors took her for his mother. MacArthur promised to send some personal items once the war ended, but he never did. He wanted his origins in an impoverished, backward place like Arkansas to be forgotten, much preferring a connection with Virginia, on his mother’s side. In later life MacArthur saw himself as an aristocratic scion of the Old South.
When I asked at the museum which was the room where MacArthur had been born, the young guide on duty in the gift shop said apologetically, “Nobody knows for sure. They probably lived upstairs, but babies were likely to be delivered downstairs. We think it might have been where the prairie wolf is.” Hmm.
I wound my way through various rooms, each portraying some aspect of natural life on the frontier, until I found myself confronted by a large wolf. It had been stuffed into looking preternaturally alert and wary by some exemplar of pedagogical taxidermy, but it was impossible to think of this spot as a delivery room. Failed again. No echo of baby Douglas there.
My plans called for a visit to the ironically placed parental home. Ironic because it stood on Marshall Street; doubly so because the only people MacArthur ever disparaged were Germans, and the house was in the most German city in America, Milwaukee. But inquiries revealed that this large, ugly Victorian dwelling had been torn down in the early 1980s. The site is now a parking lot.
I briefly considered trying to gain access to MacArthur’s spacious apartment in the Waldorf Towers, but this too has been altered beyond recognition. Besides, about a decade after the general’s death, Jean, his wife, moved to a much smaller apartment elsewhere in the Towers.