- 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
The only place that retains any sense of MacArthur’s presence is West Point. The Million Dollar View from Trophy Point has hardly changed in a century. The Plain looks much as it did when 1st Capt. Douglas MacArthur led the Corps of Cadets across it with Krag-Jorgensen rifles at slope arms. The Superintendent’s house is much the same as it was during MacArthur’s three-year tenure in the early 1920s. And there is the statue.
West Point has erected statues on the edges of the Plain to four generals. A mounted Washington casts his shadow over the steps leading into the Dining Hall. An action-man statue of Patton in boots, pistols, helmet, and field glasses stands near the entrance to the library, its subject seemingly poised to storm the building. (This is reputed to be as close as he ever came to the volumes within.) Not far away is Eisenhower, hands on hips and dressed in the famous Ike jacket. One hundred and fifty yards to the west, almost in the shadow of the Supe’s large white house, MacArthur’s statue dominates a mini-plaza dedicated to his memory. He occupies more West Point real estate than Washington and as much as Patton and Ike combined. The five low walls that border the statue are incised with quotations from MacArthur’s speeches.
More of his eloquence is on display over the main entrance to the gymnasium. Some blank verse that he penned as Supe memorializes the strenuous regimen of intramural athletics that he imposed on his alma mater: “Upon the fields of friendly strife / Are sown the seeds / That, upon other fields, on other days / Will bear the fruits of victory.”
Throughout his long life MacArthur spoke frequently and movingly of the special place that West Point occupied in his heart. On his last visit to the academy, in 1962, he told the awestruck cadets, “In the evening of my memory, always I come back to West Point.…[and] when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of the Corps—and the Corps—and the Corps.”
MacArthur was unique among American soldiers. He is the only five-star commander to have spent his entire life within the Army’s embrace, born in a barracks, dying in Walter Reed Hospital. His earliest memory, he claimed, was “that of a bugle call.” If there is anywhere that MacArthur’s spirit can still be found, it is at West Point.
Why then, I wondered as I walked across the Plain, isn’t he buried here, instead of in Norfolk, Virginia, a dull, unprepossessing Navy town? That question troubled me while I researched his cadet records. His choice of a burial ground had me baffled almost to the end.
Despite the publication of dozens of MacArthur biographies and hundreds of periodical pieces, the man remained elusive. There were some fairly obvious reasons for this. As with many public figures, there were at least two sides to MacArthur: the one he presented to the world and the one he revealed in private. In his case the difference between the two could be enormous. Even in private, however, MacArthur, like his distant cousin Franklin D. Roosevelt, tended to offer only a part of himself to any one individual. No one could ever claim to have known the whole man.
The trail was also feculent with false scents because MacArthur had an elastic or, to put it more kindly, artistic idea of the truth. The number of instances where his version of an event is demonstrably false is enormous. At first this made me increasingly distrustful of everything he said or wrote, but I soon came to realize that this lamentable trait did not mean he was an incorrigible liar. MacArthur’s way of dealing with uncomfortable truths was denial. What’s more, he absolutely believed those denials. He was much more self-deluded than craftily dishonest. And when he was being dishonest, it was usually easy both to spot the falsehood and to figure out its place in his plans.
One of the biggest obstacles to unearthing the man is the vast MacArthur literature. Considering that he personally inspired, and often controlled, the production of much of it, the result has to be considered a masterpiece of the strategy of hiding in plain sight. Biographers who despise him, such as Michael Schaller, and those who admire him, like William Manchester, have alike been misled, even while traveling in opposite directions.
I researched my book chronologically, so far as that was possible. I was ably assisted by the enthusiastic, knowledgeable staff at the MacArthur Memorial and Archives in Norfolk, and thanks to Jean MacArthur’s recent contributions to the holdings there, I was overjoyed to find I had access to important primary material no biographer had seen before. At first I could not help feeling inspired by MacArthur’s eighteen months as a combat commander in World War I. I was impressed by his work as Superintendent and Chief of Staff but appalled at his completely unrealistic approach to the Philippines, disgusted by the way he got himself made a field marshal in an army that didn’t exist, and repelled by the whining, self-pitying cables he sent to George Marshall, the wartime Chief of Staff.