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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
All the same, I had to take Arthur MacArthur seriously if only because Douglas modeled much of his life on him; his ambition, he told a West Point roommate, was “to be as great a man as my father.” Arthur MacArthur’s ideas of what made a great man reflected the nineteenth century Zeitgeist, which emphasized the essential role of the heroic individual in human events. Douglas MacArthur not only took his father as his role model but showed how deeply those same teachings had lodged in his own psyche when he wrote, in 1939: “The birthdays of great men mark the turning points in the history of the world. History is merely the sum of their biographies.” Here, I thought, was the key to MacArthur’s personality.
His relentless pursuit of great-man status puzzled and troubled Dwight D. Eisenhower when he started working for MacArthur in 1932. In Abilene, Kansas, I found in Ike’s diary for 1933 a short essay titled “Great Men,” in which he asked himself if such creatures still existed—and concluded they did not. It seemed to me that here was the first fissure that led eventually to the split between Eisenhower and MacArthur. Ike could never look at MacArthur in the radiant light the general demanded.
That realization, however, only made more puzzling Eisenhower’s attempt to exculpate MacArthur from blame for the rout of the Bonus Army from Washington in July 1932. Even Eisenhower’s most authoritative biographer, Stephen Ambrose, disbelieves Ike’s version and more or less accuses him of lying to protect MacArthur. Every scholarly account of this dismal episode claims stoutly that MacArthur was ordered not to cross the Anacostia Bridge and send his troops into the main Bonus Army camp.
Ike’s unequivocal assertion that MacArthur received no such order was flatly contradicted by the memoirs of MacArthur’s Assistant Chief of Staff, George Van Horn Moseley, and Moseley’s version had never been challenged. I too had long believed—indeed, had written in America in the Twenties —that MacArthur flagrantly defied Hoover’s clear instructions. It came as a shock to discover how wrong I had been.
At the Herbert Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa, I read the transcript of an interview with Trubee Davison, Hoover’s Assistant Secretary of War for Air. I turned to it hoping to learn more about MacArthur’s problems with the Air Corps but discovered, to my astonishment, that much of it was about the Bonus Army.
The point of the interview was Davison’s encounter with Moseley and the other Assistant Secretary of War, Frederick Payne, the morning after the marchers had been driven out of Washington. They gleefully boasted to him that Hoover had twice tried to order MacArthur not to cross the bridge, but Moseley had made sure the first message never reached MacArthur and had delayed the second one so long that it did not arrive until after the troops had already entered the camp.
In effect Davison and Eisenhower corroborated each other’s stories. Back in Norfolk I found a privately printed memoir by the commander of the troops involved, Brig. Gen. Perry D. Miles. His account tallied perfectly with those offered by Davison and Eisenhower. Here, then, were three unimpeachable witnesses who extricated MacArthur from the hook of History where Moseley had impaled him.
As for Moseley, when he died in 1960, his papers went to the Library of Congress. Inquiries there soon revealed that the portion containing his account of the Bonus Army was held under an embargo that was not lifted until 1965. By then, MacArthur had been dead a year and was in no position to contradict Moseley’s lie, a lie obviously crafted to protect Moseley’s own reputation.
During my research I was often asked by my friends what I thought about MacArthur’s handling of the Bonus Army. To many people, turning soldiers with bayonets and tear gas against impoverished, unemployed men, their careworn women, and their malnourished children was an abomination, the irrefutable proof of what a son-of-a-bitch MacArthur was. It was a sentiment I was ready to share. Nothing came as more of a surprise than to discover that despite his blustering and posturing in the immediate aftermath of the eviction of the Bonus Marchers, MacArthur was not to blame after all. Nor had he ridden a white horse that day. About the only thing that all previous accounts of the Bonus Army got right was that MacArthur changed into his fanciest uniform before he went out onto the streets.
Similarly, I found that every version of MacArthur’s actions when the Japanese attacked the Philippines in December 1941 was fundamentally flawed. Not one had been written by someone who was knowledgeable about airpower, the Army Air Forces, its personalities, its doctrine, its tactics, its aircraft. And even William Manchester had thrown up his hands, declaring that MacArthur was “in shock” that day, suffering from “input overload.” By reconstructing what MacArthur did on December 8, 1941, piecing together his actions hour by hour, I discovered that far from being in shock, he was alert, active, and rational throughout that traumatic day.