- 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.
MacArthur, dressed in his fanciest uniform and wearing every medal right down to his marksmanship badges, mounted a white horse to lead his troops along Pennsylvania Avenue. His men drove the hapless marchers out of the District with bayonets, sabers, rifle fire, and tear gas. Not satisfied with that, MacArthur turned on the main Bonus Army encampment, at Anacostia Flats, and attacked the marchers’ wives, sweethearts, and children too.
It was a scandalous act, made even more appalling by claims that Hoover had twice ordered him not to enter the Anacostia Flats camp but that MacArthur had arrogantly defied his Commander in Chief. Many saw the man as a fascist bully just itching to seize control of the government one day.
In the late 1930s he went to the Philippines to oversee the buildup of American defenses there and created a Philippine Army. When the Japanese attacked in December 1941, his Philippine Army collapsed. Worse still, MacArthur allowed his most potent weapon, a force of thirty-five B-17 bombers, to be caught on the ground by Japanese bombers. He escaped to Australia and redeemed himself by leading American forces to victory in the Southwest Pacific. His advance from Australia back to the Philippines culminated in September 1945, when he took the surrender of Japan aboard the battleship Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay.
His five and a half years running the occupation of Japan were considered by some—and probably by MacArthur himself—to be his greatest achievement. He did not impose military rule, as had been done in Germany; instead he simply indicated to the Japanese government what he desired, let them write the laws, and trusted them to carry them out. The Japanese were allowed, that is, to govern themselves, and much of what he achieved was done by hints, by suggestions, by mutual understanding between ruler and ruled.
His most famous contribution, but one for which he chose to claim no credit, was getting the Japanese to write an explicit renunciation of war into their new constitution. MacArthur did not see his greatest hope realized—for a Japan that abandoned Shintoism and was converted to Christianity—but he handled the Japanese so skillfully that many, possibly most, revere him to this day.
When war broke out in Korea in June 1950, American forces and their South Korean allies were nearly destroyed by the invading North Korean army. Just as it seemed American troops would be driven off the Korean peninsula, MacArthur reversed the situation by pulling off one of the greatest feats in military history. He made a landing two hundred miles behind the victorious North Korean army, cut its supply lines, and destroyed it as a fighting force.
Then he advanced into North Korea, intending to unify the entire peninsula under a pro-Western government, but the Chinese intervened. Catching his forces widely spread and complacent, they took MacArthur by surprise, inflicted a massive defeat, and routed his troops out of North Korea. MacArthur sought to reverse this debacle by recommending that China be attacked with nuclear weapons, leaving Harry Truman no option but to fire him to avoid triggering World War III.
The fervent reception that greeted the general when he came home could not disguise the fact that his fifty-two-year career in the Army had ended in humiliation. Following his death in 1964, MacArthur’s reputation continued its roller-coaster ride, but the overall trend was down, down, down. An enterprising young scholar, Carol Petillo, revealed that shortly before escaping from the Philippines, he had received a five-hundred-thousand-dollar gift (roughly three million dollars today), from his old friend Manuel Quezon, president of the Commonwealth of the Philippines. It was a payoff that looked suspiciously like corruption. Military historians such as Stanley Falk and Eric Larrabee meanwhile claimed MacArthur’s wartime campaigns contributed virtually nothing to the victory over Japan. A book based on interviews with Harry Truman presented MacArthur as a fraud and a charlatan. In recent years articles in the Washington Post have accused him of “mutiny” and racism. A book published last year even charged him with treason.
It is now possible to say almost anything to MacArthur’s discredit, and no matter how absurd or implausible the assertion, there is an excellent chance that it will be accepted without question. This is so despite the continuing popularity of William Manchester’s 1978 biography American Caesar , which hails MacArthur as the greatest soldier in American history.
In the mid-1980s, while researching my book A Country Made by War, I found myself following MacArthur’s path once more as I explored American battlefields in France. I traveled along the valley of the Marne and visited the ground near Rheims where MacArthur’s outfit, the Rainbow Division, had fought its first major battle.
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.
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.
Midway into the research it seemed a good time to go and see D. Clayton James, author of the only reliable work on MacArthur, a magisterial three-volume scholarly biography, published a generation ago. I asked Professor James how he had felt during the twenty years he had lived with MacArthur. “Hated him on Tuesday,” said James. “Loved him on Wednesday!” Welcome to the club.
I also discovered that earlier researchers had made interesting, possibly important, finds that have since vanished without a trace. For example, there were love letters from a Mexican servant girl MacArthur had known in Veracruz in 1914. Shortly after they came to light, they were somehow “purged,” to use a researcher’s term, from the MacArthur Archives. No one has seen them since.
Despite the false scents, the doctored accounts, the mystique, and the gaps in the documentary record, it is impossible to live a lifetime in the public eye and to write as much as MacArthur did without scattering a plethora of clues. Cardinal Richelieu once observed, “Give me four lines of any man’s writing and I can justify a hanging.” I found windows on MacArthur’s mind and feelings scattered throughout his letters, his speeches…and his poetry.
MacArthur’s love poems are in a prosody that might be called “early Hallmark.” The most interesting are those he wrote to the first woman he proposed to, Fanniebelle Stewart of Park Avenue in New York City. She rejected his offer of marriage, and among his missives to her is a twenty-seven-page offering that shows how MacArthur, then a lieutenant of engineers, saw his destiny—as a colonel of infantry, dying heroically in battle, leaving his proud and grieving widow, the adored “Fan,” to bring up their two young sons alone and tend the flame of Colonel MacArthur’s memory. No wonder she chose to marry a rich cotton broker instead. His poems to her nonetheless provided a window on the heart and mind of MacArthur as a young officer.
I found that every version of MacArthur’s actions when the Japanese attacked the Philippines in December 1941 was fundamentally flawed.
In the closing stages of my research, I got the benefits of another major windfall. An abundance of nonsense had been written about MacArthur’s first wife, Louise Brooks Cromwell MacArthur. In 1991 one of Louise’s descendants put up for sale more than seventy letters MacArthur had written her, and the entire text of each letter was reproduced in the catalogue issued by the autograph dealer offering them for auction. These letters offered the possibility of writing the first accurate account of their marriage. As any biographer would be, I was thrilled beyond words at the prospect of doing so.
Many years later, after the marriage had ended in mutual scorn and bitterness, Louise blamed its collapse on “an interfering mother-in-law.” She also claimed MacArthur was impotent. His letters to her establish the absurdity of both these assertions.
Divorced from Louise, MacArthur sought sexual release and the sustaining power of a woman’s love in the arms of a sixteen-year-old Scottish-Filipino chorus girl, Isabel Rosario Cooper. I was able to chart the entire course of this affair and was intrigued to find he had boasted to Isabel, “I have surpassed my father’s achievements.” True, he had become Chief of Staff, a position that had eluded his father. On the other hand, his father had won the Medal of Honor for his courage at Missionary Ridge in 1863, while the son had been denied it by Pershing, despite what he achieved on the Côte-de-Châtillon.
One way that MacArthur covered his tracks was by destroying much of the correspondence he received, especially from those close to him. Sometimes there are copies of his replies, but usually I was forced to guess from these what the letters he was responding to contained. I cannot claim I always succeeded.
The two most important women in his life were his mother and his second wife, Jean. His marriage to Jean was blissfully happy. She was an ideal Army wife, popular with other officers and, more of a challenge, other officers’ wives. The down-to-earth, resilient, and loving Jean provided him the emotional base he needed following his mother’s death. As for his mother’s role in his life and career, that was crucial. “My mother found my father a lieutenant and raised him to three stars,” said MacArthur. “She had an earlier start with me and made me a full general.”
While competing with his father, MacArthur revered him too. Formal photographs of Lt. Gen. Arthur MacArthur show a slightly pompous, potbellied, bespectacled man in late middle age self-consciously striving to look like a figure of importance. “What a martinet!” my editor said mockingly. To my jaundiced eye, he looked like a shoe-store owner gussied up for a night at the Masonic lodge.
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.
Here, too, MacArthur was the victim of a deliberate attempt to falsify the documentary record. When he was made commander of U.S. Army Forces in the Far East in July 1941, he needed an air commander to oversee the buildup of American airpower in the Philippines and counter the growing Japanese air threat building up on Formosa. What he got was Brig. Gen. Henry Clagett, a notorious drunk, who arrived with an aide, Lester B. Maitland, who was also an alcoholic. The bottle brought the careers of both Clagett and Maitland to an ignominious close; they got so drunk at an official banquet in China the State Department wanted them recalled, and MacArthur’s failure to defend them was eloquent.
In November 1941 Clagett’s replacement, Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, arrived in Manila. Indolent, party-loving, self-indulgent, Brereton failed in every wartime command he was given. Yet whenever he failed at one job, he managed to get a more important assignment somewhere else. One of his greatest blunders was the disastrous August 1943 low-level attack on the huge oil complex at Ploesti. Bombing experts who studied the plan said it would fail, but Brereton insisted it be mounted. Nearly half the 164 B-24s that made the attack were shot down, and Ploesti’s oil output was unaffected. Not even this had any effect on Brereton’s career. He played a key role in yet another blunder, the Allied defeat at Arnhem in September 1944.
As soon as World War II ended, many commanders rushed to publish their accounts of what had happened. Brereton was one of the first into print. He had more explaining to do than most and cleverly hit on the idea of presenting his account as a diary, when in fact much of it had been written long after the events described. This was particularly true of the entries dealing with his brief but cataclysmic spell in the Philippines. But even this wasn’t enough. The headquarters diary of his Far Eastern Air Forces for December 1941 was crudely falsified a day or two after the Japanese attack. Both Army and Air Force official historians noticed this long ago, and when I looked at it myself at the Air Force’s Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base, the erasures and type-overs were still plain fifty years later.
MacArthur publicly defended his airmen, but he got Brereton out of the Philippines within days. In private he called the man and his staff “bumbling nincompoops,” a judgment it is hard to disagree with. When MacArthur later acquired a truly outstanding air commander, George C. Kenney, they became the best of friends, and Kenney proved to be the general’s closest confidant throughout the war.
Many of the most famous MacArthur stories eventually proved to be untrue or, at the least, seriously misleading. Instead of making it possible to understand him better, they added to the legend, even if only to tarnish it. There was not one accurate account, for example, of the supposed MacArthur-Pershing feud. By the time I had finished writing my book I had also come full circle: I discovered that the two Army sergeants on the plane flying into Clark Field were wrong.
MacArthur had been absolutely right about the Philippine Scouts. They were every bit as good as he claimed. The problem with the Philippine Scouts was not that they could not fight but that there weren’t enough of them—only eight thousand, against nearly fifty thousand Japanese. For five months they fought with exemplary courage and tenacity. Their resolution in the face of certain defeat and their unwavering loyalty to MacArthur and to the United States deserve nothing but praise.
The biggest puzzle to me, though, wasn’t what happened to MacArthur’s B-17s or whether or not he had defied orders from Hoover or why he didn’t receive the Medal of Honor in World War I, but why Norfolk? In the closing years of his life, MacArthur had decided to be buried in a place that meant almost nothing to him, rather than at his spiritual home, West Point.
MaCarthur always claimed he chose Norfolk because it was his mother’s birthplace, but even she is not buried there. If he truly wanted to emphasize in death his closeness to her in life, it would have made a lot more sense to be buried where she is: in Arlington National Cemetery, alongside her husband.
The reason, I finally realized, was that it was impossible for MacArthur to reject the chance of a memorial and archive. Four of his contemporaries—Hoover, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Truman—were going to be laid to rest in splendid presidential libraries, the body of the man enshrined with the body of his papers in monuments that keep the flame burning brightly beyond the grave’s ghastly maw. A fifth, George Marshall, was not entitled to a presidential library, but Virginia Military Institute was planning to house a splendid Marshall research library on its beautiful campus.
What the city of Norfolk offered MacArthur was a square block to himself, featuring four picturesque buildings, one of them a charming pre-Civil War courthouse. He would be interred in a crypt beneath an imposing dome, much like his hero Napoleon, and his papers would be preserved in perpetuity on the same site. There was to be a theater, a museum, an archive, and a gift shop. This ensemble was too much like a presidential library to be a coincidence.
Norfolk’s bid for MacArthur’s body came as a complete surprise, as if destiny was getting into gear again as he turned into the home stretch. Here was a shrine MacArthur could never have resisted. Only great men get an arrangement as fancy as this. Yet there was another side to this story.
MacArthur was unaware of it, but the memorial he was being offered was part of a complex land deal engineered by Mayor Fred Duckworth. A bullying, crooked figure known as the Boss Crump of the Tidewater, Duckworth saw that one way to push the land deal through was to save the block that became known as MacArthur Square. Moreover, the MacArthur memorial would enshrine not only the general’s memory but the mayor’s as well. It seems a safe bet that it was Duckworth who purged potentially embarrassing items from MacArthur’s papers.
In 1972 Duckworth was murdered, shot down on the sidewalk a few blocks from his home. One knowledgeable local told me, “Duckworth had so many enemies the police didn’t know where to begin. So they didn’t.” Duckworth’s killer has never been found.
And there Douglas MacArthur rests, in Norfolk, Virginia, his memory diligently served by a fine, mainly young staff, surrounded by parking lots, boarded-up storefronts, and banks. In the next couple of years, though, the city council plans to build a MacArthur Mall across the street, with a Nordstrom’s store to tempt the middle classes back downtown.
In the end I had to acknowledge to myself that even if Norfolk is a strange choice of resting place, the memorial itself is somehow all of a piece with the man and his career. It is not as well endowed financially as the Marshall Foundation, but Marshall was his boss in World War II and again in Korea. Besides, Marshall outranked him. Although both were five-star commanders, Marshall had seniority, by two days.
The MacArthur Memorial is not as splendid as a presidential library, and never will be. But he was not President, much as he would like to have been. On the other hand, no American combat commander has a memorial remotely as magnificent as MacArthur’s. Insofar as such things can be measured, what MacArthur ended up with is probably just about right.