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Advice For Macarthur

April 2023
2min read

It was June 1950. I was assistant secretary of the general staff at General MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo. I was a lowly captain surrounded by platoons of colonels and generals, and my grandiose title masked a job as “gofer,” or extra aide to the chief of staff.

The sudden North Korean invasion of South Korea came as a total surprise to the staff of the Far East Command. The inability of the South Korean army to hold ground was a grave disappointment. We needed the time they were supposed to buy and didn’t.

The first week was all improvisation. The chief of staff’s office became an impromptu war room. We broke out some maps of the area of conflict and began to post them in approved World War II style. Information from Korea, mostly relayed by radio, was skimpy and ambiguous. But it was clear that the South Koreans were being whipped.

General MacArthur maintained a remote and imperial peace in an office adjoining our own with only a small conference room between. We got fleeting glimpses of him as he strode for the elevator, a vigorous figure indeed, royal in demeanor.

Down below, at the entrance to the Dai Ichi building, even five years after the war’s end, there were always spectators gathered on the curb to see him enter a limousine for the short drive to his home at the former American Embassy. The Japanese bowed to him as to their own emperor.

The prime minister of Japan (I believe it was Shigeru Yoshida at the time) was received by the general, not the other way around. I would go down the back elevator, meet His Excellency, and escort him to a dim quasi-Victorian parlor adjoining the office of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers. There he would wait to be received.

My brush with history was my only direct encounter with General MacArthur. It was shortly after the Korean War began. My boss, the chief of staff, seldom left the headquarters before the commander in chief, but on this evening he had a diplomatic reception (He handled all obligatory social functions himself; the MacArthurs never went to parties of any kind.)

“How’s it going, Jones?” he asked. Good Lord, I thought, he knows my name. He was good at putting peons like myself at ease.

In the empty and quiet office, I was sifting through the confused and barely coherent messages from Korea. As I began to post the situation map, there was the sound of a connecting door opening, but I assumed it was the night cleanup crew in the conference room. In a moment I became aware of another person behind me, a face looking over my shoulder, in fact. I turned to see the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers.

“Good evening, sir,” I managed in my best Henry Aldrich voice.

“How’s it going, Jones?” he asked. His voice was smooth and pleasing, if somewhat theatrical in timbre.

Good Lord, I thought, he knows my name. He was good at putting peons like myself at ease.

I gave him a short briefing, in which there was not a shred of good news.

“What do you think we ought to do?” he asked.

At this point I lost my opportunity to influence the course of history. Of course nobody in the headquarters knew what to do, least of all I.

“Sir,” I croaked, “we’re outmanned. What we need are ten thousand riflemen—fast.”

This was just a slice of the conventional wisdom I had picked up from the staff. I was perfectly secure in telling him something he was hearing from everybody else.

The general did not reply to this mushy advice.

“No need to call the chief,” he remarked. “I’ll see him tomorrow.” He left with a slow, quiet, and dignified gait, closing his door softly.

Later I was to be a fly on the wall at numerous historic conferences, including a full-bore session with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at which was formulated the strategy to turn the war around. At one point I was even appointed escort officer to Gen. Omar Bradley.

In time I was to go to Korea myself, but no other experience dwells in memory as vividly as my short encounter with that magisterial personage. He was, I thought, an eighteenth-century leader, a reincarnation of Prince Eugène of Savoy or his like, transplanted to our time and not really feeling at home here.

My friends told me that if I had switched the subject to baseball, the general would have sat down and chatted. Unfortunately I knew even less about baseball than I did about how to win the war.

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