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In His Own Write

April 2024
6min read

In April of 1951 I was ten years old and living with my family on Chicago’s South Side when the newspapers reported that General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was to be paraded past our neighborhood as part of the clamorous tour of American cities that followed his recall from Korea. The news put my father in a quandary. He knew that MacArthur represented a big part of our history and that it would be wrong to deny me a look at him. But he also saw MacArthur’s dismissal not as the tragedy the general and his admirers believed it to be but as the most forceful evidence that the Constitution still mattered, that it was incumbent upon even the most exalted soldier to follow the orders of his civilian commander in chief.

My clearest memories of that day are not of the parade but of my father walking with me across the grassy Midway, gravely explaining why, while it was okay for us to have a glimpse of the general, we wouldn’t be sharing in the wild enthusiasm the crowds were sure to show. A mighty cheer went up as, first, police motorcycles appeared, and then the big open car in which the general sat. My father did not cheer, and so, of course, neither did I, and I’m not sure how much of my memory of how the old soldier looked that day is authentic, how much garnered from photographs seen afterward, but there was the battered campaign hat, the khaki greatcoat, the raptor’s nose and lordly wave.

Almost forty years later I was asked to write a brief profile of the general for the National Geographic . I found it curiously difficult to do. I visited the Philippines, where he spent a quarter of his professional career, and found surprisingly few traces of him: the penthouse atop the Manila Hotel in which he lived just before the war is gone, blown up by the Japanese on the final day of their occupation of the city and now replaced by an opulent suite indistinguishable from similar suites anywhere else on earth, and even the coastline where he first waded ashore and redeemed his pledge to return has shifted, so that the life-size bronze statuary that marks this historic spot is now landlocked.

I consulted the literature, everything from sycophantic memoirs by former aides published during his lifetime that would have deeply embarrassed a less vainglorious man to hostile studies in which his every word and deed is disparaged; from MacArthur’s own ornate but curiously opaque Reminiscences and William Manchester’s best-selling American Caesar to D. Clayton James’s magisterial three-volume study The Years of MacArthur . But as James admits, the private man behind the familiar props remains maddeningly elusive: “There are aspects of his ... personality which neither I nor any other writer will ever comprehend fully or explain satisfactorily. This is true because of not only his complexity but also the extent and nature of his personal papers, which are disappointingly few and unrevealing.”

Then a handful of revealing personal papers did turn up. A friend lent me a catalogue of MacArthur’s unpublished love letters, recently uncovered and put up for sale by an autograph dealer, Joseph M. Maddalena. MacArthur wrote the letters, seventy-five of them, between 1921 and 1925 to Louise Cromwell Brooks, the wealthy divorcée who became his first wife.

No man’s love letters should be held against him. The amorous Douglas MacArthur is neither more nor less foolish-sounding than the next eager suitor: “Are you really mine, you beautiful white soul—you passion breeding woman—you mirthmaking child—you tender-hearted angel—you divine giver of delight—you pulsing passion flower—you exquisite atom of crystalline purity?”

But these letters reveal a good deal more about MacArthur than mere besottedness. There is, first of all, the tilt toward the theatrical that would later lead Dwight Elsenhower to say that he had “studied dramatics” under MacArthur. Here, after sliding onto his finger the gold ring that signaled his engagement, MacArthur broods on its greater meaning: “Lovely Lady: As I write, my hand with its rings fascinates me. That hand has been with me so long, has seemed so commonplace, what strange magic on my finger changes it into a dream of wonderment? I have watched it as it fought for me on many a bloody field. I have heard its trigger fingers release the leaden load, I have seen it close on more than one sinewy throat, I have felt it drive the steel home,—and I have grinned at its cool readiness and skill as a killer, wondered if the day would come when it would be a second too slow—a flash too late; loved it—and thought of it no more. But today its sight thrills me, rapture shivers shake me as I muse on it, it seems to point no longer pistol or dirk but towards the immortal road to Paradise, its flash sweeps like a flush through my veins, and I laugh with the Gods in rapturous glee at the wonder forging of those brilliant circlets that bind us together.”

Now, MacArthur was an authentic warrior. He did indeed “release the leaden load” on at least two occasions before World War I, killing outright two bandidos who unwisely attacked him while he was surveying in the Philippines and knocking from their horses seven armed men while on a secret mission behind Mexican lines in 1914, and it is true that no officer on the Western front saw more up-close combat than he. But nowhere, even in his Reminiscences , does he claim to have strangled Germans with his bare hands or stabbed them, either with bayonet or “dirk"; in fact, it was part of MacArthur’s gaudy mystique as commander of the Rainbow Division that he carry no weapons at all into battle, charging into the enemy lines armed only with a riding crop.

Other letters reveal the poisonous resentments that never seemed to leave him, the certainty that anyone who differed with him did so out of the basest motives, that there were always enemies plotting behind his back, that the country’s welfare and his own were invariably synonymous—beliefs that would eventually alienate every one of the superiors, civilian or military, to whom he had to answer.

MacArthur was forty-one years old when he met Louise Brooks in 1921, just two years into his term as superintendent of West Point and still struggling to institute a body of controversial reforms aimed at bringing the academy up-to-date. She was six or seven years younger, attractive, lively, and very rich, and she had been seen on the arm of several other officers, among them the chief of staff, Gen. John J. Pershing, who, MacArthur was convinced, was his sworn enemy.

On October 21, 1921, after just two meetings, MacArthur proposed and Mrs. Brooks accepted, although they agreed not to announce their engagement until January. Two weeks later MacArthur learned that Pershing intended to transfer him to the Philippines long before his four-year term was up. He was outraged, convinced that the chief of staff was exiling him out of simple jealousy; he had won the woman Pershing wanted and was being punished for it. In letter after letter to his fiancée he railed against Pershing’s “cowardice” and his “vulgar villainy,” called him a “blackguard,” urged her to get an appointment with the Secretary of War, John W. Weeks, so that she could lay the whole matter before him.

His recently uncovered love letters reveal a lot more than mere besottedness. They show theatricality, fear, and narcissism.

And he persuaded himself that his fate and that of the whole Warren Harding administration were inextricably linked. Among the fourteen numbered points he wished her to put forward when she saw the Secretary: “My relief … will be regarded throughout the service and the country as an effort to discredit me and the progressive policies which I introduced. … Hundreds of thousands of men … all will fail to see anything other than the venting of a personal spite. A sensation will be caused which will be utilized by the Democratic party to the utmost and will undoubtedly be costly to the administration in votes. Nobody likes injustice.”

In the end no votes were won or lost. Pershing explained that MacArthur was simply being sent abroad to get some overseas experience, but rumors about his relationship with the new Mrs. MacArthur had spread so far that he felt obligated to grant an interview to The New York Times . “It’s all damn poppycock,” he said. ”… If I were married to all the ladies that gossips have engaged me to, I’d be a regular Brigham Young.”

No one may ever know the whole truth about this incident, but this newly discovered cache of letters lays bare, as does nothing else I know, the fear and narcissism that would one day bring MacArthur down.

“You do not know what a comfort it is to have your help even if it comes to nothing,” MacArthur told his wife-to-be while still struggling to hold on to his post at the academy. “To know that my back is being protected from foul blows gives me a sense of security I have never known ...” That sense of security did not last long. The marriage would end within eight years and is summarized in MacArthur’s Reminiscences in a single icy sentence: “In February 1922 I entered into matrimony, but it was not successful, and ended in divorce years later for mutual incompatibility.” In the end he came to feel that his wife, too, had joined the long list of those who had betrayed him.

As MacArthur’s letters demonstrate, the exact words of the men and women who made history are essential to our understanding of it. Two recent decisions by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan— Harper & Row v. Nation, Salinger v. Random House —seriously threaten the concept of fair use, by which writers have traditionally been free to quote briefly from unpublished material without permission. The Authors Guild and other concerned groups are currently attempting to persuade Congress to enact legislation that will ensure the historian’s right to continue to tell his or her story using the actual words of those who lived it.

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