A Review of MacArthur’s War
by Victor Davis Hanson
MacArthur’s War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero, by Stanley Weintraub (Free Press, 375 pp., $27.50)
‘I WOULDN’T trade one Marshall for 50 MacArthurs,” Dwight Eisen hower purportedly remarked. “My God!” he continued. “That would be a lousy deal. What would I do with 50 MacArthurs?”
There is an American tradition of producing great captains whose zeal for killing and skill in marshalling armies of vengeance often shock the very democratic citizenry that produced them. Yet often we have been saved by the brutality of war-lovers like George S. Patton and Curtis LeMay, who in the darkest hours of World War II proved themselves more deadly than the most lethal of our adversaries-even as we came to tire of their bombast and to feel uneasy with their uncouth love of battle in the unsettled and scary peace that followed.
It is tempting to see Douglas MacArthur as yet another of these Ajaxian heroes, who save us in moments of peril but are then unfairly caricatured, ridiculed, and ultimately discredited when the danger is past. But where men of iron and blood like Patton and LeMay were warriors first-and therefore honest in their discomfort with a complacent democratic society reluctant to pay the steep price of victory-Stanley Weintraub’s MacAr thur is a far more complex, duplicitous, and ultimately dangerous figure.
For Weintraub, professor emeritus of humanities at Pennsylvania State University and author of a number of influential studies of Victorian British literature, MacArthur was, first and foremost, the consummate politician who saw battle as a means to an end-mostly the enhancement of his own ego, ambition, and political agenda. Indeed, Weintraub argues that MacArthur often predicated his battlefield strategy on criteria other than military necessity-producing unneeded causalities in Korea and very nearly involving us in a huge and disastrous campaign that might have started World War III. In other words, Weintraub adopts the standard view of MacArthur that has emerged in the last three decades, albeit with a level of detail and often gossip-including tales of a seductive newspaper reporter, Maggie Higgins, shame lessly given free rein; the promotion of cronies; and publicity stunts that compromised military secrecy-that effectively belittles what legacy remains to the general.
Weintraub’s account of MacArthur’s meltdown begins in the days before the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, as the Hero of the Pacific is luxuriously ensconced as the proconsul of Japan, and ends with his unceremonious relief by Harry Truman in April 1951. MacArthur is depicted as vain, prone to dying his hair, eager to visit Korea mostly for photo-ops and the quick handing out of medals to officers, posturing and preening at the front while avoiding real risks. The general takes credit for the battlefield prowess of Matthew Ridgway, even as his obsequious staff in Tokyo deflects blame to subordinates and superiors alike when a quarter-million Chinese unexpectedly cross the Yalu River in November 1950 and nearly obliterate an Ameri can-led U.N. army on the verge of pushing the last Com munist out of the Korean peninsula.
In his devastating portrayal of the aging general, Weintraub develops two themes. First, his MacArthur exhibits a predictable-and dangerous- modus operandi. While enjoying high society in peace, whether in Manila in 1940 or Tokyo a decade later, he loses touch with the realities of command and is deaf to the point of near-criminal negligence to clear warnings of enemy aggression. Fooled by court toadies and overly impressed with the ill-trained and poorly equipped troops at his command, he nearly allowed the Communists to drive the Ameri cans out of Korea. Weintraub likens this lapse to MacArthur’s failure to anticipate the surprise Japanese attack on the Philippines ten years earlier. In 1951, Weintraub argues, MacArthur’s arrogance blinded him to the real danger that his army would be caught off guard by a Chinese invasion.
Repeatedly, Weintraub relates, MacArthur when surprised was almost paralyzed, only to become Olympian in victory-dangerously out of touch with battlefield reality in both his depression and ebullience. To be truly appreciated, then, MacArthur’s tactical genius-the brilliant island-hopping campaigns of World War II that saved thousands of American lives, the daring amphibious landing at Inchon in September 1950 that cut off the North Korean army and brought the Americans back to and beyond the 38th parallelbe seen in the context of his earlier blunders. MacArthur’s unexpected and ingenious offensives, Weintraub believes, were necessary correctives to his earlier negligence.
The book’s second theme is even more disturbing. In Weintraub’s eyes, MacArthur was not really involved with the Korean War per se. Actual battle operations are presented as irritants to MacArthur that threatened his two real obsessions: creating a modern democratic- capitalist state in Japan in his own image, and promoting Chiang Kai- shek’s claims to the Chinese mainland. Weintraub repeatedly suggests that MacArthur deliberately misled the media, the Joint Chiefs, and the Truman administration in a sustained effort to draw us into a land war in Asia. His command center in Japan would then have served as a vast supply zone for American and National Chinese forces that would win back Korea and most of Manchuria in the bargain. The old charges about MacArthur-that he wished to bomb Manchuria, invade China with nationalist troops, use atomic weapons at will, salt the Chinese-Korean border with radioactive waste- are given new life in Weintraub’s portrayal, against a background of constant personal pique at George Marshall, Harry Truman, and Dean Acheson.
Weintraub’s obvious dislike of MacArthur does not alter the fact that on the basis of his communiques and press releases alone the general was clearly insubordinate and deserved to be relieved. Weintraub quotes Truman frequently and to good effect: “If what MacArthur proposed had happened and had been allowed to take place, we would have wound up being at war not only with Red China but with Russia, too, and the consequences . . . might have meant the destruction of a good part of the world.”
Still, damaging assertions by foes are repeated almost verbatim, and insignificant details emphasized, to stress MacAr thur’s pettiness and vanity-as if his private insecurities mattered much in an analysis of his military record. Plentiful detail is given about his digs at the Dai Ichi Building in Tokyo and the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, his carefully frayed cap, his masterly and deceitful prose that turned written com munications into vehicles of personal invective, his tendency to term disastrous flight “strategic withdrawal” and to claim that unexpected advances were the result of carefully planned initiatives. At times Weintraub’s voluminous store of negative anecdotes achieves the unintended effect of eliciting sympathy for MacArthur’s evident frailty, especially when no quarter is given in light of the general’s advanced age, previous brilliance in the Pacific, and unquestionable patriotism.
MacArthur’s War touches on the newly released Soviet archives, but does not use those fascinating revelations to optimum effect-inasmuch as many of MacArthur’s Cassandra-like warnings about Soviet involvement and the ultimate goals of Mao’s Com munists were, in fact, prescient. Thus we are not told to what degree this vainglorious and obnoxious general was nevertheless a visionary who understood the Com munist agenda far better than his superiors, and astutely gauged the relative strategic impotence of both Russia and China vis-a-vis the United States in 1950. Much is made of the ill- preparedness of American troops and their lack of morale compared with Chinese esprit and tactical cohesion-but without enough acknowledgment that America was fighting an impossible war thousands of miles from home and with severe political restrictions against two Communist powers. And while there is a gripping account of MacArthur’s armies racing up and down from Pusan to the Yalu in a terrifying war of mobility during his brief ten-month tenure, little is made of the gridlock after his removal, when for another two years thousands died in a war of stasis around the 38th parallel, with no hope of victory and nearly all major decisions increasingly controlled from an equally blinkered Washington. Whatever we may think of MacAr thur’s brinkmanship, the disastrous later American strategy in Korea (and, for that matter, in Vietnam) was not part of his legacy.
In the end, what saves MacArthur’s War from being a simple hatchet job are Weintraub’s engaging story and his empathy for individual GIs. Weintraub himself was a veteran of that war and centers a great deal of his moving narrative on the hell they endured. MacArthur’s petty infighting and staged events are therefore juxtaposed with horrific tales of American soldiers fighting, freezing, and dying in the worst imaginable circumstances. While much of MacArthur’s staff luxuriated in Tokyo, thousands of American soldiers were casualties of atrocious winter weather in the passes of northern Korea. Thousands more, poorly clothed and hungry, faced Soviet-made tanks with ineffective weapons. Most were bewildered about the sudden turn of events after the Chinese surprise. Instead of enjoying the promised “Home for Christmas,” they found themselves in yet another Pacific war, outnumbered, bewildered by new rules of engagement and lacking clear support from home. Weintraub is probably right that few on the ground in Korea were fans of Douglas MacArthur.
MacArthur’s War reads as a nasty book about a nasty man. But then, rarely in American history have so many brave young men been subjected to such a nasty war. Given what the GIs went through while their general fretted about cameras and microphones, perhaps we should not mind too much that Weintraub is as mean as he is accurate. In the end, what should bother us most about MacArthur is his abject insincerity and duplicity cloaked in blood and guts. George S. Patton, a far more honest man who could be even more eager for publicity, once admitted of his own propensity to sound off and offend: “I expect to take a chance because at heart the Army is not my living-and besides, I am a soldier, a simple soldier.” Douglas MacArthur really was something altogether different-something perhaps far worse.
Named Works: MacArthur’s War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero (Book) – Book reviews
©2000 Victor Davis Hanson