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Douglas MacArthur Is One of America’s Most Famous Generals. He’s Also the Most Overrated

11 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;
Sides is the author, most recently, of On Desperate Ground: The Epic Story of Chosin Reservoir, the Greatest Battle of the Korean War, just out in paperback from Anchor-Vintage.

This Veteran’s Day, as we remember those men and women we’ve sent into battle, we should also take a moment to remember the fateful decisions, sometimes tragically bad ones, our commanders made that put our fighting forces directly and often needlessly in harm’s way.

In that dubious department, few generals in modern history come close to Douglas MacArthur.

From time to time, President Donald Trump (he who pleaded the bone spurs defense to avoid service in Vietnam) has rather audaciously taken it upon himself to grade various American military figures, past and present. Most recently, he made headlines by calling James Mattis, his own former Secretary of Defense, “the world’s most overrated general.” By contrast, during the 2016 campaign, Trump repeatedly declared that Douglas MacArthur was his “favorite general.” At rallies, Trump would invoke MacArthur’s name almost as though he were in direct communication with his ghost. “General MacArthur,” Trump said, “is spinning in his grave when he sees what we do.”

While it’s preposterous to think the president reads works of biography or military history, his proclaimed affinity for the so-called American Caesar makes perfect sense: Egomaniacs tend to admire other egomaniacs. It’s well known that MacArthur was an incorrigible gloryhound, a man infatuated with the vertical pronoun. He was brilliant, yes, but usually the first to admit it. He was incapable of admitting an error or taking responsibility when things went wrong—which they often did during his watch. He loved the trappings of power and stayed eternally vigilant to the micro-nuances of publicity. (If Twitter had been around during his time, he surely would have mastered it.) MacArthur refused to listen to inconvenient information, and he seldom cultivated or appreciated experts—he was the expert. It was said that he didn’t have a staff; he had a court.

“I have returned,” MacArthur said with typical bombast when he waded ashore at Leyte, apparently forgetting that an entire army and navy got him there. For MacArthur, it was all about him. “MacArthur,” President Eisenhower once said, “could never see a sun, or even a moon for that matter, in the heavens, as long as he was the sun.”

Still, MacArthur was wildly popular in his day, almost a demigod among a considerable swath of the American public, and he still enjoys a kind of cult following among those who like their generals to strike Napoleonic poses and carry themselves with a certain swagger. Something about MacArthur’s persona resonated deeply within certain right-wing and reactionary elements of the American population. His fans loved the vainglory, the corncob pipe, the quavering tones, the martial romance. He spoke of decisive thrusts, of hammers and anvils and smiting blows. He made war sound magisterial and grand.

In recent years, however, historians have reassessed Douglas MacArthur—not just his command style, but particular decisions he made, and particular episodes from his long and controversial career. In modern evaluations, more often than not, “Dugout Doug” comes up short.

In the summer of 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, MacArthur personally commanded a contingent of troops, accompanied by tanks, that trampled and teargassed thousands of unarmed World I veterans­­—the so-called Bonus Marchers—who’d gathered to peacefully protest in Washington, DC. MacArthur, convinced the gathering was all part of a vast communist conspiracy, drove the veterans out of the city, burned their shelters, and destroyed their belongings. In the process, one veteran was shot to death, and many wounded.

Nine years later, in the critical moments immediately after Pearl Harbor, for reasons that have never been adequately explained, MacArthur kept his fleet of planes in the Philippines clustered wingtip to wingtip on the tarmac for hours, providing an astonishingly convenient target for the Japanese aerial attack that any other commander would have seen coming. Predictably, the Japanese soon arrived and, in a matter of minutes, destroyed most of MacArthur’s air force.

A few months later, he escaped to Australia, leaving his beleaguered forces on Bataan and Corregidor to suffer and die. (True, President Roosevelt ordered him to leave, but the better part of honor would have told him to countermand that order and stick with his command, no matter what.) The last American holdouts on Bataan, starving for food and ammunition, had no choice but to surrender, in what became the largest capitulation in American history (unless one counts Appomattox). And that was only the beginning of the horrors MacArthur’s men endured: The Bataan Death March soon followed, and then three years in squalid Japanese-run prison camps.

Later, during the American island-hopping campaign across the Pacific, the U.S. Marines sustained more than 7,000 casualties on the tiny coral atoll of Peleliu while capturing a Japanese airstrip in order to support MacArthur’s planned invasion at Mindanao. But in a late reversal, MacArthur decided to bypass Mindanao in favor of Leyte, thus obviating the need for the Peleliu runway. By that point, however, the Marines were committed to fight at Peleliu, and while MacArthur moved on, the Navy commanders stubbornly (and stupidly) stuck with the plan. Peleliu proved one of the costliest engagements of the Pacific war, yet the battle should never have happened. The island could have been avoided altogether.

In September 1950, during the Korean War, MacArthur is rightly credited for the Inchon invasion—the monumental amphibious landing he led there was an enormously risky but spectacularly successful undertaking. However, when approaching Seoul a few days later, MacArthur ordered his forces to unleash a hellish bombardment of the capital. Taking the city could have been accomplished in far less devastating ways, but the “supreme commander” was determined to liberate Seoul by a curious deadline he’d set for himself. MacArthur, who claimed to have a unique understanding of the “Asiatic mind,” believed the North Korean occupiers were profoundly attentive to numerology. It was thus imperative, he insisted, that the capital be reclaimed exactly three months after the start of the war. Meeting this seemingly arbitrary deadline, he said, would strike a devastating blow in the hearts and psyches of the enemy. That many thousands of South Korean civilians would be maimed and killed by the wholesale shelling of the capital did not seem to bother him. And indeed many thousands were killed.


Yet nothing from MacArthur’s long career of highly questionable actions (or inactions) could match his record in Korea during the weeks that followed.

After capturing Seoul and advancing to the 38th Parallel, MacArthur sniffed a far bigger prize. Why not keep on going? Why not seize Pyongyang? Why not drive all the way to the Yalu River, North Korea’s border with China, and unite the entire peninsula? What a triumph this would be, what a blow against Communism, against Stalin, against totalitarian regimes everywhere. If MacArthur could pull it off, it would be the crowning moment of his career.

So, inevitably, the mission crept. Here was a classic case of hubris and overreach: Having achieved a tremendous victory with the Inchon landing, MacArthur felt invincible. He ordered his men to race headlong for the Yalu. The war would be over by Christmas, he said, and everyone could go home.

What he didn’t know was that hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers were already streaming across the Yalu and getting into position to attack MacArthur’s onrushing armies. Mao’s troops were preparing a trap deep in the mountains of North Korea—at a number of places, including the soon-to-be legendary Chosin Reservoir. As one prominent Army general wrote, MacArthur had come to resemble “a Greek hero of old, marching to an unkind and inexorable fate.”

How did MacArthur blunder so badly? How could he miss more than 300,000 Chinese soldiers? Once the intelligence finally came in loud and clear, he and his staff of sycophants continued to dismiss it, suppress it, or willfully misinterpret its import. In so doing, they recklessly put tens of thousands of American and other United Nations troops in mortal danger. The result was catastrophic: One of the worst defeats, and one of the most ignominious withdrawals, in American military history.

It was, in some senses, a repeat of his debacle at Bataan. Only in this case, MacArthur had been outwitted and outflanked by a guerrilla army with no air force, crude logistics, and primitive communications, an army with no tanks and precious little artillery. As David Halberstam put it, MacArthur had “lost face not just before the entire world, but before his own troops, and perhaps most important of all, before himself.”

All of this happened because MacArthur was almost criminally out of touch with reality. He had created a hermetic universe and a top-down structure that maintained a stubborn hostility to facts. In Tokyo, he was busy running the occupation (brilliantly, it must be said—playing emperor was a job for which he was perfectly suited). But in Korea, he was a classic absentee general—he never slept a single night on Korean soil during the whole conflict, and would only occasionally fly over from Japan for a quick photo-op or aerial reconnaissance.

So in November and December of 1950, the men on the ground in Korea were left to claw their way out of the ordeal that MacArthur had created for them. Some of them, like the men of the First Marine Division, fought ferociously and with great ingenuity as they bashed their way out of the mountains around the Chosin Reservoir and marched to the safety of the sea—inflicting staggering casualties on the Chinese along the way. But they never forgot the name of the man who put them in that tragic and unnecessary predicament, who never took responsibility for the fiasco, and who never thanked or apologized to them after they suffered and battled and froze across the barrens of North Korea on his behalf. The Chosin veterans I’ve spoken to detest MacArthur with a passion undiminished by the years. “That man tried to kill me,” a Chosin Marine named Duane Trowbridge told me last year when we visited MacArthur’s mausoleum in Norfolk as part of a veterans tour. “But what can I say?” Trowbridge added with a grin. “I refused to cooperate.”

After Mao’s intervention, General MacArthur made, according to some sources, increasingly strident calls to use atomic bombs against the Chinese, and even suggested sowing a permanent radioactive zone, a kind of nuclear fence, along the Manchurian border. In April of 1951, he was relieved of his command by President Truman. “I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was,” Truman later said. “I fired him because he wouldn’t respect the authority of the president.”

Many scholars have tended to overlook or minimize MacArthur’s long catalogue of dangerous missteps and bad decisions, perhaps in part because he was just such an interesting and odd character. Historians find him fascinating, and why wouldn’t they? Practically everything he said was quotable, and practically everything he did, on the surface at least, seemed dashing and bold. He was a master of military theater, with a gift for putting himself at the photogenic nexus between the martial and the political. His fabulous career cut a wide path through much of American history. In narrative terms, he was a gift that keeps on giving.

But it’s also true—and Veteran’s Day seems a fitting time to remember it—that MacArthur’s judgment, clouded by his gargantuan ego, was sometimes deeply, dangerously flawed. The men who fought under him, and the civilians who happened to get in his way, often paid a terrible price.

Yes, Mr. Trump, Douglas MacArthur was one of our most storied and celebrated generals. He may also have been our most overrated one.


Editor’s note, Nov. 13:

This story has been updated to reflect that there is not a consensus among historical sources about General MacArthur calls to use nuclear weapons.


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