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A revisionist view of General Douglas MacArthur

The Most Dangerous Man In America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur

By Mark Perry

Basic Books

380 pages, $29.99

By Edward Cuddihy


It was Franklin Roosevelt who famously described Gen. Douglas MacArthur as the most dangerous man in America. Thus the basis – and the title – of American historian Mark Perry’s latest book.

The time was the summer of 1932. Private citizen Roosevelt still was several months from being elected president when he warned a trusted adviser about the aloof and eccentric general. Adolf Hitler had not yet been named chancellor of Germany, and the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor was nearly a decade in the future.

In the eyes of the preponderance of American historians since that time, Roosevelt’s prescient assessment of MacArthur would be confirmed time and again over the next 20 years.

The always arrogant MacArthur would go on to defy the authority of two more U.S. Presidents, Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He already had ignored a direct order of President Herbert Hoover. And he would initiate military action, along with widely publicized diplomatic pronouncements, in direct conflict with the known wishes of Army chief of staff George C. Marshall, the man tasked with fighting two simultaneous far-flung wars.

Yet through it all, Douglas MacArthur would remain the champion of a large segment of the American public, his name bantered about for national political office, his brilliant persona the subject of silver screen news cameras in the days before television.

In author Perry’s eyes, MacArthur, a “complex mix of ego, ambition and brilliance,” was either the victim of a bad historical rap, or worse, the subject of a grand conspiracy of hatred hatched in the hovels of the Roosevelt White House.

Perry, in this, his ninth book, wagers that if MacArthur had retired from the military and from public life after “his finest moment,” his gracious acceptance of the surrender of the Empire of Japan on the deck of the Battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay, he would be remembered today as the “greatest commander of World War II.”

With the likes of Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, Rommel, Zhukov, Montgomery and a host of others, that’s a tough bet to cover.

Yet on that premise, Perry undertakes a thorough re-examination of MacArthur’s role in World War II, with the goal of bursting the myth promoted by Roosevelt’s inner circle that this dangerous, uncontainable commander, and possible Republican foe, deserves the judgment accorded him by modern historians.

An unabashed MacArthur apologist, Perry does not shy away from the many warts in the general’s personality or the blunders on his record. He is more likely to rationalize them than to overlook them, excuse them or justify them in the light of the incessant attacks on MacArthur’s character emanating from Washington.

In making his case, Perry dazzles in his telling of the Pacific narrative through the eyes of his general.

On MacArthur’s watch, the Army Air Corps’ Pacific fleet of bombers and fighters was destroyed on the ground at Clark Field in the Philippines later on the same day as the attack on Pearl Harbor. (It was officially Dec. 8 in Tokyo and the Philippines because both are west of the International Date Line.)

The Japanese victory that day would effectively seal the fate of the Philippine Islands, despite a fierce four-month effort by MacArthur and his forces to save the isolated U.S. protectorate halfway around the globe.

The loss of the Philippines with the surrender and capture of 11,000 American and Filipino fighters at Corregidor, followed by the infamous Bataan Death March, would mark the low point of the Pacific War for the Allies.

Perry recounts MacArthur’s thrilling dash in a Navy launch with his wife Jean and small son Arthur over 250 miles of Japanese infested waters on the first leg of his flight to Australia, on direct order – against MacArthur’s wishes – of Gen. Marshall.

Once on Australian soil, MacArthur would make his famous “I shall return” pledge to the Philippine people, which would burn in his memory to the point of obsession for more than two years of deadly fighting in the mountains of New Guinea and islands of the Western Pacific.

The author includes several excellent maps to assist the reader in following MacArthur’s planned road to Tokyo through Manila. It would have been a plus to include a table of maps to help the reader locate them in the pages of text, as well as a set of footnotes or endnotes to help the reader navigate his sources.

Through it all, MacArthur would be forced to wage battle not only with the enemy, but with Washington, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Navy Department and the president himself in order to fulfill his promise.

Of course, he would return, sloshing ashore at Leyte, chin thrust forward for cameras in dramatic newsreel footage – whether rehearsed or not. He would eventually meet up with the broken Gen. Jonathan Wainwright, whom he had been forced to leave behind to the fate of the Japanese.

In Perry’s telling, MacArthur’s war in the Western Pacific and his championing of the Pacific cause over the struggle for Europe, is as exciting as any Hollywood war film.

As a quick review, despite MacArthur being named supreme commander of the armies of the Western Pacific, it was the Navy which was charged with winning back the Pacific in anticipation of the invasion of Japan.

The Navy and the U.S. Marines, not the Army and its Air Corps, carried out the so-called island-hopping campaign from Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands all the way up the Pacific through such storied places as the Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, to the very doorstep of the Japanese mainland.

And of course, Roosevelt and the Joint Chiefs stayed committed to a Europe-first strategy which often left MacArthur’s Army in the Western Pacific the odd man out.

That is Perry’s story and he tells it superbly: The political infighting, the inter-service rivalry, the president who favored the Navy, all overlaid on the internal bickering within MacArthur’s talented and high-powered staff.

Marshall, in one of his few public lapses, said of MacArthur’s staff: “You don’t have a staff general, you have a court.” Dwight Eisenhower, who worked under MacArthur for several years – MacArthur relished referring to the supreme Allied commander as his former secretary – said of MacArthur and his staff: “He’d like to occupy a throne room surrounded by experts in flattery.”

MacArthur was thoroughly capable of holding his own. As the nation mourned Roosevelt’s death in the waning months of the war, MacArthur brushed off Roosevelt to a staff member as “a man who would never tell the truth when a lie would serve him just as well.”

This, in the midst of deadly war, is the stuff of riveting drama, and author Perry does not disappoint his readers, even if his view often is somewhat myopic. Perry’s skilled weaving of battle, politics and personalities carries this book swiftly from start to finish. Incidentally, the book ends with the end of the war so MacArthur’s firing and his “old soldiers” speech is material for another time.

As for his overall premise, Perry either is correct in his reassessment of Douglas MacArthur, while the prevailing judgment of historians since World War II is flawed, or Perry is indulging himself in an artful exercise in revisionism.

The reader will need to be the judge.

Edward Cuddihy is a retired Buffalo News managing editor.