Review of “American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964” by William Manchester

I say, it is the everlasting privilege of the foolish to be governed by the wise; to be guided in the right path by those who know it better than they. This is the first ‘right of man;’ compared with which all other rights are as nothing,—mere superfluities, corollaries which will follow of their own accord out of this; if they be not contradictions to this, and less than nothing! To the wise it is not a privilege; far other indeed. Doubtless, as bringing preservation to their country, it implies preservation of themselves withal; but intrinsically it is the harshest duty a wise man, if he be indeed wise, has laid to his hand.

– Thomas Carlyle

Why MacArthur?

On August 14, 1945, Japan had lost almost 4% of it’s 1939 population, most of the buildings in its major cities were destroyed (some by atomic weapons), its industries were gone, its religion was revealed as a sham (when the emperor admitted defeat and stepped out into the open), it lost its first war since 1598, and it was braced for foreign occupation. The occupier was Douglas MacArthur, who said "Never in history had a nation and its people been more completely crushed." General MacArthur initially replaced all these losses with . . . himself. "Never before in the history of the United States had such enormous and absolute power been placed in the hands of a single individual. . . . He was the last of the great colonial overlords, remote and unapproachable by all except a few natives." In less than two generations, Japan was a functioning liberal democracy. In the same period of time, the average Japanese citizen was poorer only than the average American.

This transformation defies all theories of economic growth and good government that I know of.

If that’s not enough . . .

MacArthur also was one of two commanders in charge of beating the Japanese during the war. MacArthur’s casualties in the war against Japan were 90,437 (casualties at the Battle of the Bulge, alone, were 106,502. Or consider that 110,549 Japanese died on Okinawa alone). He removed the Japanese from all the territory between Australia and Tokyo (roughly from Argentina to Canada on the biggest ocean in the world).

If that’s not enough . . .

He led the initial US effort in Korea. He was replaced by Truman because he thought Truman’s strategy (or lack thereof) would accomplish nothing and result in the unnecessary deaths of Americans. 60% of the US casualties that occurred in Korea occurred after MacArthur was relieved. The net gain after he relieved was 0, if not negative.

If that’s not enough . . .

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that MacArthur was treated as a God-like figure in the Philippines as well as Japan. It’s possible to argue that through his actions – nearly alone – the US has strong allies in the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan (and possibly, though to a lesser extent, South Korea). These allies may have helped prevent aggression from the Chinese Communists during the Cold War.


He was America’s most gifted commander of troops, he knew it, and he expected to be treated accordingly.

I’m going to start with Japan, even though it’s out of order, since I find it the most interesting.

Most civilizations that have been so thoroughly destroyed do not bounce back – let alone in less than 40 years. Japan not only bounced back but in many ways – wealth, for example – the new Japan surpassed the achievements of the old Japan. This accomplishment was achieved with MacArthur acting as benevolent dictator. MacArthur acted very liberally to the population. He did not punish war criminals, he did not throw out the emperor, he severely punished any American soldier found harassing a Japanese citizen, he instituted democracy (with female suffrage), etc. However, he carefully controlled investment in the country, he carefully controlled the press and he occasionally over-ruled the will of elected representatives.

MacArthur’s first act was to make it clear to the Japanese that they were beat. His methodology was perfect for the Japanese but it confused many Americans.

When MacArthur first landed on Japan, he refused to be protected by armed guards. Churchill said, "Of all the amazing deeds in the war, I regard General MacArthur’s personal landing at Atsugi as the bravest of the lot." When his plane landed, the General, "noticed that Kenney and the others were strapping on pistols in shoulder holsters, he said, ‘Take them off. If they intend to kill us, sidearms will be useless. And nothing will impress them like a show of absolute fearlessness. If they don’t know they’re licked, this will convince them." It did.

"MacArthur ordered a five-year jail sentence for any American caught slapping a Japanese." A Japanese man said, "That was when we knew we had lost the war."

Next, he needed to round up weapons. Getting guns was one thing, since there were records, but getting swords was different. MacArthur asked the Japanese to voluntarily surrender their arms (much to the dismay of many GIs, who were expecting to force the issue). "There were millions of bejeweled samurai swords in Japanese closets, a potential threat to the occupying army. Once the people learned that surrendering them was to be voluntary, he [MacArthur] predicted they would give them to the GIs. Precisely that happened; presently a ship sailed for San Francisco bearing seven tons of glittering souvenirs for the folks at home."

Soon, "an Allied soldier could travel alone from one end of the country to another in complete safety."

Next, he had to keep the Russians out. Truman was considering allowing the Russians to share power in Japan with the Americans. MacArthur didn’t like sharing. He used his immense popularity and strategic leaks to the press to stop Truman from dividing power in Japan between the Americans and the Russians. For this act alone, the Japanese should be forever thankful to MacArthur.

Oddly, MacArthur is considered a conservative. Perhaps it is because the liberal press at the time did not like him. "U.S. liberals believed that MacArthur was too generous a conqueror." They wanted him to "kick each Japanese delegate in the face." One can’t help but be reminded of Northern opinion toward the South after the Civil War. MacArthur was on the same page as Lincoln. Crush your enemies while they fight. Hug them when they admit defeat.

MacArthur opposed permanent military bases in Japan, calling the idea "colonization."

Then he went on to liberalize the Japanese government (though he would still control the press and overrule some government decisions):

His strong support for the liberation of women may puzzle some – he was a male chauvinist if there ever was one – but his feelings about it were genuine and deep. . . . The General . . . was an aristocrat who believed in noblesse oblige. . . . he believed that rank had responsibilities as well as privileges. . . A gentleman did not look upon women as inferiors.

Let’s skip to the results before I lose all my readers.

Industrial production in Japan following the war was "16 percent of the prewar figure." MacArthur got some money from the US government, but "West Germany, with one-fifth the population of Japan, received, per capita, three times the money sent to Tokyo." Obviously, Japan was broke. But, "in five years, national income had passed the prewar level and Japan’s public debt was two billion dollars, roughly the same as postwar New York City’s." In two years of MacArthur’s public health program, "life expectancy of men had been increased by eight years and of women by nearly fourteen years, a phenomenon . . . that has been ‘unequaled in any country in the world in medical history in a comparable period of time.’" Much has been said of Germany’s miraculous economic rebound. By any measure, Japan’s is more impressive and depended less on American largess.

Kase said of MacArthur, echoing the thoughts of millions of Japanese:

He is a man of light. Radiantly, the gathering rays of his magnanimous soul embrace the earth. . . . a piece of rare good fortune [that] a man of such caliber and character should have been designated as the Supreme Commander [to] shape the destiny of Japan. In the dark hour of our despair and distress, a bright light is ushered in, in the very person of General MacArthur . . . The big day on the Missouri [when Japan formally surrendered] will stand out as one of the brightest dates in history, with General MacArthur as a shining obelisk in the desert of human endeavor that marks a timeless march onward toward an enduring peace.

The Pacific Theater

My father told me never to give an order unless I was certain it would be carried out.

An adjunct said of him:

Obedience is something a leader can command but loyalty is something, an indefinable something, that he is obliged to win. MacArthur knew instinctively how to win it. . . . [He was] all contradiction. He commanded without commanding. He was both a patrician and a plebeian . . . To him the word "gentleman" held a religious meaning. It was sacredly higher than any title, station, or act of Congress. It was an attitude of life to be cherished in every gesture and spoken word. It comprehended and excused no letdown in its execution . . . Flying off the handle, berating or bawling out were cardinal sins, which I not once saw him give way to.

The strategy pursued by MacArthur and Nimitz was leapfrogging (not island hopping, which MacArthur ridiculed). Wikipedia gives a good definition:

The idea was to bypass heavily fortified Japanese positions

and instead concentrate the limited Allied resources on strategically important islands that were not well defended but capable of supporting the drive to the main islands of Japan. This strategy was possible in part because the Allies used submarine and air attacks to blockade and isolate Japanese bases, weakening their garrisons and reducing the Japanese ability to resupply and reinforce them. Thus troops on islands which had been bypassed, such as the major base at Rabaul, were useless to the Japanese war effort and left to "wither on the vine."

After the war, a Japanese intelligence officer complained of MacArthur’s strategy, "with minimum losses, [he] attacked and seized a relatively weak area, constructed airfields and then proceeded to cut the supply lines to [our] troops in that area. . . . Our strongpoints were gradually starved out. . . . We respected this strategy because it gained the most while losing the least."

The casualty numbers bear this out. "For every Allied serviceman killed, the General killed ten Japanese. Never in history . . . had there been a commander so economical in the expenditure of his men’s blood. . . . During the single battle of Anzio, 72,206 GIs fell. In the Battle of Normandy, Eisenhower lost 28,366. Between MacArthur’s arrival in Australia and his return to the Philippine waters over two years later, his troops suffered just 27,684 casualties. . . . In his Philippine operations after Luzon he lost 820 GIs, while over 21,000 Japanese were slain."

MacArthur was asked to defeat the Japanese with fewer resources than were allotted to Europe. "Never was the Southwest Pacific allocated as much as 15 percent of the American war effort" and "even in the Pacific, Nimitz was provided with more sinews of war than MacArthur."

Perhaps the best summary of MacArthur’s operations in the Pacific was a single sentence from John Gunther: "MacArthur took more territory, with less loss of life, than any commander since Darius the Great."

MacArthur’s war really began on Corregidor, where his men were merciless bombed for days. MacArthur and the Philippine government stayed on Corredigor because FDR promised that help was on the way. It wasn’t. FDR even sent messages that were totally at odds with the truth to the Philippine government.

Eventually, MacArthur was ordered to leave the island to run the Pacific operations. His men were left to die or be captured in the most horrible way. When ordered to abandon Corregidor, he protested. He told his staff that, "if he disobeyed Roosevelt he faced a court-martial. If he obeyed, he would desert his men. Therefore he intended to resign his commission, cross to Bataan, and enlist as ‘a simple volunteer.’" Fortunately for everyone, he was talked out of this course of action.

Other Allied commanders thought of the war as a complex confrontation between rival ideologies, the ‘totalitarian’ Axis and the ‘democratic’ Allies. To MacArthur it was much simpler. If anything, he felt more empathetic with the Japanese Bushido than with the sophisticated psychological abstractions popular in the Pentagon, which explains why he intended to die on Corregidor with his wife and son. . . . To him the war in the Pacific was a duel with two antagonists, himself and the enemy, whom he usually identified in the singular, as ‘the Jap.’ [For example, he
would say things like] He [meaning the Japanese] ran into a trap I prepared for him, and I shall drive him back to the beaches and annihilate him.

At this stage: "Nipponese strategy was superior, their tactics were more skillful, their navy and air force larger and more efficient, their infantry better trained and more experienced."

Unlike other commanders, he did not – initially – underestimate the Japanese. His advice in fighting them was: "’Never let the Jap attack you . . . When the Japanese soldier has a coordinated plan of attack he works smoothly. . . . When he is attacked – when he doesn’t know what is coming – it isn’t the same.’ Then the Nipponese were vulnerable because of their rigidity. Their inability to imagine that they might be vanquished prevented them from planning to cope with such crises."

Like the best leaders,he was happy to delegate to the right man. A reporter once asked him what the Air Force was doing. He responded that he didn’t know, "go ask General Kenney." The reported pressed, "General, do you mean to say you don’t know where the bombs are falling?" MacArthur responded, "Of course I know where they are falling. They are falling in the right place. Go ask General Kenney where it is."

Manchester goes to great lengths to make clear that the nickname "Dugout Doug" was inappropriate. My favorite example is this story, MacArthur

stood erect at an enemy roadblock, and when a nearby Nambu opened up and an American lieutenant said, ‘We’re going after those fellows, but please get down sir [i.e. MacArthur]; we’re under fire,’ MacArthur replied crisply, without moving, ‘I’m not under fire. Those bullets are not intended for me.’"

Later, policy disputes ended MacArthur. It’s worth noting that, on all the evidence we have, I didn’t find one example in the book in which MacArthur was wrong. For example, in early surrender negotiations (before the A-bombs were dropped), Truman wanted unconditional surrender, in which the Japanese would be forced to renounce their emperor. "MacArthur was appalled. He knew that the Japanese would never renounce their emperor, and that without him an orderly transition to peace would be impossible anyhow . . . Ironically, when the surrender did come, it was conditional, and the condition was a continuation of the imperial reign. Had the General’s advice been followed, the resort to atomic weapons . . . might have been unnecessary."

Finally, even while he was commanding troops, he was thinking of Asia after the war. He knew more about Asia than most in America and most policymakers in America were focused on Europe.

MacArthur told Sherwood that victory over Japan "will make us the greatest influence on the future of Asia. If we exert that influence in an imperialistic manner, or for the sole purpose of commercial advantage, then we shall lose our golden opportunity; but if our influence and our strength are expressed in terms of essential liberalism, we shall have the friendship and the cooperation of the Asiatic peoples far into the future."

Thanks largely to MacArthur’s own efforts our influence was exerted in the right way.


His classmates at West Point were divided into two groups

those who resented MacArthur’s high opinion of himself and those who felt that modesty, for so gifted a man, would be hypocrisy. That division would persist into another generation, eventually splitting the American nation in a historic schism.

MacArthur, of course, is most often remembered for his feud with Truman. But it’s important to see this in context. MacArthur knew Asia better than anyone in the US government that wasn’t working directly for the Soviets. The rest of the Americans were focused on Europe. Even during the Korean War, MacArthur got requests to move troops from the actual front in Korea to Europe. Policy makers in the US actively worked against US interests in the area.

He was often given vague orders that made clear that if he succeeded, he was to share the success with the President, but if he failed, he would be left on his own. These disputes would have been interesting if the parties were equally vindicated by history . . . but they are not. Asia has, without question, risen in importance since the ’50s. Europe? Not so much.

Much of the dispute about Korea stemmed from Truman’s desire for "limited war" and Truman’s total lack of a plan. Truman prevent MacArthur from bombing Chinese territory or North Korean facilities that would impact China. Thus, MacArthur could not actually fight the enemy if they retreated to the appropriate territory – unsurprisingly they did. MacArthur was fighting China who had fully committed to the war with few troops, no objections, and too many constraints.

MacArthur did not believe in a US that fought wars to lose. He was not about to be the commander of an army that refused to fight to win. I think he also had some serious Constitutional misgivings. He believed he had freer reign to criticize Truman since war had not been officially declare in Korea.

MacArthur went on to criticize "limited" wars in Asia, warning particularly against one in Indochina. Perhaps he did become paranoid in the end, but who among us would not have under these circumstances.

There was time for at least one more spectacular maneuver. At Inchon (planned

by MacArthur against the advice of everyone), MacArthur defeated between "30,000 and 40,000" defenders "at a cost of 536 dead." Unfortunately, Washington prevented him from pressing on to victory. They never had a clear plan for the war.

Had someone suggested to MacArthur at that stage that we might suffer the Chinese Reds to strike us in full force and retaliate only by warding off the blow as it fell, without striking back on our own, he would not have believed any such preposterous notion.

Alas. The enemy also had word of his movements through Soviet spies in the British embassy. MacArthur suggested this possibility but was considered crazy for suggesting it.

In the end, the only thing that could beat him was politics, which he never really understood.

MacArthur undermined Truman because he believed Truman was undermining the nation. Truman’s handling of the dismissal of MacArthur, alone, should be enough to prevent him from ever being considered an effective President. At the time, almost 70 percent of Americans sided with MacArthur.

"When MacArthur learned of the Korean armistice . . . he said: ‘This is the death warrant for Indochina.’"

And so it was.

"Big Chief"

At the second inauguration of Quezon, MacArthur said:

Never in all history has there been a more solemn and significant inauguration. An act, symbolic of democratic processes, is placed against he background of a sudden, merciless war. The thunder of death and destruction, dropped from the skies, can be heard in the distance. Our ears can almost catch the roar of battle as our soldiers close on the firing line. the air reverberates to the dull roar of exploding bombs. Such is the bed of birth of this new government, of this new nation . . . Through this, its gasping agony of travail . . . from the grim shadow of the valley of death, oh merciful God, preserve this noble race.

MacArthur then "turned away, his face stricken with tears."

MacArthur arguably birthed two nations: the Philippines and modern Japan. His plan for exerting US influence in Asia – maintain strong alliances with the peripheral islands – particularly Taiwan, the Philippines and Japan – but avoid involvements on the mainland – has become the US strategy. Unfortunately, we had to learn that MacArthur was right the hard way.

He was married a couple times, but I’ll remember his relationship to his last wife. Few men have had better women. She followed him everywhere and spent her life taking care of him. Jean was so far as to tuck him in at night and came back to check on him to make sure he was asleep.

The world doesn’t seem to produce men like MacArthur anymore. If it does, they seem to get crushed before they rise as far. We’re all worse off for it.

8 Responses to Review of “American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964” by William Manchester

  1. […] economic miracle Yesterday, I wrote about the Japanese economic miracle that took place after WWII. Take a minute to review the […]

  2. Lekool says:

    In a time of dissension, the fate of a land divided is yet unwritten.
    Will it be the tyrannous reign of a mighty warlord or the guidance of a merciful saint?
    Forge the fate of the Empire with Caesary at Lekool!

  3. […] the role and status of Dugout Doug, aka General Douglas MacArthur.  Foseti starts off with a review of “American Caesar” and then Isegoria and Joseph Fouche chime in.  The latter two are a little less convinced of […]

  4. Mark says:

    MacArthur all but abandoned the troops in Korea after he was informed the war would not extend to China. He nearly refused to fight. After Ridgeway showed up and took control of the troops on the ground his was able to make considerable advances to complete the task assigned to him by the President. MacArthur of course took credit for it. It is not the Army’s job to make policy. MacArthur didn’t understand that.

  5. John says:

    I have just finished the book and I think the reviewer used selective passages to support his view. Manchester’s book is very balanced and well documented. MaArthur was a complex man whose views varied over time. To select only part of this for review is to diminish his stature.

  6. […] people like General Wedemeyer, Joseph McCarthy, Sisley Huddleston, John T. Flynn and perhaps even General MacArthur.  It may include some inconvenient people, but it has the distinct advantage of being able to […]

  7. […] was a protege of H. L. Mencken. I very much enjoyed Manchester’s biography of MacArthur and I very much enjoyed the first two volumes of this […]

  8. Douglas Gray says:

    His way of handling the situation in Korea was considered to confrontational, and some aspects of it were pretty far out. Still, look what we have now, a paranoid nutcase with nuclear weapons in North Korea.

    He had been the absolute ruler in Japan, and yes, it was impossible for him to submit to Truman at his age, especially.

    Ridgeway did do a better job once he took over, but MacCarthur was 70 years old by then, it was too much for him. Also, Ridgeway was one of the greatest unsung military men the U.S. ever produced.

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