book cover imageThe Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur
by Mark Perry.
Basic Books, 2014.
Hardcover, 380 pages, $30.

book cover imageSupreme Commander: MacArthur’s Triumph in Japan
by Seymour Morris, Jr.
Harper Collins, 2014.
Hardcover, 363 pages, $27.

The historical reputation of General Douglas MacArthur is getting a well-deserved rehabilitation in two recent books: Mark Perry’s The Most Dangerous Man in America and Seymour Morris, Jr.’s Supreme Commander. That MacArthur’s reputation should need rehabilitating is disturbing, and is almost wholly traceable to his dispute with and firing by President Harry Truman during the Korean War. The Truman-MacArthur controversy, with its conventional and politically correct depiction of Truman as saint and MacArthur as sinner, has tended to either relegateor efface in modern memory MacArthur’s remarkable accomplishments as a warrior, military leader, and statesman.

It was not always so. MacArthur’s most thorough biographer, D. Clayton James, wrote that while MacArthur was the subject of too much adulation and condemnation both during and after his life, he was certainly among the best Allied commanders in World War II, produced a remarkable and lasting positive transformation of Japan as its administrator after the war, and has been treated unfairly by historians of the Korean War and the confrontation with Truman. In his magnificent 1978 biography, American Caesar, William Manchester called MacArthur the greatest soldier that this nation has produced and concluded that he deserved to be remembered for his colossal achievements rather than his failures.

MacArthur was born in 1880 in Little Rock, Arkansas, where his father, Captain Arthur MacArthur, was stationed at a military arsenal. The senior MacArthur had served in a Wisconsin regiment in the Union army during the Civil War, winning the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics as a young lieutenant on Missionary Ridge during the Battle of Chattanooga. ArthurMacArthur rose to the rank of General, and in the early 1900s helped suppress the insurrection in the Philippines after the U.S. took control of the islands as a result of the Spanish-American War. Douglas graduated first in his class from West Point in 1903, and shortly thereafter toured parts of Asia with his father who was officially observing the Russo-Japanese War. Long before his achievements during the Second World War and the occupation of Japan, Douglas MacArthur displayed heroism and leadership with U.S. forces in Mexico, during the First World War, as superintendent of West Point, as Army Chief of Staff, and as U.S. commander in the Philippines. Perry’s book recounts MacArthur’s pre-World War II years in the context of MacArthur’s interesting interaction and often strained relationship with President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Roosevelt once told a presidential aide that Douglas MacArthur was the most dangerous man in America. Perry writes that Roosevelt, recognizing MacArthur’s gifts as a military commander, sought to “tame” MacArthur’s character flaws to render him ineffectual as a political opponent but also to best serve the nation in wartime. Roosevelt succeeded in achieving both goals. Knowing that MacArthur was opposed to his proposed defense cuts early in his first term, FDR kept MacArthur on as Army Chief of Staff to effectively muzzle that opposition. When the opportunity arrived to appoint a friendlier chief of staff, FDR sent MacArthur packing to the Philippines. But when war broke out, FDR without hesitation placed MacArthur in command of our Southwest Pacific forces.

Perry’s book recounts MacArthur’s fighting retreat in and from the Philippines; his regrouping and planning for offensive war in Australia; his brilliantly planned and executed Southwest Pacific campaigns where he used joint land-sea-air tactics to bypass Japanese strongholds, leaping forward and saving lives in the process; and his dramatic return to the Philippines and the difficult and bloody struggle to retake the islands.

The book concludes with MacArthur presiding over the Japanese surrender on the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay. In his concluding remarks at the ceremony, in what Perry calls his finest speech and his finest moment, MacArthur stated: “It is my earnest hope and indeed the hope of all mankind, that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past—a world founded upon faith and understanding—a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish—for freedom, tolerance, and justice.”

Seymour Morris, Jr.’s book begins with MacArthur’s speech on the Missouri, which Senator Arthur Vandenberg called “the greatest American speech since the Gettysburg Address.” Morris believes that MacArthur’s finest moment, however, was the five years he spent as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in postwar Japan when he oversaw the rebuilding and political reform of our former enemy. From the moment he established his headquarters in the Dai Ichi Insurance building in Tokyo, MacArthur set about “remaking the entire political, social, cultural, and economic fabric” of Japan.

MacArthur accomplished this brilliant feat of statesmanship not as a military dictator or imperial shogun, but in accordance with policies established by the Joint Chiefs and approved by the President. A key document in this regard was JCS 1380/15, which MacArthur called “one of the great state papers of modern history.” Written by General John Hilldring of General George Marshall’s staff, the paper, Morris writes, “became the bible of the occupation,” setting forth guidelines for interacting with the Emperor and Japanese government, establishing MacArthur’s general authority, and laying out specific policy directives for land reform, the creation of labor unions, the break-up of industrial monopolies, trade policies, and agricultural production goals.

While showing appropriate respect for the Emperor, MacArthur purged the Japanese militarists, throwing some in jail and prosecuting others for war crimes. Working through the Japanese government, he disarmed the country’s military forces, confiscated chemical warfare supplies, and ordered the destruction of tanks, planes, bombs, and other military equipment. He also developed and implemented emergency food and medical assistance programs that Morris estimates saved up to three million lives.

His most significant and lasting accomplishment during the occupation, however, was political reform. Japan’s new constitution transformed the country into a modern Western-style democracy with “the world’s most liberal guarantees of civil rights.” Sixty-five years later, Japan remains a vibrant, free, democratic society—a living monument to the success of MacArthur’s occupation policies. As Morris writes, “America’s successful exercise in the occupation of a country … was … America’s greatest feat by America’s greatest general.”

After the successful occupation of Japan, MacArthur once more was called upon to command in war when North Korean forces invaded South Korea in June 1950. He was seventy. Faced with military disaster and political defeat in an early Cold War battle—brought on by imprudent defense cuts and diplomatic miscalculation by the Truman administration—MacArthur rallied U.S. forces in the Pusan perimeter and devised the celebrated Inchon landing. Both Perry and Morris imply that had MacArthur died at Inchon, the brilliant amphibious operation that led to the liberation of South Korea from communist control, he would probably be considered the greatest general in American history and perhaps the greatest American of the twentieth century.

Instead, Inchon’s success resulted in Washington’s embrace of the goal of liberating all of North Korea from communist control. When communist Chinese forces entered the war en masse in the fall of 1950 to prevent this outcome, and MacArthur sought the authority to effectively wage war against our enemies, Washington balked and MacArthur complained. Thus began the war of words between MacArthur and Truman that ultimately resulted in MacArthur’s dismissal. Though MacArthur remained hugely popular with the American people in the immediate aftermath of Korea, liberal historians had the last word and they sided with Truman. Hopefully, Perry and Morris are only the first wave of a new generation of historians to restore Douglas MacArthur to his rightful place in history. 

Francis P. Sempa is a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books), and the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books). He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force Quarterly, American Diplomacy, Strategic Review, The National Interest, The Washington Times, and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.