Of Biography and Heroes

posted in: WWII: Pacific Theater | 0

I wrote a tenth grade English research paper on Douglas MacArthur. For whatever reason–most likely the limitations of my sources (source!) or the limitations of my reading of same–I focused primarily on his actions in Korea. I remember writing about MacArthur’s brilliant flanking invasion at Inchon, his meeting with Truman at Wake Island, the crossing of the Yalu River by the Chinese Red Army. In my telling, MacArthur could do no wrong. Truman was small-minded for firing him.

My teacher saw it differently. In her written comments on the paper, my teacher took Truman’s side. I remember this even more strongly than Inchon, Wake Island, or the Yalu River. I was a little put out. I wasn’t convinced by her (admittedly brief) argument, yet she had made me less sure of my own. Even at the time, I sensed her remarks were out of place. It wasn’t her job to debate me on politics.

Today, of course, as a middle-ager and a confirmed realist, I need no convincing. MacArthur’s actions strike me as self-serving and insubordinate. It was Truman who showed moral courage to stand up to him and face the public relations backlash.

I also know more of the complete MacArthur story with the benefit of the book MacArthur at War, which examines the general’s role in the Pacific during WWII, the part of his story I had neglected in my first encounter with him. The author, Walter Borneman, identifies a deep irony in the mythologizing of MacArthur at Bataan and Corregidor. Even as the commanding general achieved hero status among the American public in the early months of 1942, no one was more to blame for the desperate plight of his troops. The disconnect is glaring.

In 1935, MacArthur was posted to the Philippines for the fourth time. It was not a promotion. He had been appointed Army Chief of Staff in 1930. But in a Roosevelt administration, his days were numbered. Manila offered a cushion for MacArthur’s fall. He would be a big fish in the Philippine pond. But his somewhat ceremonial position became more essential in mid-1941, when Japan expanded south through Indo-China and Roosevelt responded with economic sanctions. With war now an inevitability, MacArthur was named Commanding General of the United States Armed Forces, Far East, or USAFFE.

The military’s War Plan Orange, worked out and revised over the preceding three-and-a-half decades, was coming off the shelf. (Orange stood for Japan. But with a multi-front war in the offing, Orange plans augmented into Rainbow, the latest iteration of which was Rainbow 5.) War Plan Orange had anticipated the loss of the Philippines, only to be recovered after a concerted and lengthy island-hopping campaign. MacArthur didn’t really accept the plan, telling his naval counterpart, Admiral Hart, that he was “not going to follow or be in any way bound by whatever war plans had been evolved, agreed upon and approved.” [67] Insubordination, apparently, came naturally to MacArthur.

Borneman makes a strong case that MacArthur did not expect a Japanese offensive operation until the spring of 1942. The strength of his conviction, poorly supported by the evidence, had disastrous consequences. MacArthur and his officers were caught with their pants down, literally and figuratively. Borneman documents how, on the morning of December 8, MacArthur appeared paralyzed in the initial hours of December 8, locking himself in his office, restricting access of his commanders. Twice, Major General Brereton requested orders to counter-attack and was denied even the ability to meet with MacArthur. It took a full seven hours after the initial wake-up call for MacArthur to approve a counter-attack.

MacArthur’s semi-paralysis continued beyond that first day of the invasion. In the subsequent two weeks, MacArthur squandered precious time not gathering the food and supplies his troops would need to hold out on Bataan and Corregidor. When subordinates raised the issue, he suppressed the talk as defeatist. Furthermore, his order to “fight on the beaches,” [104] meeting the Japanese wherever they landed, required supply lines that were eventually lost along with the supplies themselves. MacArthur’s inaction and his ill-conceived defense cost the lives of hundreds of his men. Moreover, it ensured the ultimate defeat of USAFFE’s stand on Bataan and Corregidor.

Carlos Romulo judged MacArthur in an entirely different light. A Philippine journalist who exiled to Corregidor with USAFFE, Romulo became MacArthur’s aide-de-camp, as well as the voice of the Voice of Freedom, a radio broadcast from the Malinta Tunnel on Corregidor to the occupied citizens of Manila and the provinces. To Romulo, MacArthur was wily and “outwitted Homma [his Japanese counterpart] at every turn.” [Romulo 55] His account of each step of the campaign, from fighting on the beaches to withdrawing from Manila, is the polar opposite of Borneman’s. His portrayal is hagiographic: “There is gallantry but no swagger to MacArthur.” “Courage was in every muscle of his lean body. He had a manner of one  born to triumph.” [Romulo 208, 215]

Before Romulo could publish his account, the myth of Douglas MacArthur was forged and burnished by Time-Life, Inc. Clare Booth Luce wrote an admiring feature for Life magazine which hit the newsstands, as it happened, on precisely December 8, 1941. Her husband and media mogul Henry Luce, put MacArthur on the cover of Time three weeks later. Over the next three months, MacArthur continued to dominate these influential magazines’ pages–magazines with a paid circulation of over sixteen million a week.

Americans were still reeling from the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Wehrmacht‘s depredations across Europe and its attacks against American shipping in the North Atlantic were deeply troubling. But, in early 1942, MacArthur’s men on Bataan were the only Americans active in the field, the only ones shooting back at a hated enemy (even if most of the men under his command were in fact Filipino). As the gravity of the situation on Bataan grew clear, MacArthur and his men took on the role of plucky American underdogs, like Jim Bowie and the Texans at the Alamo.

Borneman corrects the misperception that USAFFE was outnumbered. MacArthur had 80,000 men at the start of the campaign. Homma carried out his offensive with hardly more than a single division of 25,000 men oon Bataan proper. (In fairness, many of MacArthur’s troops were green as spring willows, almost wholly untrained. But who was responsible for strengthening Philippine domestic defenses for five years and USAFFE forces for five months? MacArthur.) In the end, the larger number of defenders may have been a liability. They required more food and supplies to support–food and supplies that MacArthur failed to secure in the three weeks before their retreat to Bataan.

Even as MacArthur’s stature grew among Americans back home, it shrank among his men in the foxholes. Romulo explained his boss’s lack of regular visits to Bataan unconvincingly: “Our USAFFE lateral was the end of communications, the nerve center of the Battle of the Philippines.” His presence on Corregidor was allegedly too vital. The one time MacArthur did visit, Romulo describes a jovial banter with his foot soldiers. “Hello, fellow! Keep it up!” he says to one. “Nice going, soldier!” he says to another. “No wonder his men adore MacArthur,” gushes Romulo.” [Romulo 148] Not once did he glance at the skies or at the threatening trees.”–by which he means the general showed his indifference to danger.

Borneman provides a different view. Soldiers were resentful, as evidenced by this ditty ditty that made the rounds (sung to the tune of “Battle Hymn of the Republic”):

Dugout Doug lies a-shaking on the Rock
Safe from all the bombers and from any sudden shock
Dugout Doug is eating of the best food on Bataan
And his troops go starving on.

Officers could be resentful, too. After surviving the Bataan Death March, one Brigadier General wrote in his diary from the POW Camp O’Donnell: “A foul trick of deception has been played on a large group of Americans by a Commander in Chief and small staff who are now eating steak and eggs in Australia. God damn them!”

Apparently, MacArthur resisted early efforts to get him to flee Corregidor. Still, when ordered directly by his Commander in Chief, MacArthur was not insubordinate. After escaping to Australia, he spent most of the rest of the war determined to liberate those he had abandoned. To his credit, he demonstrated an ability to learn new tricks and share credit with subordinates. “We never could have moved out of Australia if General Kenney hadn’t taken the air away from the Jap,” MacArthur admitted after the war. [280] During the war, he made an unprecedented confession to Eddie Rickenbacker: “I probably did the American Air Forces more harm than any man living when…chief of staff.” He added, “I am doing everything I can to make amends for that great mistake.” [Lewis 444] This was a rare show of humility from MacArthur, yet the evidence suggests he did nothing to address the concerns Rickenbacker risked his life to pass along from Washington. He did not let up on his “personal publicity campaign,” according to Borneman. Neither did he “stop complaining about the Joint Chiefs,” nor “stop waging war against the United States Navy.” [257] Orders from superiors remained suggestions MacArthur took under consideration.

Even as Borneman shows MacArthur’s growing generosity in sharing credit, he documents the commander’s continuing egoistic inclinations. After badgering his commander, Major General Eichelberger, to take Buna with all haste, MacArthur had the gall to report in his post-battle communique, “There was no necessity to hurry the attack.” Worse, he declared operations to be complete well before they actually were. The capture of Buna “can now be regarded as accomplished,” MacArthur reported on January 8, 1943. Eichelberger, who was on the ground in the most hellish conditions, would not have agreed. Far from being a mopping-up operation, he said, the next two weeks saw a “completely savage, expensive battle.” [258-260] This would not be the last time MacArthur declared premature victory, giving himself a domestic public relations coup along with a PR failure among his own men.

A year later, MacArthur made a similar claim in Manila. Bloody, desperate fighting continued a full month after he declared, “[The enemy’s] complete destruction is imminent.” [467] During that month, almost all of the old city of was destroyed. Perhaps two hundred thousand Filipinos were killed. The fight for the provinces continued through the end of the war. MacArthur’s determination to be the liberator of all the Philippines had consequences, Borneman points out. Not only did it contradict broader war strategy as laid down by the Joint Chiefs, it may have cost lives. “Far from expediting the fall of Japan, as MacArthur had long maintained they would, Philippine operations were in fact delaying it.” [450, 482]

MacArthur was not a team player. His actions in Korea followed the same pattern he had already established in the Pacific War. In other words, in middle age I agree with my tenth grade teacher, Mrs. Timperlake (who must have been substantially younger than I am now). MacArthur was arguably a hot-head, an egoist, and a danger to his country.

But what does this experience tell me about my role as a writer for young people? Am I spitting in the wind when I attempt to pen a balanced picture of my biographical subject? Will my young readers–younger than I was when I took on the life of Douglas MacArthur–ignore my attempts to share his human foibles, just as I overlooked MacArthur’s patent flaws. Do young readers need heroes so badly they see only what they want to see–bravery, boldness, righteousness. The ability to hold opposing ideas in mind simultaneously is rare in adults. Am I vainly expecting children to do it?

I didn’t like the man Rickenbacker became on a first reading of his biography. Yet I found a way to make him likeable for myself first of all and thus, in the end, for my reader. Could I write a biography of MacArthur for children? My gut says no, and yet there is much that is positive, even admirable in the old soldier who wouldn’t die but faded away. Enough to keep him in the “hero” category, with enough faults to keep him human and interesting. On second thought, maybe so.

But does the publishing world want a biography on this politically incorrect figure? The answer to that question is almost certainly, no.


Borneman, Walter R. MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016.

Lewis, W. David. Eddie Rickenbacker: an American hero in the twentieth century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Romulo, Carlos. I Saw the Fall of the Philippines. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1943.

Images: Wikipedia

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