The legendary general’s renown as a military strategist owes much to his deft cribbing of the ideas of others.
“My God, but he was smart,” admitted an awed Dwight D. Eisenhower. The remark was particularly notable because for all of his well-earned reputation for geniality, Ike actually was quite sparing in his praise of others. Eisenhower’s assessment mirrored the collective judgment of the tiny, insular world of the regular army: that Douglas MacArthur was always, as we would say today, the smartest guy in the room.
That image zoomed into permanent national consciousness in the bleak early days of World War II, thanks to MacArthur’s creative talent as the unnamed author or editor of communiqués glorifying his own leadership in the Philippines. (Of the 149 official communiqués issued before MacArthur’s escape to Australia, 109 contained only one name—MacArthur.)
A nation hungry for heroes embraced MacArthur as “Destiny’s Child,” the “Lion of Luzon,” the “Hero of the Pacific.” One exuberant Kansan, with more enthusiasm than logic, declared, “MacArthur is the greatest general since Sergeant York.” In 1945, a pollster asked Americans to name the greatest American general of the war. MacArthur won hands down, with 43 percent. Only 31 percent chose Ike. George S. Patton Jr. came in a distant third at 17 percent.
Nor was it just the army clique or the average joe who found MacArthur brilliant. Walter Lippmann, the fabled national sage with a gimlet eye toward any leader in a uniform, pronounced MacArthur a figure of “vast and profound conceptions.”
Lippmann may have been more restrained than many who gushed about MacArthur’s genius, but he shared the nearly universal belief among contemporary commentators that any leader possessing such intellectual horsepower must be a scintillating innovator as well.
But if there is one supreme secret to MacArthur’s astonishing career it is this: the majority of his greatest achievements arose not from his own creativity, but from his appropriation of the ideas and hard work of others.
MacArthur’s intelligence was real enough. He graduated first academically in his class at West Point, and he possessed a panoramic curiosity that prompted him to study matters far afield from obvious military topics, a facet of his makeup that would serve him well as his responsibilities enlarged far beyond those entrusted to most soldiers. MacArthur combined the forensic skills of an intellectual with the instincts of a mesmerizing actor. The journalist and playwright Clare Boothe Luce (roving wife—in more than one sense—of media titan Henry Luce of Time and Life magazines) gushed that MacArthur’s conversation was “positively pyrotechnic.” Even visitors like John J. McCloy, one of the “Wise Men” of the Cold War who arrived armored with a low private opinion of MacArthur, emerged dazzled from their sessions with the charismatic general.
Nor can any fair account of his life fail to acknowledge that MacArthur displayed stellar innovation in two areas. The first was in education. MacArthur was the most significant superintendent of West Point in the twentieth century. He modernized the curriculum, insisted that the inbred faculty mingle with academics at other universities, increased the responsibility for cadets, curbed hazing, and introduced intramural athletics. His radical program provoked a counterattack from Old Guard faculty and alumni that curtailed his tour abruptly, but the Old Guard could only delay, not defeat, his reforms.
MacArthur’s other great creative stroke came during the occupation of Japan. Although a military academy graduate and a combat-experienced soldier of two world wars, MacArthur personally drafted the famous Article 9 of the Japanese constitution that forswore resort to war.
But the distinctive pattern that far overshadowed his feats as an innovator first emerged during the greatest crisis of his early career. When Gen. John J. Pershing flung his American army into the Meuse-Argonne in September 1918, he identified the decisive terrain as a set of hills, foremost of which was the Côte de Châtillon with its massive belts of defensive barbed wire protecting deeply entrenched and cleverly sited rifle, mortar, and machine gun positions.
The Americans’ 42nd (“Rainbow”) Infantry Division drew the job of taking the Côte de Châtillon. The division attacked with the 83rd Brigade on the left and Brig. Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s 84th on the right. In the initial attacks, MacArthur’s brigade achieved little progress; the 83rd made virtually none.
The V Corps commander, Maj. Gen. Charles P. Summerall, exhorted MacArthur, “Give me Châtillon or a list of five thousand casualties.”
MacArthur snapped back, “If this brigade does not capture Châtillon, you can publish a casualty list of the entire brigade, with the brigade commander’s name at the top.”
But the renewed attack failed. Summerall relieved the commander of the 83rd Brigade and demanded in no uncertain terms that MacArthur succeed. For those familiar with military tea leaves, Summerall had transmitted an unmistakable message: further failure promised MacArthur’s immediate relief and a permanently blighted career. MacArthur, cool and composed, met with his subordinates to plan a make-or-break effort. Lt. Col. Walter E. Bare, commander of the 167th Infantry Regiment of MacArthur’s brigade, proposed a daring scheme to slip one battalion through a gap and then launch a general attack. The next day, MacArthur led the 84th Brigade to triumph on Bare’s plan. Success at Côte de Châtillon provided the key event ultimately propelling MacArthur’s rise to chief of staff of the army—a job he gained with the powerful endorsement of his immediate predecessor, Charles Summerall. MacArthur notably omitted ever mentioning the real author of his career-making victory.
Over subsequent decades MacArthur’s practice of passing off others’ ideas as his own would become a reflexive habit at each new challenge and crisis he faced. In 1935, MacArthur left his job as chief of staff and became the military adviser to the government of the Commonwealth of the Philippines. The United States promised complete independence for the Philippines in 1946, and President Manuel Quezon selected MacArthur to build armed forces that would maintain that independence.
MacArthur adopted a plan originated by Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood. This plan resembled the scheme used in Switzerland of a very small regular army that served primarily as a cadre for a much larger force of reservists. The concept was sound, but it was never funded or supported to a viable degree by the Philippines or the United States. Eisenhower, who served as MacArthur’s principal staff officer, estimated that it would require about twenty-five million dollars per year to implement the scheme. Actual funding hovered around a third of that figure, and the United States proved both miserly and slow in providing even obsolescent weapons. By the outbreak of war, the Philippine Army was still a very rough-hewn militia facing far better trained Imperial Army units that enjoyed an advantage of at least three to one in automatic firepower.
In 1941, MacArthur was recalled to active duty as commander of United States Armed Forces in the Far East. For decades, most professional U.S. Army officers had regarded the Philippines as indefensible and deemed that the best course of action for the modest American garrison in the face of a Japanese landing was withdrawal to the Bataan peninsula and the island of Corregidor to deny Japan access to Manila Bay for as long as possible. In the 1920s and 1930s, several officers, including MacArthur, castigated this orthodoxy as defeatist and mooted a much more aggressive scheme of beach defense. (Interestingly, even Eisenhower endorsed this pugnacious plan, probably because he thought the ill-prepared Philippine Army would have its best chance of success catching Japanese forces in the act of landing.) The last commander of the Philippine Department, Maj. Gen. George Grunert, crafted a formal plan for just such an aggressive approach and MacArthur adopted it, in toto.
But the Japanese struck before he could complete all the preparations to give the new plan a fair test—something MacArthur should have anticipated when he committed himself to an active defense at the beaches. When Philippine troops he sent to the beaches fell back in disarray from the oncoming Japanese, MacArthur reverted to the old orthodox plan and held out on Bataan and Corregidor much longer than the Japanese expected. (Meanwhile, Grunert, who knew nothing of what actually occurred, gave speeches explaining how MacArthur was just following his plan!)
It would have been hard even for MacArthur to gain much by taking credit for an idea that proved such a failure in practice. Yet, incredibly, MacArthur emerged from the debacle in the Philippines as a towering national hero, largely because of the self-promoting communiqués he issued day after day.
This was another MacArthur talent that would serve him through the war and into the occupation of Japan afterward. In his communiqués, actions in his theater invariably involved “MacArthur’s forces,” “MacArthur’s airmen,” or “MacArthur’s navy.” (And though Australian units did most of his fighting in 1942–43, MacArthur persistently identified them only as “Allied troops,” which created a lingering bitterness.) Newsmen who wrote admiringly about MacArthur were rewarded with interviews and tips; those who displayed even slight skepticism found themselves shut out, if not banished altogether. In Japan after the war, no fewer than seventeen correspondents who ran afoul of the American supreme commander were expelled.
By personalizing virtually every aspect of his commands, and obscuring the contributions of even his most talented subordinates, MacArthur quite deliberately sought to erect an image of omniscience. During the occupation of Japan, the historian Michael Schaller notes, neither MacArthur nor the controlled Japanese press ever suggested “that anyone other than MacArthur contributed to the formulation of occupation policy.”
In one telling episode in 1942, MacArthur summoned Lt. Gen. Robert Eichelberger to go forward and take charge of the stalled offensive on New Guinea. MacArthur theatrically ordered Eichelberger,“Take Buna or don’t come back alive.” But, typically, MacArthur also offered his subordinate what he himself no doubt regarded as the ultimate incentive: he told Eichelberger that if he succeeded, he would release Eichelberger’s name to the newspapers.
MacArthur’s other major ploy for burnishing his image was to insist in his communiqués that all of his battles were won, and won with minimal casualties and expenditure of time. The truth was otherwise. During the Pacific War, MacArthur’s forces sustained higher total casualties in combat ashore than the forces advancing under Adm. Chester Nimitz in the Central Pacific. (MacArthur’s casualties totaled 196,661 including 67,149 deaths, while Nimitz’s casualties ashore totaled 108,906 with 28,859 deaths.) Moreover, MacArthur’s communiqués repeatedly declared battles over when major fighting still remained. Particularly egregious examples of this occurred on Biak (declared secured on June 3, with fighting until August 20) and Leyte (declared secured on December 25, 1944, with fighting continuing to May 1945).
The net effect of this image management was to persuade average and not-so-average Americans that MacArthur was a genius-level strategist and tactician who masterminded virtually every detail of his own operations and achieved unmatched economy in blood and time.
MacArthur achieved his greatest fame in World War II by combining sophisticated air and amphibious tactics with the bypass strategy. A close examination of the evolution of MacArthur’s generalship reveals how he borrowed each of these elements from others whom he scarcely ever acknowledged. In August 1942, Maj. Gen. George C. Kenney became his third air commander in eight months. Unlike the heavy-bomber-oriented leadership of the Army Air Forces, Kenney had a broad vision of air power spanning not just high-altitude bombers but also reconnaissance, transport, and low-level attack. Under Kenney’s tutelage, MacArthur’s modest vision of air power was transformed into zealotry for imaginative tactical uses of aircraft.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy never provided MacArthur with a truly distinguished officer to direct his sea forces. But the navy did detail Rear Adm. Daniel Barbey to command MacArthur’s amphibious forces. Barbey proved a truly superb leader and innovator who taught MacArthur what could and could not be done with his limited amphibious assets.
The last key element in this package was the bypass or leapfrog technique. While a number of naval officers had proposed the stratagem, and even President Franklin Roosevelt mooted the idea, Adm. William F. Halsey Jr. was the first to apply it. In August 1943 Halsey skipped past heavily defended Kolombangara for the lightly defended Vella Lavella in the Solomon Islands. It was fully two years into the Pacific War before MacArthur finally merged the bypass technique with his now operationally sophisticated air and amphibious forces to produce a spectacular advance from February 1944 to March 1945 along the New Guinea coast and then into the Philippines.
His wartime achievements and popularity secured for MacArthur the task of supervising the occupation of Japan, which is generally deemed the zenith of his controversial career. His fawning subordinate Maj. Gen. Courtney Whitney described how, on the initial flight to Japan, MacArthur spoke with oracular prescience of his personal vision for a sweeping remodeling of Japanese society, foretelling exactly how the occupation would unfold. In fact, MacArthur’s description followed directives he had received from Washington that identified not only the overall occupation goals but also the specific actions required to implement those goals. Thus, the image of MacArthur as the author of Japan’s postwar reform program is entirely wrong.
But if MacArthur was not the architect of the overall occupation program, he nonetheless exercised tremendous influence directing its execution. Indeed, in one vital area, Washington’s otherwise comprehensive orders were lacking. MacArthur’s instructions regarding the Japanese economy required only that he eliminate war industries; beyond that, the economy would be left to sink or swim on its own. MacArthur recognized right away, however, that Japan teetered on the edge of a famine that threatened to kill millions. He overrode standing orders from Washington prohibiting “gratuitous” distribution of American food and insisted on massive shipments in 1945 and 1946. His intervention prevented a disastrous famine that would have decimated Japan’s population and undermined the moral authority of the occupation—a point that MacArthur explicitly recognized.
In his later career, MacArthur legitimately claimed paternity for the landing at Inchon in September 1950 that rolled back the North Korean invasion of South Korea. This operation is widely deemed as the masterstroke of MacArthur’s entire military career. But Inchon is best classified as the most successful application of the air and amphibious tactics and the bypass strategy that MacArthur adopted in World War II.
During his lifetime, the manipulative means MacArthur used to create an image as a brilliant innovator concealed what would in other guises be an admirable trait of receptiveness to the contributions of others. Today’s military officers explicitly recognize that particular quality to be indispensable for those who would aspire to higher command. In the modern era of explosively rapid technological change, senior officers regularly confront the fact that the firsthand knowledge of technology and tactics they gained as a junior officer inevitably will be outdated—and thus that they simply cannot succeed without judiciously deferring to the experience and insights of others.
Stripping away MacArthur’s self-aggrandizing legacy reveals what is in fact an enduring lesson of the vital importance of openness to others’ ideas in achieving military victory.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.