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Richard B. Frank, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, 198 pages, $21.95.

Douglas Macarthur was pointed almost from birth toward military achievement. His father was a general in the Civil War who earned the Medal of Honor. Intelligent and ambitious, the young MacArthur graduated first in his class at West Point. In World War I, he gained a well-deserved reputation for gallantry and twice was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. By Armistice Day he was a brigade commander.

MacArthur’s meteoric rise continued after the war. He became the youngest superintendent of West Point and, at the age of 50, was appointed U.S. Army chief of staff. He revitalized the army school system and fought desperately to modernize its equipment. But MacArthur also personally directed, against President Herbert Hoover’s express orders, the routing of Bonus Army campers in Washington, D.C.—World War I veterans seeking Depression aid from the government in the spring of 1932.

By that time MacArthur’s marriage to socialite Louise Cromwell Brooks was on the rocks. But he subsequently imported a Filipino mistress, Isabel Rosario Cooper, to Washington, a perk no previous chief of staff is known to have enjoyed. In Richard Frank’s words, “Although MacArthur professed to Isabel that their relationship was love, most of their hours together were passed horizontally.”

When his tour as chief of staff ended in 1935, MacArthur was still in the prime of his life. Accompanied by a new young wife, Jean Faircloth, he accepted an offer from the Philippines to command its armed forces—with a rank equivalent to field marshal—and to prepare them for independence. But not even MacArthur’s best efforts could compensate for the mere trickle of equipment from the United States, as well as language difficulties between Filipinos and their American tutors.

In July 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt recalled MacArthur to active duty with the U.S. Army and placed him in command of American forces in the Far East. However, even with eight hours’ warning following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese attack on the Philippines came as a complete surprise. MacArthur’s aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and his plan to defend the northern beaches dissolved in chaos. Subsequently, in the author’s judgment, “MacArthur carries the responsibility for the grossly negligent failure to properly stock Bataan and Corregidor with supplies.”

The MacArthur of the Philippines was a different man from the reckless warrior of World War I. In three months under siege, only once did he leave his underground headquarters on Corregidor to visit his men on the front lines. MacArthur may have deliberately cultivated a remote, Olympian leadership style. But to his starving men their commander became “Dugout Doug.”

Yet a MacArthur legend was born, the fruit of hard work by the general and his staff. Frank notes, “Of 142 communiqués issued by MacArthur’s command between December 8, 1941, and March 11, 1942, no fewer than 109 mentioned only one individual: MacArthur.”

In March 1942, on Roosevelt’s orders, MacArthur made a perilous escape by sea to Australia. From there he made his famous pronouncement, “I shall return.” From his headquarters in Brisbane, MacArthur led a mixed force of Australians and Americans with whom he sought to regain the Philippines.

One of MacArthur’s claims to fame in the Pacific War was his technique of island hopping, in which centers of Japanese resistance were bypassed in favor of less-strongly defended islands. Frank points out that low casualties did not always accompany this strategy. When casualties were low, it was often due to critical communications intelligence regarding the enemy order of battle. As a motivator, the author writes, MacArthur’s favorite tool “was to create rivalries among subordinates and then to play one off against the other.”

Following Japan’s surrender, MacArthur ruled Japan as supreme commander of the Allied powers. It was at this time that MacArthur may have performed his most important service. A famous photograph showed a relaxed MacArthur, tieless in his fatigues, towering over a diminutive, formally attired Emperor Hirohito. Nevertheless, MacArthur ran his fiefdom with a surprisingly liberal and democratic hand.

When a U.S.-led coalition responded to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in 1950, MacArthur was named commander of the United Nations forces. He gained a critical victory with an amphibious landing at Inchon, but despite warnings from U.S. intelligence, he was totally unprepared for China’s entry into the war late that year. In Frank’s view, “Chinese intervention and the defeat of his plan sent the aging MacArthur intellectually and emotionally reeling.” When MacArthur repeatedly made public his differences with the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, President Harry Truman fired him.

Frank credits MacArthur with recognizing the importance of Asia at a time when U.S. policymakers were predominantly Eurocentrists. But the MacArthur personality, with its mixture of bravado and paranoia, comes off badly.

Frank does not claim to have written the last word on MacArthur, but this short, thoughtful biography provides the essence of the man.


Originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here