MacArthur’s Flawed Genius

  • Share
  • Read Later
MPI / Getty Images

President Truman and General MacArthur on Wake Island in 1950, six months before the President fired the general.

There are some military commanders who, like Cher, Elvis and Oprah, are known by a single name: Napoleon, Patton and MacArthur come quickly to mind.

Army General Douglas MacArthur is historically significant not only because of his military exploits in World War II and Korea, but because he tested civilian control of the military in his clash with President Harry Truman that lead him, in his famous words, to “fade away.”

Military historian Bevin Alexander has written of that 1950-51 collision in MacArthur’s War: The Flawed Genius Who Challenged the American Political System. Battleland conducted this email chat with Alexander, who has written more than a dozen books on military history, last week:

You call Douglas MacArthur a “flawed genius.” What made him a genius, and what were his flaws?

MacArthur realized that the North Koreans depended wholly for their supplies on the railroad running through Seoul.  In a brilliant burst of insight, he saw that, by breaking this railroad, he could destroy the North Korean Army to the south without a shot being fired at it.

He achieved this goal in his invasion of Inchon, Seoul’s port, on September 15, 1950.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff possessed nothing like MacArthur’s imagination, and opposed the Inchon invasion from start to finish.

Yet MacArthur’s military vision was deeply flawed, because he made no effort to capture the North Korean soldiers who fled northward virtually without weapons after the invasion, and his plans for conquering North Korea were wholly inadequate.  For example he sent his only rested force, 10th Corps, on an extremely time-consuming invasion of Wonsan, on the east coast of North Korea.

The operation took so long that South Korean soldiers walking on foot captured Wonsan before the Marines had even gotten into their ships.

Finally, he flatly refused to believe that the Chinese Reds would intervene in force, despite the fact that they openly massed troops on the Korean frontier and proclaimed officially that they would do so.  He was wholly unprepared when they did attack.



You say he “challenged the American political system.” How? More importantly, did he “change” it?

MacArthur wanted to attack Red China.

In this he directly challenged the Truman Administration, which was seeking to avoid any collision with Red China.

Truman had adopted the policy advocated by George F. Kennan in his famous “long telegram” of February 22, 1946, from Moscow that called for containing Communist power but not trying to reverse gains the Communists already had made.

MacArthur’s demands were a direct contradiction of established national policy.

He failed because President Truman fired him on April 11, 1951, after MacArthur—by means of a unilateral ultimatum he issued to the Chinese Communists—wrecked a wide diplomatic effort by Truman to secure a cease-fire with Red China.

Truman sustained his action despite furious opposition by Republicans in Congress who wanted to follow MacArthur’s ideas.  The American political system—which rests on the president determining national policy and on civilian control of the military—survived the MacArthur-Truman controversy intact.

Sum up the arc of MacArthur’s life.

MacArthur (1880-1964) was the son of a well-known Civil War Union officer, Arthur MacArthur.

He graduated first in his class at West Point in 1903, and was the youngest brigadier general in the American Expeditionary Force to France in World War I.  There he received numerous awards for valor.

He became chief of staff of the U.S. Army in 1930 and in 1935 took up the task of creating a national army for the Philippines.  In March 1942, MacArthur, his wife and child, and a number of selected officers left Japanese-besieged Corregidor on PT boats for Mindanao, where U.S. aircraft flew them to Australia.

There MacArthur assumed command of the Southwest Pacific Area and led campaigns through New Guinea to the Philippines.

At war’s end in 1945, President Truman named him supreme commander to govern Japan.  He achieved a splendid record in turning Japan into a democracy during the occupation, which ended in 1951.

What’s the most surprising thing the average American doesn’t know about MacArthur?

I don’t think the average American realizes that MacArthur wanted to take over direction of American foreign policy.

He was extremely hostile to Communism, and was willing to risk nuclear war to destroy it.  He tried to undermine the Truman administration’s containment policy, which sought to avoid war but keep Communism from expanding.

The Truman Administration was deeply fearful of a nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union, and believed containment would force the Soviet Union to overextend itself economically in building nonproductive weapons and would ultimately implode. This turned out to be the successful strategy that led to the Soviet Union’s demise.


Dementi Studio

Bevin Alexander

What was MacArthur like behind the scenes, in private and in his personal life?

William Manchester, MacArthur’s celebrated biographer, described him as “flamboyant, imperious, and apocalyptic” and said that he “could not acknowledge errors.”  But Manchester said “he was also endowed with great personal charm, a will of iron, and a soaring intellect.”

MacArthur spoke in grandiloquent phrases and seemed to be on stage at all times.  J. Lawton Collins, the Army chief of staff, wrote that he “always gave the impression of addressing not just his immediate listeners, but a large audience unseen.”

This certainly was the impression of Clare Boothe Luce, playwright and wife of Henry Luce, publisher of Time and Life magazines.  She wrote: “MacArthur’s temperament was flawed by an egotism that demanded obedience not only to his orders, but to his ideas and his person as well.  He plainly relished idolatry.”

Officers who served in Far East Command headquarters in the Dai-ichi Building in Tokyo spoke of the great reverence and awe that surrounded MacArthur there.

Secretary of State Dean Acheson was well aware of the pomp that MacArthur drew around himself.  “While General MacArthur had many of the attributes of a foreign sovereign,” Acheson wrote, “it did not seem wise to recognize him as one.”

Is the country well-served by clashes like that which took place between MacArthur and Truman? If general officers aren’t occasionally quitting or being fired, does that suggest that both the commander and commanded are conformists, going along to get along, to the detriment of the nation?

I do not think that the nation is served by open clashes between the president and generals.

The public is impressed with the exploits of famous generals and tends to support them at the expense of presidents, who suffer from constant criticism by the opposing party and who are bound to generate opposition because of actions they take as chief executives.

The public almost always gives the glamour to the charismatic general and the criticism to the workaday elected leader.  This is why successful generals like Napoléon Bonaparte have been able to seize power in coups d’état.

The Founding Fathers recognized the danger that generals, with the power of armies behind them, can pose.  For this reason they insisted on inserting in the Constitution a provision giving the president, an elected civilian, supreme command of all military forces.

There are ample means within the military command system for divergent views and opposing theories and strategies to be aired and examined.  But the president must be the voice of the nation to the world.  Dissenting voices cannot have any legitimacy.

Once an administration has decided on a course of action, all military leaders are obliged to follow this policy or resign.  A general cannot be allowed to command an operation directed by the administration and at the same time to be publicly criticizing that operation.  This would eliminate one voice speaking for the nation and substitute chaos.

How do you think he would handle Korea today? Would he be fired again?

If we assume that MacArthur would think today as he thought in 1950, and that he would not have taken into consideration the vastly changed situation in the Korean peninsula today as compared to then, the answer must be that he would do the same.

But truly this is not a fair or valid comparison.

In 1950, the United States decided to conquer North Korea and create a single Korean state protected by the United States.  We intended to post our armies along the Yalu River frontier with Red China.  This is the threat which caused Red China to intervene in the war.

China was determined to maintain a cordon sanitaire in front of the North China Plain, China’s heartland.  In 1950 the Chinese were dealing with a defunct North Korea about to be overrun by Americans.

Today China possesses the buffer of North Korea.  We have no intention of disturbing the status quo.

Today China and the United States are dealing with an identical problem.  North Korea is a failed state unable to feed itself that is seeking to survive by bullying the world.

Both our and Chinese concerns are to prevent the totalitarian leadership in Pyongyang from making some aggressive blunder that would throw the Far East into turmoil.

In that sense, both we and the Chinese have identical aims.  We are no longer at odds.