Commentary Magazine

MacArthur: 1941-1951, by Charles A. Willoughby and John Chamberlain

General at Sea
MacArthur: 1941-1951.
by Charles A. Willoughby and John Chamberlain.
McGraw-Hill. 425 pp. $5.75.

War is too serious a business to leave to generals.—Clemenceau



General Charles Willoughby, well known to the public as General MacArthur’s controversial former intelligence chief, has, with the assistance of John Chamberlain, brought out what is probably the closest thing to an official biography of Douglas MacArthur we shall get. His book reflects the advantages of his intimacy with his subject, both as friend and soldier, and his freedom of access to the General’s private records—advantages that official Army historians, consistently kept at a distance from much of the material in General MacArthur’s possession, may well envy.

The author opens his book with the thankless task of having to explain how the United States lost the Philippines in early 1942 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. General Willoughby glosses over the Japanese destruction of the bulk of MacArthur’s air force at Clark Field several hours after Pearl Harbor. (He does not allude to MacArthur’s optimism the year before about the chances of defending the islands with B-17 bombers.) That air force, he claims, was too small to make any real difference anyway. The isolationist critics of the Roosevelt administration have not been noticeably troubled by this particular disaster, though they make much of Pearl Harbor where, except in retrospect, there was no such unmistakable warning as Clark Field had.

According to General Willoughby, MacArthur’s last-ditch defense of Bataan collapsed when the food ran out—and this he attributes to the General’s humanity in sharing it with Filipino refugees. Less enthusiastic critics have attributed this disastrous shortage of food to MacArthur’s overoptimistic refusal to move supplies to Bataan until it was too late. In any event, this ill-timed magnanimity went hand in hand with a Filipino effort, supported by MacArthur but quashed by Washington, to hurry up the surrender to the Japanese and bring an end to hostilities. Had the effort succeeded there would have been no defense of Bataan and the Japanese would have been freed that much sooner—that is, by February 1942—to attack other objectives. Thus Roosevelt saved MacArthur’s reputation as the hero of Bataan as effectively as he rescued the General personally when he ordered him to Australia. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why Willoughby makes Harry Truman, rather than F.D.R., the villain of his piece.

Established in his new command in Australia, MacArthur pushed through an offensive in New Guinea in spite of the unreadiness of his Australian divisions for offensive warfare, and of his U.S. National Guard divisions for any kind of warfare. From the beginning, President Roosevelt looked upon these dangerous, ill-supported operations with a tolerant eye. Later, when the General came into conflict with the United States Navy—that favorite child of the President’s—Roosevelt reneged on a promise to Admiral Nimitz and let MacArthur carry out his plan to return to the Philippines, notwithstanding the adverse effect this would have on the Navy’s long planned and truly decisive campaign in the Central Pacific. It is possible that Roosevelt feared political trouble at home like that caused Lincoln by General McClellan’s supporters in the Civil War. President Truman was less cautious in handling MacArthur, perhaps just because his political position at home was weaker.

Besides minimizing the extreme importance of the Mariana Islands, which the Navy wished to conquer as a base for an effective bombing of Japan, MacArthur also revealed his parochial Army bias by preferring an outright invasion of Japan to a less costly program of bombing and blockade. The plan to invade the heavily defended Japanese home islands cannot be reconciled with what General Willoughby asserts is his chief’s passion for saving lives. Similarly Willoughby’s condemnation today of the destruction of the Japanese armaments industry after the war is hard to reconcile with his chief’s insistence upon a clause, unique to the Japanese constitution, forbidding that country to conduct even defensive warfare. On this, as on so many of his chief’s decisions that turned out wrong, Willoughby is silent.



Certainly MacArthur cannot be blamed for American postwar policies that stripped Japan of the whole of her economically vital overseas empire, while sparing few pains to increase her population through improved medical facilities. But MacArthur’s anger at what he subsequently called “the inexplicable decision” of the United States government not to arm the South Koreans more effectively is little more than an attempt to divert attention from his own policy of unpreparedness in Japan.

General Willoughby seeks to explain away MacArthur’s dilatoriness in arming against the Communist threat by claiming that “the bulk of our military strength continued to be sent to Europe . . . .” Surely MacArthur’s intelligence chief could not have been unaware of the fact that in 1950 Japan had the strongest American overseas garrison, amounting to four divisions, as against only a single one in Europe. If MacArthur’s divisions in Japan were under strength, so were, and are, almost all American divisions in peacetime. (Today we read of Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson’s intention to increase the number of U.S. divisional units and at the same time to decrease the size of the Army.)

In 1942 General MacArthur felt that the U. S. Navy, most of whose battleships in the Pacific then rested on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, should have dropped its desperate campaign against German submarines off the Atlantic coast and come to his immediate rescue in the Philippines. The Roosevelt administration was likewise at fault for not bringing the Russians—though they were in an even more desperate case than we at the time—into the war against Japan in order to help MacArthur; but three years later, when for their own reasons the Soviets did come in against Japan, the administration, says the author today, was at fault for permitting it.

From the beginning, General Willoughby, like his former superior, was apparently incapable of recognizing the existence of any war besides MacArthur’s—let alone that the conflict elsewhere might have been more important. As with the American isolationists, these two generals could not really believe the American government was not free to decide questions of life or death for other major powers. They could not see that our allies, being always in greater and more immediate danger than ourselves, could not be expected magnanimously to overlook their own peril and concern themselves only with ours.

In both World War II and the Korean war, Great Britain, our principal ally, irritated General MacArthur by her pertinacity in advocating policies other than his own. In 1944 and 1945, he went out of his way to cast aspersions upon her in connection with the administration of the East Indies; in 1950 and 1951 he found fault with her over Formosa. As an ultra-nationalist, MacArthur refused to recognize, either in the Pacific or in Korea, that, though the collective interests of a coalition may not be identical with those of each of its members at every point, the coalition’s best chance of success is to place its collective interests first. Otherwise it risks the fate that met the Axis powers in the last war.



It was, of course, MacArthur’s incomprehension of the supremacy of civilian and Presidential authority in our country that led to his abrupt dismissal by President Truman. General Willoughby refuses to consider the implications of a soldier’s defiance of civilian authority. He does not see why it was left to President Truman rather than to MacArthur to decide whether or not to use the atom bomb in Korea. And he sees nothing wrong in his chief’s having carried on public discussions with the Republican opposition at home while commanding a United Nations army in the field.

The great success of MacArthur’s bold landing at Inchon in September 1950 postponed the showdown with President Truman. But the rapid American retreat from North Korea that winter, following upon his misjudgment of the chances of Chinese Communist intervention, again cast doubt upon MacArthur’s ability to estimate the entire military situation. Mistakes of this magnitude did not make Mac-Arthur’s assurance that a naval blockade or bombing of China would not bring in Russia, and thereby precipitate a third world war, more convincing to an administration that felt militarily unready for such an outcome.

To the very last, MacArthur and his staff showed no comprehension of the fundamental military axiom, emphasized by Clausewitz, that war—even a victorious war—is only a means of attaining a nation’s ends in the international sphere, and not an end in itself—we do not fight just to win. For this reason alone, General MacArthur and his more adulatory aides deserved to be retired.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest