Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior by Arthur Herman

Duty, Honor, Country…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

douglas macarthurIn his preface, Herman discusses previous biographies of General Douglas MacArthur, some sycophantic in their admiration, others dismissing him as everything from vain to incompetent. His hope is that by the end of the book the reader will be able to decide which description is the true one. Herman has ranged widely in his search for accurate source material, including China, Japan and Russia; and has also had access to newly opened archives within the US.

I start by saying that, prior to reading this book, I knew absolutely nothing about Douglas MacArthur and very little about the events in which he was involved. I am, therefore, in no position to judge the accuracy of either the history or the portrait Herman paints of this clearly divisive American hero. I decided to read it because I have greatly enjoyed several other of Herman’s books, finding him a great storyteller who brings history vividly to life. And from the prologue of this one, where he gives a dramatic description of the events at Inchon and then leaves those of us who don’t know our history on a cliffhanger, foreshadowing MacArthur’s future downfall, I knew he was going to achieve the remarkable, I might even have said impossible, feat of making me enjoy over 800 pages of the history of a soldier fighting the various American wars of the first half of the twentieth century.

douglas macarthur pipe

In his conclusion, Herman suggests there are three main aspects that are crucial to understanding Douglas MacArthur – the degree to which he was influenced by his father’s life; the relationships with the various women in his life, his mother and his second wife Jean in particular; and his “brilliance as a grand strategist – perhaps the most incisive the American military has ever produced.” This serves as a fair summary of how Herman approaches his subject throughout the book.

To explain how influential Arthur MacArthur was on his son’s life, Herman gives the reader a mini-biography of the elder man – his early career as a Unionist hero of the Civil War, and his later fascination with the East, becoming convinced that the Pacific rim would be of more importance to the future America than its old attachments to Europe. So interesting does Herman make this story that I was left hoping that perhaps his next task will be to do a full biography of Arthur, a man whose life sounds as eventful and interesting as his son’s.

Arthur MacArthur - commissioned as an officer in the Union army at age 17, he won the Medal of Honor for his actions the following year at Missionary Ridge. Douglas would strive for years to equal his father's achievement, and was eventually granted his own Medal of Honor, making them the first father and son to achieve this.
Arthur MacArthur – commissioned as an officer in the Union army at age 17, he won the Medal of Honor for his actions the following year at Missionary Ridge. Douglas would strive for years to equal his father’s achievement, and was eventually granted his own Medal of Honor, making them the first father and son to achieve this.

Herman goes into Douglas MacArthur’s relationship with his mother in some depth, suggesting that she was something of a driving force behind her son’s career not just in his youth but right through till his late thirties and forties. A late bloomer in the romance stakes, MacArthur’s first marriage failed quite quickly. His second marriage to Jean, however, brought him the kind of support his mother had provided and Herman shows how important this domestic stability was to MacArthur when dealing with the various military crises of his life.

Douglas and Jean MacArthur
Douglas and Jean MacArthur

While talking about MacArthur’s career between the two world wars, Herman praises MacArthur’s achievements both as head of the US Olympic committee and for forcing the Army to face up to the need to modernise the training of its young officers while he was in charge of West Point. He also discusses in depth the apparently infamous breaking up of the Bonus Army camps, when MacArthur used troops to drive out army veterans who were protesting over the government’s refusal to bring forward payment of their promised bonuses. Since this was an episode I had never heard of, I was totally reliant on Herman’s version. It seemed to me that he very much took MacArthur’s side, perhaps too much so, almost absolving him of all responsibility for the matter.

Soldiers in gas masks advance on World War I veterans in the Bonus March protest in Washington in July 1932.
Soldiers in gas masks advance on World War I veterans in the Bonus March protest in Washington in July 1932.

However, he also put the opposite case clearly enough for me to consider the question of bias at all, and that’s one of the main reasons I like Herman. In the past, I have always found him to be sympathetic to his subjects, and so he is in this one. But although he can come across as biased in his conclusions, it seems to me he always presents the other side of the argument, leaving the reader to follow his bias or argue against it. Since it is a rare author indeed who can write without bias, my preference is for open bias of the Herman kind, rather than the kind where only one story is told with no indication that there may be another version.

MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines - a picture his detractors claim he staged.
MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines – a picture his detractors claim he staged.

But the real meat of the book is, as it should be, MacArthur’s military career. So involved was MacArthur in most of the important events of the time, so well told are the various episodes, so clearly does Herman lay out the background and consequences of each, that the book is as much history as biography. From MacArthur’s leadership of the Rainbow Division in WW1, through the often horrific story of the Philippines, Japan and the Pacific arena in WW2, and on to MacArthur’s successes and failures in Korea, Herman thoroughly explains the politics, domestic and foreign, that impacted on each campaign, and provides clear and often very moving stories of the military battles, showing how narrow is the dividing line between heroic success and tragic failure. Herman also delves into the period after WW2 when MacArthur spent some years as the ‘American Shogun’ ruling almost monarchically over a defeated Japan, and paints him as someone who chose not to exact revenge, but rather to try to change the culture and structure of the society to prevent future wars. Herman in fact gives MacArthur credit for sowing the seeds of the Japanese economic miracle of the latter part of the century.

General MacArthur, in behalf of the Allies, accepting the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945
General MacArthur, on behalf of the Allies, accepting the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945

Throughout all this, Herman doesn’t shy away from criticising MacArthur’s decisions on occasion, but always puts his mistakes into context. The picture that emerges is of a true military hero, a man of great personal courage, with a huge ego and a desire for public recognition and even glory, but with a driving ambition to see his nation provide a shining example to the rest of the world. A flawed hero perhaps, but I sometimes think we as a society expect a level of perfection that our heroes cannot possibly achieve, and in general I prefer sympathetic biographies that recognise and allow for human fallibility. So from my perspective, this is another great biography from Herman, thoroughly researched and immensely readable. I shall leave it to the MacArthur buffs on both sides to argue over its bias or otherwise.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

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52 thoughts on “Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior by Arthur Herman

  1. What an interesting sounding chap – and look at the size of his pipe! That’s a proper manly pipe, that. I like that both sides of his character are presented – no doubt such a driven man had something of a darker side to his nature.

  2. I’m with you, FictionFan. In general, I very much prefer biographies that are honest about their subjects. I don’t mind sympathetic. But I do object to biographies that gloss over flaws, failings and so on. I find people much more interesting when they have human failings, as we all do. And although I’m absolutely in no way deeply knowledgeable about MacArthur, I do know that he was both complicated and extremely talented when it came to military strategy. So it’s good to hear that this biography acknowledges that. Now I just have to find the time to read the 800 pages….

    • Yes, I hate the kind of biography that only gives the info that supports the author’s conclusion, especially since I usually don’t know the history so have no other reference point. But I often find myself disagreeing with Herman, or agreeing with him, indeed, which makes me think he does give the facts fairly impartiality and leaves his bias for his interpretation. I found some aspects of MacArthur off-putting – his desire to nuke North Korea, for instance! But overall I came out of it admiring a great deal about him, and much better informed about the history. Worth the 800 pages!

  3. This seems like a really balanced bio, though the author was not without bias, as you mentioned. I find it interesting how many war heroes fall outside of the battlefield. In history class, we heard about MacArthur’s foibles. 🙂

    • I don’t think I’d even heard of him before. Sadly I don’t remember being taught much about the Pacific war at all – our history lessons concentrated on the war in Europe. So this was great for the history side, as well as the biography. I do like Herman – he makes complicated stuff not just readable but enjoyable…

  4. Since reading your review, I now know far more about Mc Arthur than I ever did before. Like you, I always enjoy Herman’s books, so this one will be going straight onto my non-existent TBR.

    • Thank you! You will enjoy this one as much as I did, I’m sure – as good as any of his others, and it was particularly interesting to see how clearly he explained everything since this time I really knew almost nothing.

    • Thank you. 🙂 Haha! I must admit it took me over a month to read this one – it was worth it but if I hadn’t made copious notes I’d have forgotten the beginning before I got to the end…

  5. I’ve always heard that he was one of the good fellows. Almost worshiped at times. And yet at that time Americans were so hopeful for the future after the war. This was not going to happen again. We can do whatever we want and make it work kind of thing. I was one of the baby boomers that grew up in that atmosphere. I still live in the same country…but it is not the same country. We may have been aware of the changes but we still hoped. 9-11 dashed all of that sort of dreaming. My dad passed away just before 9-11 and among my tears of loss of my father I shed some for him. And I was glad if he had to go, he did not live to see what happened.

    • I can understand that. He did make some pretty big mistakes, but usually for good reasons, and they were hugely outweighed by his achievements, I felt. By the end, I was very happy to add him to my list of great heroes – not just a great strategist, but personally courageous too. Yep, most of my life we seemed to be heading in roughly the right direction, even if it was slow. But this last decade or so things have been getting worse and worse – I don’t know what the solution is, but all those men who gave their lives in WW2 would be appalled, I’d think, to see how we seem to have gone round in a circle…

  6. Eight hundred pages?? Oh, my, what an undertaking (both for author and reader!). Glad you enjoyed this one, FF. That last photo — of the signing — holds a special place in my heart…and home. My late uncle was actually there (on the second “tier” of witnesses but cropped off in this photo). So yeah, it was most historic!

    • Really?? Oh, how great to have a connection to such an important piece of history. Is there an uncropped version of the photo? Did he serve under MacArthur? I found myself wishing I’d asked my Dad what he thought of MacArthur – I was never really willing to listen much to his war stories, and I really regret that now.

      • It’s uncropped on my wall! My uncle was there as part of the media (radio engineer, though I’m not sure what his title was). He’s in uniform in the photo, so he served, though I don’t believe it was under MacArthur. Daddy never talked much about his own war experiences. Too bad you didn’t preserve some of your dad’s memories — that would have been interesting to read!

        • That’s something special to keep in your family, eh? Yes, my Dad died when I was only 24, and still too involved in my own concerns to be much interested in the past. I know a lot more about my mother’s history because she lived for much longer and by that time I wasn’t so self-absorbed. I have a pesky habit of telling young people to talk to their parents and grandparents in case they miss their chance…

          • You’re oh-so-right to remind them of the shortness of time. When we’re 20, we think our aging relatives will be around forever. How often I wish I’d reined in my impatience when one of my elders was telling their stories!!

            • Yes, at that age it’s too easy to dismiss reminiscing as ‘boring’ – it’s only when we build up our own memories that we realise how important they are in explaining us to ourselves.

        • That’s fascinating – thanks, Debbie! It’s intriguing to see all the people I’ve been reading about. In some ways it feels like a whole other world and yet the world feels so unstable at the moment it all seems frighteningly possible that something similar could happen again. I think maybe I need to stop reading so many books about wars… 😉

  7. What a comprehensive and informative review! So glad to hear that this worked for you and I agree with your point about bias. It would be a strange writer indeed that did all that research and yet didn’t form an opinion so far better to present both sides and let the reader argue against your views, should they so wish.

    • Thank you! 😀 Indeed, and I always prefer when a biographer is sympathetic to his subject – I don’t enjoy reading hatchet jobs at all. ‘Cos most people aren’t either all bad or all good, and these people who live in the public glare get criticised for all kinds of things other people get away with, like being inconsistent or making mistakes…

  8. Wow – quite an undertaking – both the book and your marvelous review, FictionFan! I agree with BigSister above – I now know so much more about Gen MacArthur now than I did before reading this review! So interesting about his dad Arthur. Missionary Ridge is not far from me, really – a little under 2 hours drive.

    • Haha! Thank you! 😀 I admit it took me over a month to read the book and nearly as long to write the review! Fascinating man though – as was his father. I never knew much about the Civil War till recently but I’ve read a few books around it recently and have become progressively more interested…

  9. At least he wasn’t slapping soldiers in the medical tent, like Patton. This sounds interesting, and may be a contender for a holiday gift for my husband. Don’t think I would ever get through it.

    • Goodness, really? No, MacArthur seemed to get on reasonably well with his men and though he put them at risk, he did seem to try to ensure their safety wherever he could. Definitely a great read for anyone who enjoys history or biography!

  10. Great review, though I did have a strange moment when I briefly conflated father and son and was confusedly wondering how the same soldier could have fought in the Civil War (strange concept, civility and war) , First, and Second War and beyond. I think recent events had l left me so addled that the more impossible a scenario seems, the more it seems possible it could happen.

    • Thank you! Well, actually that’s quite perceptive – they definitely feel like two men sharing one long life. The son Douglas just continued on seamlessly from where his father left off, accepting all his opinions and values as his own. I don’t think I’ve read about anyone before who so totally adopted his father’s outlook. But I must stop reading books about wars – I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve just made a repeat more likely…

  11. Now that’s a pipe! Excellent review, although at 800 pages, I don’t think I could take this on. MacArthur was in Melbourne during the war after leaving the Philippines, and he and his actions are still quite unpopular in some circles.

    • Haha! It’s good, isn’t it? I want one! Thanks. 😀 Yes, I got the impression feelings about him in Australia were… ahem… mixed. He definitely felt the war was American – the Allies were there to help but not to interfere. Strange, ‘cos over here we’re so sure the war was actually only about us and Germany, and all the rest was trivia… 😉

  12. Aha! So, you liked it! See, I was right. Didn’t I recommend this one? Well, kinda basically did, I think. I should get some sort of credit, see. It’s really only fair. #wins

    Look at his poor wife. She’s got something about her neck. *shudders*

    • It was great! Now there’s a true hero, mostly! Also a bit nuts, of course. You kinda did, and you do indeed deserve credit. So as your reward I’ve moved this to the very top of your TBR! Congratulations! You can begin any time you like!

      Haha! Perhaps she’s being attacked… by a yeti!

      • Most heroes are nuts, except Hector. He was the greatest hero ever, you know. I don’t think he was too much of a nut either. *nods* What?! No! Besides, I feel like I’ve already read it, see.

        Then she has only moments left! On an interesting note, I bet he could play a yeti

        • Hector must have been nuts! Imagine going into battle in sandals! Haha! Because my review was so long? Nah, I just gave you the highlights… there’s tons of stuff in it you’d love, about battles and military tactics and stuff!

          *laughs* Unless she’s a jiu jitsu black belt – maybe she’s just about to perform a stunning manoeuvre and wrestle it to the ground! He could! Though I’ve never seen a yeti smoke a pipe…

          • No, because the review was so good! See, I read books everyday. *proud* Military tactics? *tempted*

            That’s the cool thing about jits. Really isn’t about strength. Has to do more with leveraging each others’ strength. Yeti does all the time. I’m sure of it!

            • Yep! If ever we have a competition to rescue South Korea from the Communists, I’d win for sure! Not to mention making amphibious landings. And co-ordinating the air and ground wars. *nods emphatically*

              She looks like she knows she could do it too! Poor yeti! I feel kinda sorry for it now. No wonder it’s started smoking…

  13. Great review! You’ve actually made me think that reading a huge biography of a soldier (completely unknown to me until now) would be fascinating. The fact that his life as a soldier takes you through so many wars definitely piques my interest. It’s amazing that he made it through all of them in the first place. And, I agree, his father’s life sounds equally as interesting.
    And, what a pipe! 🙂

    • Thank you! 😀 Ha! I must admit I though it might bore me to tears, but I like Herman and he always manages to make his subjects interesting. Not that MacArthur needed help – turns out he was fascinating anyway. Yes, and it wasn’t because he was one fo those generals who stayed away from danger – he was a real soldier, always going up to the front line. And the pipe is great – I really want one!

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