A new legend was rising among the warriors, an Army brat with an outré modus operandi that owed nothing to Black Jack Pershing's sober, by-the-books methods. Rules were for other people, not for Douglas MacArthur. His father was Arthur MacArthur, a Medal of Honor winner in the Civil War and later a general. No one who caught sight of Douglas in full fig on the battlefields of France could doubt that he was a rare and privileged being, identified as such in his cradle by his doting mother. His get-up was flagrantly nonregulation, from the soft cap he wore instead of a helmet to the cigarette holder clamped between his teeth, the 4-foot-long muffler rakishly wrapped around his neck (a gift from Mother), and the turtleneck sweater and riding breeches below. One American lieutenant who came upon MacArthur took him prisoner until satisfied that the captive wasn't a German.
MacArthur proved that one can be a mama's boy without being a milksop. He relished combat, sallying into no man's land as casually as if he were going to the racetrack. He exposed himself to enemy fire with total fearlessness, viewing the law of self-preservation as just one more rule to be flouted. Danger was as sweet as nectar. He once encountered Maj. George Patton and his tanks as enemy artillery shells came thumping in. When a nearby explosion caused Patton to flinch, MacArthur counseled dryly, "Don't worry, major. You never hear the one that gets you." Another time, a shell exploded in the courtyard of a chÂateau where he and his staff were dining. Every diner hit the floor except one, who proclaimed: "All of Germany cannot make a shell that will kill MacArthur. Sit down again, gentlemen, with me."
Pershing's pique, Pinky's pen. Pershing disliked MacArthur's cowboy individualism and the impudence with which he treated the old man's headquarters staff. But the 38-year-old colonel's heroism, combat leadership, and lineage earned him license. Before the war's end, he would win seven Silver Stars for gallantry, four other U.S. medals, and 19 honors from Allied nations. He was a felt presence on the front lines, a fillip to troop morale. And, then, there was Mama. The nib of Pinky MacArthur's pen was rarely dry; she used her many civilian and military connections to lobby shamelessly for her son's advancement. After her unctuous prodding in 1918, in the midst of the war, the War Department promoted MacArthur to brigadier general without Pershing's recommendation. Pershing was amused by that not at all.
In 1922, as MacArthur finished a plum assignment as superintendent of West Point, he stirred the old man's pique again. He married a 30-ish socialite whom Pershing, the general of the armies himself, at age 61, had recently courted. (Pershing's wife and three of his four children had died in a house fire in 1915.) Black Jack, now Army chief of staff, packed MacArthur and his new bride off to the Philippines, a place Pershing told her she wouldn't like. Three years later, Pershing retired, and by 1930 MacArthur himself was Army chief of staff, sorting out the destinies of his favorites and non-favorites. Supplicants arrived at MacArthur's War Department office to find an august figure clad in a kimono, a 15-foot-high mirror framing him like an Asian potentate.
The new chief of staff's habit of referring to himself in the third person did not escape notice. Nor did his flair for insubordination, which reached the level of national spectacle in 1932. Some 25,000 veterans impoverished by the Depression had descended on the Capitol in Washington, demanding a "bonus" for past services. Disregarding the advice of his aide, Maj. Dwight Eisenhower, to leave it to others such as Major Patton and his cavalry, MacArthur himself supervised the protesters' dispersal from Pennsylvania Avenue. President Hoover directed that the troops not cross the river into Anacostia, where the bedraggled marchers were camped, some with wives and squalling children. Delivery of his order may or may not have been delayed by an assistant secretary of war (the evidence is contradictory). But the marchers' shacks, lean-tos and tents ended up being torched, after which MacArthur held a midnight press conference to announce that the Army had saved the country from revolution. Ever after, he was seen by the far right as man of the hour--and by the left as a bemedaled menace to civilian authority.
Franklin Roosevelt confided to an adviser that he considered the general one of the "two most dangerous men in the country" (the other being Louisiana's demagogic senator, Huey Long). Yet Roosevelt, himself wily, theatrical, and manipulative, always felt he could bend the wily, theatrical, and manipulative MacArthur to his own purposes. It was Roosevelt, nine years later, who gave MacArthur his second rendezvous with destiny--one that would dwarf the first. The general had completed his stint as chief of staff and another tour in the Philippines, and retired from the Army. Prompted by Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, FDR brought MacArthur out of retirement in 1941, naming him Far Eastern commander. It was one more way to demonstrate to Tokyo that the United States government meant to resist Japanese imperialism.
Japan got the message--and sent its reply on December 7. The attack on Pearl Harbor put MacArthur in a quandary, so much so that he blundered grievously. Nine hours after the news from Hawaii reached him, he allowed Japanese dive bombers and Zeros to catch his air fleet on the ground in the Philippines. Standing wingtip to wingtip at Clark Field, the B-17s and P-40s were reduced to molten rubble. Washington toyed with court-martialing the commanders of Pearl Harbor for laxity. MacArthur escaped a like fate only because he had powerful friends in the conservative press and because America didn't need another scapegoat. It needed a hero to rally morale.
Japan swiftly invaded the Philippines, and U.S. troops were left besieged without air power, sea power, or any immediate hope of reinforcement or resupply. The Chicago Tribune dubbed MacArthur "the lion of Luzon." His den was a tunnel on the rocky isle of Corregidor, frequently under bombardment. There he brooded while his forces fought desperately on the Bataan peninsula to cope with a local version of the Apocalypse--war, disease, and hunger. MacArthur slipped his father's old Derringer pistol into his pocket. "They will never take me alive," he assured an aide. But MacArthur was too important a symbol to be sacrificed, his long-standing flirtation with a heroic death aside. Roosevelt ordered him to Australia. In due course he obeyed, proclaiming famously, "I shall return." The Axis called MacArthur a "deserter" and "coward." Washington's answer was to give him the Medal of Honor (the handiwork of George Marshall, whom MacArthur nonetheless always suspected of scheming against him).
Lethal lily pads. The War Department split the Pacific into two theaters, the Navy running one, the Army the other: Adm. Chester Nimitz and his forces would advance west on Japan across the central Pacific; MacArthur and his forces would move from Australia north. MacArthur's role in the island-hopping strategy was a sideshow, but he executed it brilliantly. In his thrusts against the Japanese empire, he staged 87 amphibious landings, keeping the enemy perpetually off balance by attacking where least expected, leapfrogging from weak point to weak point. Strong points he mostly finessed, bypassing them and leaving them to wither, their lines of communication cut.
Such tactics speeded Japan's defeat and minimized casualties. But, unlike the doughboys of World War I, the GIs refused to love or even to like their resourceful leader. Many hated him, the defenders of Bataan lampooning him in a ditty as "Dugout Doug." His crime was a serious one in war. He hogged the glory. The typical communiqué from his headquarters mentioned only MacArthur himself, establishing a leitmotif amplified by military press agents and censors at every turn. After each victory, it was MacArthur who made the newspapers and the newsreels, looking jaunty and invincible behind his sunglasses and his outsized corncob pipe.
Before a key battle in New Guinea, he told one commander, Robert Eichelberger, "Bob, take Buna or don't come back alive." When the general secured his objective but then improvidently got himself praised in the press, MacArthur threatened to "reduce you to the grade of colonel tomorrow and send you home." Seizing the limelight from the boss even briefly, Eichelberger wrote his wife, could "prove more dangerous than a Japanese bullet." MacArthur's impressive press clippings encouraged a small boomlet for him as Republican presidential standard-bearer in 1944. He signaled interest but the move fizzled fast (as did similar flirtations with candidacies in 1948 and 1952).
He struck many as a better candidate for emperor than president. He proved them right when he became viceroy of postwar Japan. A conquered people watched in awe as he smashed monopolies, imposed land reform, propped up unions, and otherwise laid the foundations of a lasting democracy. It would have made a glorious finish for the MacArthur drama. But another act suddenly appeared on the playbill, one with an unhappy ending. North Korea invaded South Korea, and MacArthur, at age 70, was once again a warrior. He pulled off one of the most brilliant operations of his career, landing his forces at Inchon behind North Korean lines and quickly reducing the enemy to disarray. He then committed the biggest military miscalculation of his career. He thrust so deeply into North Korea that he provoked intervention by China, for which he was disastrously unprepared. Chinese Communist troops poured over the Yalu River into North Korea and forced U.S. forces into a bloody series of withdrawals--120 miles down the Korean peninsula--the longest retreat in American history.
Abandoning any idea of reunification, the Truman administration decided it would settle for two Koreas divided by the 38th parallel; like America's NATO allies, it wanted no wider war. But MacArthur did. He could not abide his last campaign ending in a humiliating stalemate. How much better to bomb China, to put Chinese Nationalist troops back on the mainland, to take fate by the throat as he always had. MacArthur fumed and protested and stoked conservative ire in private and in public, leaving Truman no choice but to fire him. He came home to a tumultuous welcome from the public and from lawmakers of both parties. In an address to Congress, he delivered his farewell after 52 years of military service. He recalled a line from a barracks ballad that "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away," adding, "And like the old soldier of that ballad, I now close my military career and just fade away--an old soldier who tried to do his duty as God gave him the light to see that duty. Goodbye."