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When readers were asked a year ago, “Who was the most influential American in Asia in the 20th century?” the response was very lopsided.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whose leadership was felt throughout the region but particularly in the Philippines, Japan and Korea, was the clear winner. Next were former U.S. Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower.

A new book by Pennsylvania State University historian Stanley Weintraub focusing on the first 11 crucial months of the war — “MacArthur’s War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero,” (The Free Press, New York, 2000, $27.50) — highlights MacArthur’s mistakes and the flaws in the general’s personality and character.

It is supposed to be a literary expose, I guess. But Weintraub’s meticulous search for points with which he can criticize MacArthur has revealed a more human MacArthur — warts and all — than the harsh, one-dimensional characterizations of other biographers.

Weintraub quotes some of MacArthur’s contemporaries in what seems like reasonable criticism.

A dust-jacket blurb by James Tobin, who wrote “Ernie Pyle’s War” goes too far: “Stanley Weintraub shatters the graven image of MacArthur as the great American warrior of the era. The man whom Harry Truman lampooned as ‘God’s right-hand man’ emerges as a supreme windbag well past his prime, and a myopic commander whose strategic priority was public relations.”

Many at the Pentagon felt that they were fighting two wars simultaneously, and that MacArthur was winning both, Weintraub noted, explaining the fluctuating headlines.

“Reds On The Lam” headlined the Washington Daily News. On seeing the banner, the new Dutch ambassador, J. Herman van Roijen, presenting his credentials to President Harry Truman, asked his U.S. State Department escort, John Simmons, “What does that mean — On The Lam?”

Unable to improvise a diplomatic definition, Simmons replied, “It is, I believe, the name of a river in Korea.”

If you want to see how MacArthur’s countrymen regard him, head for Norfolk, Virginia. A restored city hall and courthouse house the MacArthur Memorial and Library. A three-day commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the start of the Korean War will be held in Norfolk Sept. 15-17.

Events will include a reenactment of the Sept. 15 Inchon landing, regarded as a strategic master stroke, and a highlight of MacArthur’s career.

And keep in mind that more than 5.7 million American men and women served during the Korean War, more than 33,000 died in action, 103,000 were wounded and 8,207 were prisoners of war or reported missing in action.

Since we are in the U.S. presidential campaign season, Weintraub’s comment on the book’s last page is timely: “Hoping that MacArthur’s popular appeal would assert itself and gain him the Republican presidential nomination in 1952, his backers arranged that he deliver the keynote address at the national convention. His oratory failed to ignite the delegates. Sen. Robert Taft refused to back out and give his bloc of delegates to MacArthur, and Eisenhower gained the nomination easily.”

By then MacArthur assumed the largely honorary post of board chairman at Sperry Rand. In the summer of 1961 he returned to Manila for celebrations marking the 15th anniversary of Philippine independence, but did not go on to Japan or Korea.

When nearly 80, MacArthur began his memoirs and segments of this project appeared as a book just before his death at 84 in 1964.

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