To many students of current history, the name William Manchester is inextricably linked with his two well-received studies of President John F. Kennedy: The Portrait of a President: John F. Kennedy (1962) and The Death of a President: November 20-November 25, 1963 (1967). Though he has written three novels as well as a collection of essays, Manchester is primarily known for his histories and biographies dealing with such subjects as the Krupps of Germany, H. L. Mencken, and the Rockefeller family. This most recent work, American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880-1964, represents the author’s finest biography to date, offering as it does a definitive and exhaustive account of five-star general Douglas MacArthur’s extraordinary life proceeding from the implicit thesis that this superb military leader’s contributions to American, Philippine, Japanese, and Korean history are in danger of being underestimated by future generations.
Following a standard biographical procedure, Manchester “begins before the beginning” by discussing the many accomplishments of Douglas’ father, Arthur MacArthur, who began an exemplary soldier’s career at the age of eighteen, joining the 24th Wisconsin regiment that stormed Missionary Ridge at the Civil War battle of Lookout Mountain. Later, after much service, Arthur was ordered to the West to fight marauding Indians; during this tour of duty, he married Pinky Hardy. Soon thereafter, in 1880, Douglas was born. Those years spent growing up in the wild West, riding horses, and scouting the range with Indian boys did much to form the adventure-hungry, free-from-fetters Douglas MacArthur the world would encounter in the next century. However, his Western experiences would be quickly put behind him, for in 1898 his father joined the fight against the Spanish; two years later, when Arthur was made military Governor of the Philippines, his son was to encounter islands and people that he would call home and family. In fact, the Pacific basin would be his “United States” from then on.
One could say with considerable justification that American Caesar is one lengthy refutation: a refutation of the allegation, perpetuated by World War II G.I.’s, that Douglas MacArthur was no more than “Dugout Doug,” a pampered, spineless shirker who preferred the comforts of elaborate villas to the dangers of the front lines. Yet far from being a coward, Manchester’s MacArthur knew no fear, directly confronting enemy sniper and shell fire without wincing or taking cover. Thinking himself somehow immune from a battlefield death, he frightened his subordinates with his reckless lack of concern for his personal safety. Indeed, MacArthur is absolutely magnificant as the nine-times-decorated commander of the famous Rainbow Division of Pershing’s World War I army; he dashed over trenches with his men, defying the enemy to kill him. And he was magnificent in the Pacific as he boldly took on the forces of Emperor Hirohito’s warlords: men such as Hideki Tojo, architect of the Pearl Harbor bombings, and Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, dashing airman and naval strategist. With that absolute belief in “Honor, Duty, Country” learned in his youth at two military academies (the second of which was West Point) and in a world war, the General came into World War II well-equipped as a decision-maker. In fact, he only had contempt for those “nervous nellies” at the Pentagon and elsewhere who would deny him proper maneuvering room in “his” Pacific theater of operations. That his attitude would clash with the equally decisive attitudes of such people as Admiral Chester Nimitz (who was also to make...
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