The Years of MacArthur

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

What better subject for biography than Douglas MacArthur, whose career embraced momentous events and whose elusive personality inspired awe and apprehension. Rather than embellish the life and times of this almost legendary general, D. Clayton James sets out to separate fact from myth. This final volume in a monumentally researched trilogy is balanced, judicious, and understated in tone. “My nearly two decades of tracking him,” the author admits modestly, “have led me only to a few fascinating shells along the edges of a long beach.” In fact, after interviewing hundreds of contemporaries, James concludes that MacArthur was a man of paradox: to some, decisive, sincere, chivalrous; to others, haughty, insecure, theatrical. Fiercely loyal to his staff and one who demanded the total support of those under him, he could be disdainful of and insubordinate with superiors.

MacArthur’s postwar career went from a triumphant stint as Supreme Commander (SCAP) in Japan to a disastrous break with President Harry S Truman over Korean war strategy; the indispensable man suddenly became expendable. James praises MacArthur’s reconstruction policies while noting that most did not originate with him. Similarly, while the author concurs with Truman’s dismissal decision, he demonstrates that vacillation in Washington and confusion at the battlefront created a treacherous, no-win situation for the vain general. Throughout the book, historical conclusions are unobtrusive and consistent with the evidence.

Arriving in Japan with a minimum of security but a maximum of pomp and fanfare, MacArthur cultivated the image of an omnipotent shogun, fair but firm, flexible but unflappable. Even so, James stresses the constraints under which he had to operate. Largely ignorant of Japanese history, ethnocentric but not a racist, he set out, according to James, to introduce “large portions of the American heritage that he thought were transferrable, especially political democracy.” In his office were portraits of his chief “advisers,” George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. MacArthur worked virtually every day at his Dai Ichi headquarters and hardly ever traveled anywhere. He envisioned a Christianized, nonmilitarized, progressive new Japanese society. Once, after a woman prostrated herself at his feet, MacArthur gently picked her up and said, “Now, now—we don’t do that sort of thing any more.” He was at his best during formal troop reviews or entertaining visiting dignitaries, pacing back and forth with corncob pipe in hand and telling spellbinding stories.

MacArthur got along well with most Japanese leaders; as Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida later concluded, his tasteful handling of Emperor Hirohito was the most important factor in the occupation’s success. Hirohito gave up his claims to divinity and sovereignty, but MacArthur found his ceremonial role useful as a symbol of acceptance. Japanese officials tried to suppress photographs of their initial meeting because the general seemed to tower over the emperor (although MacArthur stood less than six feet tall). SCAP insisted that the pictures be printed in the newspapers.

Aside from needlessly destroying three cyclotrons, hastily convening war-crime trials, and bowing to Catholic pressure on the matter of disseminating birth-control information, James gives MacArthur high leadership marks in the occupation’s early, idealistic phase. He ordered a purge of ultranationalists, pushed for decentralization of the police, the bureaucracy, and business cartels (the Zaibatsu), and eagerly embraced women’s rights and land reform. His general staff handled the repatriation problem efficiently and made outstanding inroads against communicable diseases. On his own, MacArthur ordered the army to feed the hungry, and his influence was probably decisive in the Japanese constitution’s no-war clause.

Conservative Japanese politicians tried to minimize the effect of the...

(The entire section is 1617 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

American History Illustrated. XX, November, 1985, p. 8.

Booklist. LXXXI, April 15, 1985, p. 1155.

Library Journal. CX, April 1, 1985, p. 137.

The New Republic. CXCIII, August 26, 1985, p. 37.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, August 25, 1985, p. 8.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, March 15, 1985, p. 105.

The Wall Street Journal. CCV, June 3, 1985, p. 20.