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American Caesar — a reread after 30 years

[by J. Scott Shipman]

American Caesar, Douglas MacArthur 188-1964, by William Manchester

Often on weekends my wife allows me to tag along as she takes in area estate sales. She’s interested in vintage furniture, and I hope for a decent collection of books. A sale we visited a couple months ago had very few books, but of those few was a hardback copy of American Caesar. I purchased the copy for $1 and mentioned to my wife, “I’ll get to this again someday…” as I’d first read Manchester’s classic biography of General Douglas MacArthur in the early 1980’s while stationed on my first submarine. “Someday” started on the car ride home (she was driving), and I must admit: American Caesar was even better thirty years later. Manchester is a masterful biographer, and equal to the task of such a larger-than-life subject.

MacArthur still evokes passion among admirers and detractors. One take-away from the second reading was just how well-read MacArthur and his father were. When MacArthur the elder died, he left over 4,000 books in his library—both seemed to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of history and warfare. Highly recommended.

PS: I visited the MacArthur Memorial, in Norfolk, Virginia, recently while in town for business and would recommend as well.

9 Responses to “American Caesar — a reread after 30 years”

  1. Lexington Green Says:

    Scott, be sure to check out the series of historical posts on ChicagoBoyz by Trent Telenko.  He is digging down on the history of MacArthur’s command, and finding lots of important information omitted from the official history by MacArthur’s political enemies.  
    I read American Caesar many years ago and liked it.  

  2. Grurray Says:

    Another book to add to the ever growing list. 
    My interests were always on the European war, but since I’ve been reading TT’s great MacArthur series I’ve been wanting more information about the Pacific theater.
    The focus on equipment, supply lines, and procurements is really unique. I’ve never come across that kind of information before.
    His classic line from a few weeks ago: “Amateur’s talk tactics, professionals talk logistics.”

  3. Grurray Says:

    I suppose I bought into the popular meme about  MacArthur being the stolid, power-hungry dogmatician, so informative and innovative lessons were to be learned elsewhere. We’re learning that is far from the case.

  4. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    I third(?) the forgoing recommendations of Telenko’s series. American history is buried under mythologies and some of those myths aren’t the useful kind. Dmitri Rotov does similar things for the American Civil War. I don’t agree with some of his notions but, similar to Telenko, he brings to light forgotten items such as how Abraham Lincoln worked for McClellan from 1857-1860. Wrote McClellan: “Long before the war, when vice-president of the Illinois Central Railroad Company, I knew Mr. Lincoln, for he was one of the counsel for the Company. More than once I have been with him in out-of-the-way county seats where some important case was being tried, and, in the lack of sleeping accommodations, have spent the night in front of a stove listening to the unceasing flow of anecdotes from his lips. He was never at a loss, and I could never quite make up my mind how many of them he really heard before and how many he invented on the spur of the moment.”

  5. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi gentlemen,
    First, Lex, many thanks! I’ll check out this resource.
    Grurray, Anything by Manchester is a safe bet. He fawns a bit on MacArthur, but he also provides a fair amount of humanizing, too. If you’re looking to the Pacific theater check out: With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge, Goodbye Darkness by William Manchester (his memoir as a Marine during WWII in the Pacific), The Last of the Tin Can Sailors and Neptune’s Inferno by Hornfischer, Run Silent Run Deep by Beach, Clear the Bridge by O’Kane, Retribution by Hastings, and The Admirals (I reviewed here). 
    Lastly, as Lynn mentioned, MacArthur has more than his fair share of “mythology”—it was part of his stock and trade. He was reared to be ambitious and vain, but he was also personally brave and very intelligent. He wanted to be president, but didn’t have the stomach for the sport. We could argue over the efficacy of his theater in the Pacific, but he had it, and managed it fairly well. He may also have been one of our last truly intellectual generals; his grasp of history and human motivation was extraordinary even as his self-awareness suffered. Manchester provides illustration after illustration of both. 

  6. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    I too have read Manchester’s tome on MacArthur.  It’s very good, but should be tempered with some more critical views of him, too.  Though a Korean War history, Fehrenbach’s “This Kind of War” provides an illuminating view into how truly disfunctional MacArthur and his coterie of supporting staff could truly be.  Generals Willougby (his G-2) and Almond (his Chief of Staff, and later the X Corps commander) were known to be sycophants, and MacArthur seemed to be just fine with their sycophancy.
    One area where he was ahead of his time was his understanding of joint operations.  In WWII, most of the  belligerents produced a tiny share of general officers who were truly masters of integrating the various arms in each of the domains (air, land, sea), to produce a coherent battle.  The Germans had Kesselring, Rommel, von Mellenthin, and von Manstein.  The Russians had Zhukov.  The UK produced Field Marshal Slim.  And the Americans had MacArthur.  Never again would such true jointness be reached in scale or success.
    I’m not nearly as critical as others of MacArthur (especially Tom Ricks, who seems to loath him).  I just think that he was as flawed as he was genius.  A loose cannon, who excelled in everything, including excelling in failure.  One second he was the youngest brigadier general in the army, the next he was morose due to his defeat in the Philippines.  The next moment we see him wading ashore with an entourage of press people, or receiving the surrender of the Japanese, or convincing the Joint Chiefs of the wisdom of invading at Inchon.  The next moment he’s stunned and unresponsive upon hearing the news of the Chinese intervention in Korea.
    He would have made a fine Marine, though.  Perhaps one of the only ones who could give Chesty Puller a run for his money.

  7. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Nate,
    Concur on all points. Many of his contemporary naval officers held him in low regard/suspected he was always “up to something” (often he was), but service rivalry was an element. That said, Bull Halsey admired him/held him in high regard. Also, based on my limited experience, I thought it rare for a person of such vanity and ambition to possess such a large degree of physical courage. Hi exploits in WWI were extraordinary; the stuff of fiction.
    Manchester had a paragraph where he criticized MacArthur for allowing sycophants and encouraging them…I suspect he had no choice—and was probably “hard-wired” to enjoy the fawning attention and deference.
    Many thanks for an excellent comment! JSS 

  8. carl Says:

    Doug got an awful lot of medals for an officer of relatively high rank in WW I. That makes me a bit suspicious.

  9. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi carl,
    Believe he earned six Distinguished Service Medals—according to Manchester he earned them—but then again, he had a built-in group of naysayers/enemies even then, so perhaps we’ll never know. 

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