Random House, New York, 2016, 960 pages
Book Review published on: June 23, 2017
Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior is a readable single-volume biography of MacArthur, one of America’s military icons. There are many examinations of MacArthur, and most authors tend to fall in one of two schools of thought: either very positive or very negative, with very little middle ground. In some ways, the divergence of opinion on MacArthur reflects the man; when MacArthur was good, he was magnificent, but when he was bad, he was abysmal. Arthur Herman’s examination of MacArthur is generally balanced—he leans toward supporting MacArthur while pointing out his failings. Herman is a historian and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. He used heretofore new sources to support his argument, adding to the book’s value. American Warrior chronicles a military leader who was larger than life, which proved to be a double-edged sword.
Herman’s book generally breaks down into thirds, with the first third covering MacArthur’s life before World War II. This third details MacArthur’s life before his commissioning as an officer in the Army, which includes the impact of MacArthur’s father Arthur, the ubiquitous and prominent presence of Douglas’s mother “Pinky,” and the influence of growing up in the Old West as a child of the frontier Army. Unlike many other MacArthur biographers, Herman paints a picture of an unsure young man supported by his mother, which is in stark contrast to the more typical narrative of a “domineering” mother and completely self-confident MacArthur. This is a theme that Herman continues throughout the book. The next chapters follow MacArthur’s Army career from his early years of traveling, through earning seven silver stars as a brigadier general in the trenches of the First World War, to Armistice Day. The author then covers MacArthur’s life in the United States after the war, interestingly titled as “Saving the Army” and “Saving FDR,” both of which are overstated. After completing what appears to be a full career, MacArthur moves to the Philippines before Pearl Harbor.
The second third of American Warrior details MacArthur’s fight against the Japanese, which arguably includes both the nadir and the pinnacle of MacArthur’s military career. Herman’s aptly named chapter “Rat in the House” details the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, ushering in MacArthur’s darkest period—his fight to defend the Philippines. Although he conducts a brilliant retrograde defense at the operational level, MacArthur also makes many mistakes, ultimately leaving his troops besieged on the Bataan Peninsula with woefully inadequate supplies. When MacArthur leaves the Philippines, Herman believes there were three points “as bright and clear as the sunrise” in MacArthur’s mind. First, he had not deserted his men, as the president had ordered him to leave. Second, he would assemble the Army he needed to relieve those he had left behind before they surrendered. Third, after liberating the Philippines, he would lead the effort to defeat Imperial Japan. This illustrates how Herman uses primary sources, in this case a communication between MacArthur and Philippine President Quezon, to support his argument while keeping the reader engaged. Herman does an excellent job discussing MacArthur’s masterful military operations in the southwest Pacific, including incorporating the important role of allied codebreaking such as Ultra.
Herman covers the occupation of Japan, the Korean War, and the “Old Soldier fading away” in the final third of his book. MacArthur’s time as the de facto ruler of post-World War II Japan is fascinating. Herman does an excellent job discussing this time period and MacArthur’s masterful actions, many of which were improvements on his father’s efforts in the Philippine War. In this, President Harry Truman’s choice of MacArthur for this role was inspired, both for selecting the perfect man for the job and for keeping a potential political rival in the Far East. Unfortunately for Truman, the North Koreans invaded South Korea, again propelling MacArthur to high command and eventual confrontation with the president over policy. Herman broke ground by conducting new research and incorporating new material for his Korean War section; however, these chapters felt somewhat rushed compared to the preceding material. The closing of the book is excellent, where Herman paints a portrait, not of an old soldier fading away, but of a general officer and statesman that others, such as President John Kennedy, sought out for sage advice.
Overall, this book is very much worth reading for those who are interested in MacArthur, World War II, or the occupation of Japan. Herman incorporates much new material, including oral history and material from China and the former Soviet Union. American Warrior is a sweeping look at one of the most important American military leaders and indeed statesman of the mid-twentieth century.
Book Review written by: Lt. Col. Jonathan P. Klug, U.S. Army, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas