- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The weirdest thing I’ve learned about MacArthur lately is that after he died, his son changed his name and moved. But this blog believes in presenting different views, so here are a few words in defense of Big Mac.
By Capt. Crispin Burke, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist
Those that have been following along at this blog are aware that its Pulitzer Prize-winning author, after extensive research into U.S. generalship, has deemed General Douglas MacArthur the worst general ever, edging out George McClellan and even Benedict Arnold. Certainly, MacArthur was responsible for some colossal military blunders. His botched defense of the Philippines in 1941-2 and his irresponsible, headlong rush to the Yalu River during the Korean War are among the most epic failures in U.S. military history. Additionally, as Tom notes, MacArthur was openly defiant towards Presidents Hoover, Roosevelt, and Truman.
MacArthur argued against awarding the Medal of Honor to General Jonathan Wainwright, who assumed command of the beleaguered garrison at Bataan following MacArthur’s escape to Australia. There was no hope for Wainwright and his troops, who had to make the best of MacArthur’s botched attempts at a static defense on the shores of Luzon. Wainwright and his forces were ultimately forced to surrender, and undergo the infamous “Bataan Death March” to squalid prisoner-of-war camps, where Wainwright served as the senior-ranking U.S. officer for the duration of the war. (Unbelievably, General Wainwright harbored no public animosity towards MacArthur for opposing his Medal of Honor.) Indeed, criticism of MacArthur abounds, and much of it is well-deserved.
Nevertheless, MacArthur is not without his redeeming qualities. In particular, MacArthur’s term as the superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point should serve as a source of inspiration for those attempting to grow the next batch of military leaders.
During the 1920s, there was considerable criticism of the curriculum at West Point, much of which sounds eerily similar to debates today. One of the most vocal critics was the professor emeritus of Harvard University, Dr. Charles W. Eliot, who decried the academic traditions of West Point, much as many still do today. As Stephen Ambrose noted in Americans at War, the instructors were recent West Point graduates themselves, and were preparing the cadets to fight the last war. Indeed, MacArthur would remark, “How long are we going to go on preparing for the War of 1812?”
MacArthur noted that the training regimen of West Point did not adequately prepare officers for combat on the Western Front. Further still, he found that military officers of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries grew up so far from civilian life that they were ill-suited for the complexities of civil-military governance in the Rhineland following the war. According to Ambrose, MacArthur “felt that the cadets [of West Point] were too much isolated from the rest of the nation”. (Does any of this sound familiar?) Thus, MacArthur took about reforming the Spartan training regimen of West Point, establishing courses in the liberal arts and economics. In an unprecedented move, MacArthur even allowed cadets $5 worth of “candy money”, allowing them to break free from the confines of the campus in their spare time and explore the civilian world.
Thus, in a strange twist of history, one of the first men to attempt to bridge the civil-military gap was (surprisingly) none other than the man who would ultimately defy three commanders-in-chief.
*This post has been updated.