Monday, October 15, 2007

Today is Monday, 15 October 2007.

I have just had the melancholy privilege of reading the final book by the late David Halberstam of happy memory: The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War (Hyperion, 2007).

(Blessed are those of us privileged to read his great book on Vietnam, The Best and the Brightest, as it came from the press.)

It is an excellent history of the military and political aspects of the war, infinitely enriched by many interviews with Americans who fought the war, by a master of the interview.

Read it, period.

Contempt for Douglas MacArthur is never far below my surface, and reading about a war in which he was, to incredibly tragic effect, a central figure, awakens the sleeping volcano of my anger. (A silly phrase, that, and wickedly chosen, since Dug Out Doug spoke, in Eisenhower’s phrase, “in purple splendor”, nice enough if one likes that sort of thing, but flat and empty on the page.)

MacArthur is a perfect example of a figure promoted far beyond their capabilities, but whose gifts of corrupt self-promotion make them difficult to remove.

Douglas MacArthur resembled in many ways his father, Arthur, a Civil War hero who rose to command American troops during the conquest of the Philippines, and was responsible for countless atrocities and the murders of tens of thousands of civilians. Both men were martinets, whose self-absorbed egos could never grasp why the entire world proved incapable of worshipping them as the greatest military geniuses of history.

It is a tribute to D. MacArthur’s for self-aggrandizement that he made his removal almost impossible even after making three of the worst blunders in American military history.

The first occurred at the beginning of the Pacific War in 1941, when the Filipino army (which Douglas commanded) was, even more than the American army, caught woefully unprepared. Given the financial exigencies of the Great Depression, it is quite possible funds would not have been appropriated for the Filipino army even if MacArthur had requested them. However, he didn’t even ask, convinced that “little yellow men” would never dare to challenge the great Douglas. Thus, even 9 hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he failed to mobilize for war, allowing the bulk of Filipino and American air forces in the Philippines to be pointlessly destroyed while parked on their airfields.

Given the sad state of his ground forces, there was probably no strategy by which MacArthur could have beaten the Imperial Japanese Army. Again, however, his ego led him to choose an approach which caused his forces to become bottled up on the Bataan Peninsula, and then isolated on Corregidor Island. (While on the latter, Douglas demanded, and received, a bonus from the Filipino treasury of $500,000, the equivalent of $10,000,000 today.)

Fearing the effect on American morale of MacArthur’s capture, FDR had him brought to safety in Australia.

(It is all-telling that, when MacArthur departed, he histrionically intoned, “I shall return”, not “We shall return”. The military, America, we are nothing: The General was All.)

After the Japanese surrender in 1945, MacArthur became the American viceroy. His main interest was in reconstituting Japanese industry and agriculture, and re-ordering its political system. He had scant interest in the American army of occupation, which swiftly fell into an abysmal state of unreadiness. Thus, when North Korean forces invaded South Korea in July 1950, and while MacArthur panicked and fell into deep depression, the undermanned and undersupplied American forces were swiftly driven into a small perimeter at Pusan. This failure even to be a good Boy Scout, and “be prepared”, was his second great blunder.

The Pusan Pocket was saved by the fact that Kim Il Sung, the North Korean dictator, had an ego as great and diseased as that of MacArthur. Kim allowed his inefficient supply lines to become disastrously overstretched, and failed to fortify the port of Inchon, allowing the Americans to land their forces there, in his rear, in September, provoking their retreat.

MacArthur now made his third great blunder. He should have sent his forces directly east across the narrow waist of the Korean Peninsula, thus trapping the bulk of the North Korean army and giving it the choice of surrender or destruction. Instead, he allowed many of them to escape while his forces rolled north, with the objective of conquering all of North Korea and unifying the entire peninsula under his own rule. Still enamored of his genius and racism, he knew the Chinese Communist army wouldn’t intervene, and, were they so stupid as to do so, he would crush them. He promised to have the first of the American troops “home by Christmas”. Instead, as his forces neared the Yalu River dividing China and Korea, the Chinese army delivered a devastating counterattack which chased the American forces back onto South Korean territory.

Again, MacArthur panicked, predicting the loss of all South Korea unless he was given a massive infusion of troops and permission to bomb China, with atomic weapons if necessary. Finally emboldened, Harry Truman replaced MacArthur as ground commander with Lieutenant General Matthew Ridgeway, one of the finest US combat commanders of European Theater, who stabilized the situation. MacArthur’s wounded ego now unleashed its full fury, and he repeatedly, even publicly and insubordinately, demanded the atomic bombing of China.

The last straw came when American intelligence intercepted messages from the Spanish and Portuguese ambassadors in Tokyo to their respective fascist governments, wherein they reported that MacArthur had assured them he would arrange provocations which would, against the policies of his own government, lead to an American invasion of China and the use of atomic weapons. Truman fired Big Doug in April 1951.

MacArthur returned to the US amid a firestorm of hatred directed at Truman, who could not reveal the true reason for the dismissal, fearing the repercussions if other governments believed a prominent American general was scheming to start a world war on his own. (It would be years before the full extent of the General’s treachery and betrayal of his own country would become public.)

MacArthur tried to ride this wave of hatred into the Oval Office, but the more speeches he gave, the more he displayed himself as a pompous, out-of-touch relic, and he swiftly reduced himself to political irrelevance. He survived another 13 years, in a curious form of self-exile in a penthouse of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan, marinating in self-delusion and bitterness.

It is instructive to note that MacArthur, during the entire time he was ground combat commander in Korea, spent not a single night on Korean soil. Instead, he always flew back to his palatial vice-regal mansion in Tokyo, always leaving Korea early, since he was afraid of flying in the dark. This, while American soldiers and Marines fought in summer-weight uniforms, in a winter where temperatures ranged from 0 degrees F. to -40.

Like Custer, MacArthur had come to see “his” [sic!] army as mere instruments of his personal glory. Unlike Custer, he cowered behind the lines, and, except for a few photo ops, refused to go anywhere near the front lines, where he (in his mind, undoubtedly “He”) might be harmed.

MacArthur was also guilty of continually directing his subordinates, or, more accurately, his Court, to falsify intelligence. (When some 250,000 to 300,000 Chinese soldiers had already entered Korea, MacArthur’s tame intelligence chief, the odious Willoughby, trumpeted a figure of 60,000 tops.)

And now, late in 2007, 4 and a half years into an accomplished mission, the majority of Americans look placidly on the carnage of Iraq, refusing to rise up and fire W. Bush and D. Cheney, the direct descendants of MacArthur, the contemporary masters of falsified intelligence, corrupt racism, and murderous ego.


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