‘The Most Dangerous Man in America’ aims to rehabilitate Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s reputation

General of the Army Douglas MacArthur was one of the most shameless self-promoters in history. In April 1951, after MacArthur gave his famous farewell address to Congress (“Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”), Rep. Dewey Short of Missouri cried out, “We heard God speak today, God in the flesh, the voice of God!”

When MacArthur was cast (and posed) as the hero of Corregidor in the opening days of World War II, mothers named their newborns after him. Others, more familiar with the general and his moods, were less enraptured. President Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination, and his colleagues knew him to be vainglorious.

History has not been kind to MacArthur. “A recent, if informal, Internet poll listed him as America’s worst commander; Benedict Arnold was second,” writes Mark Perry in his engrossing book on the great, if greatly flawed, general, “The Most Dangerous Man in America.”

“A popular television series on the war has Marines on Peleliu cursing MacArthur for expending their lives in seizing the island needlessly.” Gen. MacArthur, the author notes, “had nothing to do with the battle.”

Perry sets out to rehabilitate MacArthur, or at least to set the record straight about his strengths as well as his weaknesses. A close student of Napoleon and Genghis Kahn, MacArthur was an innovative genius, especially when it came to moving enormous numbers of troops over vast distances. Perry only deals with MacArthur’s role in World War II; the book ends before his successful shogunate in post-war Japan and his wildly up-and-down record in Korea.

But fans of military history and general readers will have much to enjoy and to ponder: The author offers a vivid and convincing recounting of MacArthur’s tremendous skill as a pioneer at air-land-sea battle in the Pacific, along with ample evidence that “proud and egotistical” MacArthur “was his own worst enemy.”

MacArthur, Perry writes, could be “short-tempered, abrupt, sullen, and impatient.” Also “small-minded, embittered, suspicious.” His staffers were by and large toadies. “You don’t have a staff, general, you have a court,” scoffed his boss, Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall.

Franklin Roosevelt was well aware of MacArthur’s limitations. In the summer of 1932, when then-Gov. Roosevelt was the newly anointed Democratic nominee for president, he discussed with his advisers MacArthur’s heavy-handed routing of the Washington Bonus Marchers, impoverished World War I veterans encamped along the Anacostia River in the nation’s capital.

MacArthur was “the most dangerous man in America,” suggested Roosevelt, who saw MacArthur’s potential to become the Man on the White Horse, a pseudo-Napoleon willing to sacrifice liberty to restore stability to a frightened people. Roosevelt lumped MacArthur with demagogue Huey Long, the fiery populist governor of Louisiana. But, Roosevelt went on to say, “We must tame these fellows and make them useful to us.”

Perry notes that, while MacArthur’s staff was obsequious, his ground commanders in the Pacific island-hopping campaign were generally first-rate. Perry especially credits the somewhat overlooked Gen. Robert Eichelberger, who, in his private letters to his wife, referred to MacArthur as “Sarah,” after the histrionic actress Sarah Bernhardt.

MacArthur had showy, inspirational bravery. Inspecting the front lines on the embattled island of Los Negros, he was momentarily stopped by an army officer who said, “Excuse me, sir, but we killed a Jap sniper in there just a few minutes ago.” MacArthur responded, “Fine. That’s the best thing to do with them,” and kept moving forward into the jungle.

But he was also a “realist, the quiet and somber man he rarely allowed anyone to see,” Perry notes. On the eve of World War II, MacArthur was visited in his Manila headquarters in the Philippines by journalist Claire Boothe Luce, who wanted to profile him for Life magazine. Luce asked MacArthur his theory of offensive warfare. “Did you ever hear the baseball expression, ‘hit ’em where they ain’t?’ That’s my formula,” he jauntily explained.

“But when she then asked him for his formula for defensive warfare, he hesitated,” Perry relates, “before finally answering. ‘Defeat.’ 

It was prescient he lost badly defending the Philippine islands when the Japanese invaded just 10 hours after Pearl Harbor.

Evan Thomas, author of “Sea of Thunder” and “Ike’s Bluff,” is writing a biography of Richard Nixon