In May 1934, reporters Drew Pearson and Robert Allen published a column in the Washington Herald accusing Army Chief of Staff Gen. Douglas MacArthur of "dictatorial, insubordinate, disloyal, mutinous and disrespectful" actions during the Bonus March, a peaceful veterans demonstration. MacArthur had broken up the protest by force -- using tanks commanded by Gen. George Patton -- back in July of 1932, an action that forever stained his reputation. Enraged by Pearson and Allen's claims, MacArthur sued them for $1.75 million. That scared the hell out of the columnists, who knew they'd have trouble proving their allegations. Here comes the good part.
Among MacArthur's enemies was Rep. Ross Collins, a powerful Mississippi Democrat -- drawl, jowls, slicked hair, the whole bit -- who controlled military appropriations and lived in the Chastleton Apartments on 16th Street and had seen MacArthur often in his building. Collins disliked MacArthur, and when he found out that Pearson and Allen were looking for something to hold against the general, he told them about the visits. They followed up and discovered that the 55-year old MacArthur was visiting Isabel Rosario Cooper, a 19-year-old Filipino film star whom he'd brought with him from his last command in Manila and with whom he was having an affair.
Isabel was young and beautiful and MacArthur showered her with gifts -- visiting her every day during his long lunches while he was chief of staff. But Isabel grew tired of the general and found his attention stifling, so she went to live with her brother in Baltimore, which is where Pearson and Allen found her. She then shared with the reporters what MacArthur had told her about Herbert Hoover (a "weakling," he said), and Franklin Roosevelt ("that cripple in the White House").
Predictably, when MacArthur was told that the first witness to be called in the case would be Isabel, he scrambled. He ended the lawsuit and paid Isabel $15,000 in hush money -- delivered to her by his military aide, none other than future President Dwight Eisenhower.
Shocking? What's shocking about the MacArthur story is that he wasn't worried about what Roosevelt would say about Isabel -- he was worried about what his aging and puritanical mother would say about her. For Roosevelt not only knew about Isabel, he told his Cabinet that he'd "authorized" MacArthur to sue Pearson, whom he described as "a chronic liar."
Nor, it seems, was MacArthur concerned that FDR would find out that he'd described him as "that cripple in the White House." It wasn't because the general lacked enemies within the president's inner circle: FDR's brain trust regularly derided him as "General Goober of Anacostia Flats." But Roosevelt had plans for MacArthur, which included selling his military budget to a recalcitrant Congress. And who better to sell the president's budget than that great hero of World War I -- Douglas MacArthur?
Inevitably, the details of this salacious scandal made the rounds of Washington, leaving the admirers of MacArthur puzzling over how a man of such obvious achievements could so recklessly place them in jeopardy. Now, eight decades later, Washington is asking precisely the same question of David Petraeus.
Gen. Petraeus' admirers will recoil from any comparison of their hero with the much-maligned MacArthur, whose reputation has suffered grievously over the years because of his actions during the Bonus March and his later showdown with Harry Truman. And they would correctly point out notable differences: While MacArthur finished first in his West Point class and holds one of the highest grade points in academy history, second only to Robert E. Lee, it is difficult to append the word "scholar" to his name. Not so with Gen. Petraeus, who holds an advanced degree from Princeton and authored the now famous U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual.
Nor would anyone suppose that Gen. Petraeus would confront a president to the point of near insubordination, as MacArthur confronted Harry Truman, who relieved him of his command for doing so. MacArthur hated Truman and made it known; it's hard to imagine the cautious Gen. Petraeus hating anyone -- especially a president.
But Gen. Petraeus and MacArthur share more than a history of sexual peccadilloes: Like every great military commander, both boasted an unstinting ambition and an enormous ego, and left a long list of bitter and exasperated enemies within the U.S. military in their wake. Such qualities are a common thread running through our nation's history -- for in the pantheon of great American generals, there has not been a single modest man.
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Let's go back to the beginning. George Washington was a far better president than general -- he was beaten in nearly every engagement except Trenton (where he faced drunken Hessians) and the last, at Yorktown. He promoted his favorites, picked terrible subordinates, was overly sensitive, quick to anger and stupidly impatient. That we won with him at all is, as one historian stated, "almost a miracle."
Ulysses S. Grant, on the other hand, won nearly every battle he fought, but at a terrible cost. At Cold Harbor, his soldiers pinned their names to their uniforms so their corpses could be identified. "His ambition is like a little engine," his friend Billy Sherman said. Grant's great weakness was liquor -- which spurred Lincoln to quip that he should find out what he drank so more might be sent to him. "I need him," Lincoln said. "He fights."
Lee is different. We celebrate Robert E. Lee, but he was stubborn to the point of being sightless, as he was on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, when he dismissed a better plan of attack from his subordinate -- James Longstreet -- in favor of a direct assault on Union lines. After the war, George Pickett, who mounted that infamous charge, told a friend, "That man murdered my division." Lee promoted fellow Virginians like A.P. Hill and Dick Ewell (and that curse on humanity, Jubal Early), and favored them over better and more capable officers. It was his one failing, but it might have been fatal.
The great triumvirate of America's European victory in World War II -- George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower and Omar Bradley -- doesn't fare much better.
Marshall, the acknowledged architect of that triumph and after Washington our greatest general, is nearly untouchable in the annals of our military history -- but there are detractors. Many remember him as a figure without any personal warmth who was ruthless in pursuit of his goals. "That man ruined my husband," a wife is quoted as saying when she saw him pass. When he assigned an officer to an overseas command, the officer told him he would report after he finished packing. That's all right, said Marshall, who was put off by the delay: "We will not be needing your services."
The same was said of Eisenhower, even by close friends: "I would rather be commanded by an Arab," Patton wrote in his diary. Others noted that when the war started, Ike could regularly be seen "brown nosing" the high command. Eisenhower had Lee's disease: He promoted and stood by his friends -- like Gen. Mark Clark, who, trailed by a bevy of worshipful reporters, insisted on being photographed "from my good side" and badly botched Allied operations in Italy.
Ike, like Gens. Petraeus and MacArthur, also sought female company as a respite from the rigors of command. Eisenhower's Paula Broadwell was Kay Summersby, who accompanied him everywhere during the war. Like Ms. Broadwell, described to me by a civilian familiar with her relationship with Gen. Petraeus in Afghanistan, Summersby was Ike's "deputy wife."
Finally, there's the legendary Omar Bradley, dubbed "the G.I. General" by journalist Ernie Pyle because he was so beloved by his men. But was he? Gen. Terry de la Mesa Allen described him as "a phony Abraham Lincoln." Bradley returned the favor: He relieved Allen, shuttling him off to the rear. Eisenhower, exasperated, gave Allen a new command, which so irritated Bradley that, after the war, it was one of the reasons he wrote that he thought Ike "one of the most overrated men in military history."
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All the backbiting would no doubt sound familiar to Gen. Petraeus. Many years ago, I was asked to provide a briefing on a point of military history to a group of senior military commanders at the Pentagon, during the course of which I happened to mention Gen. Petraeus' name. It was a mistake: The room fell uncomfortably and starkly silent. After a moment, I smiled and plunged on, ignoring the long stares of the officers facing me.
"They know him well, have served with him and don't like him," my host later explained. He shrugged: "It's his ego, you see. He promotes himself."
There we have it: The blemished pantheon of American military commanders, all of them stained with ambition and ego, and brim full of failings. At the end of the day, Gen. Petraeus fits in after all. The combination of unstinting ambition and enormous ego that led to his downfall are precisely the qualities that can be found among those great American commanders who preceded him.
Just look at MacArthur's career. After Isabel was shunted aside, he was used by Roosevelt to fight for his defense budget -- and won. He then served as military adviser to the Philippines and subsequently retired. But in 1940, with war looming, Marshall urged FDR to return him to uniform to face the Japanese. Roosevelt didn't hesitate: MacArthur knew how to fight, and his country needed him.
The same might be true now of David Petraeus. Historians note with passable interest the blushing scandals of Isabel, Kay and Paula, but inevitably return to those moments that define a great, if flawed, military commander: the cold and bitter winter at Valley Forge, the endless afternoon at Gettysburg, the day when Doug waded ashore at Leyte, when Ike stood aghast at Buchenwald -- and when Dave stood in the Senate, right arm raised, and testified that while nobody knows "how this might end" he, at least, had a plan.
Mark Perry is a Washington-based author and reporter whose most recent book is "Partners in Command." His forthcoming book is about the relationship between President Franklin Roosevelt and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. He wrote this for Foreign Policy. First Published November 25, 2012 5:00 AM