The Greatest Generation revisited: Gen. MacArthur and President Roosevelt

New histories take a mostly critical look at MacArthur and an admiring one at FDR

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In late July 1932, presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt was having lunch with his wife, a couple of secretaries and a close adviser. He was interrupted by a phone call from Huey Long, the bombastic and influential populist governor of Louisiana.

Long complained loudly about the treatment of the D.C. Bonus March protesters, suggested how the Democrats should react to forestall a populist uprising, and threatened to withhold his support for FDR if more Democratic campaign money didn’t flow south.

After he hung up, Roosevelt sighed that Long was the second most dangerous man in the country. The first, he said, was the army commander who had cleared out the Bonus Marchers so brutally and effectively — Douglas MacArthur.

Roosevelt admired MacArthur’s military acumen, so strongly displayed during World War, yet he feared the general’s zealotry and relentless politicking over the military budget.

By Mark Perry
Basic Books ($29.99).

MacArthur worried that New Deal spending would weaken the army, yet acknowledged FDR’s political genius and growing popularity. This dance took place during the double crises of depression and war, which only intensified the seriousness of their relationship.

Two new releases from Basic Books show, in different ways and with varying success, how these two men recognized each other’s strengths and tried to exploit each other’s weaknesses. Most important, the authors expose the byzantine complications of politics, money and international affairs in the run up to the United States’ involvement in World War II.

Mr. Perry’s “Most Dangerous Man in America” is a highly detailed and compelling examination of MacArthur’s career from the 1932 Bonus March savagery to the Japanese surrender on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri in 1945.

By David Kaiser
Basic Books ($27.99).

MacArthur spent the early 1930s shuttling between the White House and his congressional friends, trying to boost the military budget (specifically the Army’s over the Navy’s), and building a web of support among politicians and administrators in an attempt to secure his future and the Army’s domination of military influence in government policy and funding.

Some congressmen grumbled about the constitutionality of MacArthur meddling in civilian affairs. Mr. Perry expertly shows how immensely difficult and dicey MacArthur’s politicking was, both for him and for the military.

Perry is also careful to discuss MacArthur’s subordinates, allies and enemies in great detail. This pleases the professional historian who recognizes the importance of examining complexity, but might leave the non-specialist wondering why MacArthur himself seems to disappear for pages at a time and why these tangential figures get so much attention.

Mr. Perry’s approach, however, is crucial to understanding MacArthur’s major role in the Philippines and New Guinea, and gives the early years of the Pacific war the analytic texture it deserves.

Blaming MacArthur alone for the lack of decisiveness and swift action which led to the fall of the Philippines in the immediate hours after the Pearl Harbor attack is too simple, Perry shows. Yet he also explains that MacArthur must take his share of the harsh judgment that posterity has laid upon him.

David Kaiser provides a similar in-depth look at FDR’s monitoring of the troubling world events building in the late 1930s, with an equally large cast of political and military actors.

Again, the great strength of Mr. Kaiser’s work is the lengths to which he shows the immense difficulty in negotiating and balancing egos, budgetary turf wars, and confusing and often contradictory military intelligence about tumultuous events in Asia and Europe.

Despite his obvious admiration of FDR, Mr. Kaiser is careful to show the central contributions of the rest of the president’s inner circle, influential members of Congress, and even some otherwise-hostile Republicans who saw that addressing these world dangers surmounted domestic policy differences. FDR had to monitor the pulse of both Berlin and Tokyo, keep the British placated and hopeful, start a military-industrial buildup, steer budgets through Congress and try to marginalize isolationists, all while trying to keep his domestic New Deal on track.

Mr. Kaiser, a former professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College, provides scholarly and judicious analysis of how all this was accomplished, making his obvious admiration for Roosevelt and his team seem less idolatrous at first glance.

His analysis is, however, somewhat compromised by his reliance on the generational theory of American history propounded by William Strauss and Neil Howe — a largely discredited theory in equal parts Arnold Toynbee and. L. Ron Hubbard.

According to it, FDR and his contemporaries were members of the “Missionary generation,” born during the Civil War and its aftermath, who spent their youths amid the rebirth and reconstruction of American society.

This background allegedly infused them with a natural desire to implement such repairs during the societal crises of their adulthood. Fortunately, this theory appears mainly in the introduction and conclusion, and scattered very lightly through the rest of the book.

Ignoring this theory allows the reader to appreciate Kaiser’s genuine contribution to the history of FDR and this crucial period of American history. Mr. Perry and Mr. Kaiser are at their best when mapping out the myriad details of their subjects.

With all the complications, immensely tense personality conflicts, chaotic events of war, political and budgetary squabbles, and the scrutiny of public opinion, it’s amazing anything got accomplished at all. Sound familiar?

Joseph Coohill teaches history at Duquesne University.

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