MacArthur: another falling star/myth?
Maybe you don’t know the National Library in Singapore. It is a splendid building near Bugis Junction. For me, in different times, it has been a sort of refuge. Well lit, fresh and quiet. And as clean as a mirror, of course. With some comfortable armchairs in the corners, which you have to claim before the arrival of other readers and researchers – there are, of course, long tables, chairs, electricity socket and Internet connections for everyone. Moreover, there is a splendid niche of historical books, mainly dedicated to WWII. I studied the fall of Singapore in 1942 with tremendous attention, finding it explained in all sorts of detail – by the way, I didn’t find in Hong Kong any books with the same quality of analysis concerning the fall of Hong Kong in 1941.
I read there a couple of books about the Korean War too (or rather the Korean Conflict, as Americans say), and it was a great surprise. Except for the easy stories and movies, like The Bridges at Toko-Ri, there is not widespread knowledge of that terrible war that lasted about three years with millions of victims. The American dead on the battle fields numbered about 34,000 over the three years, but more than 55,000 didn’t return (compared to about 58,000 dead on the battle fields in Vietnam, over more than ten years). General MacArthur, the hero of the Pacific theatre of WWII, was the Commander-in-Chief of the UN coalition. However, Korea was MacArthur’s responsibility starting from the end of WWII, in civil as in military matters. As Robert Smith wrote, “While his job in Japan naturally absorbed his first attention, he surely might have kept himself better informed about the troubles that were brewing in the peninsula just one hundred miles from Japan across the Tsushima straits.”
That war attracted my curiosity. There are many lessons that have not been learnt, and in any case there is a kind of reluctance in dealing with this conflict, as if its development and results could obfuscate the glory and the results of WWII – ending not long before the Korean War that started in 1950. Maybe for this reason, the Americans didn’t undertake a deep analysis before embarking on the Vietnam War, which officially started in 1959 and ended in 1975, repeating many previous mistakes; I don’t know. Only now can you find good analytic books about the Vietnam War, very professional and objective and not visceral or embedded – a long period of decantation was necessary, of course, before a historical discussion of this tragic, long and devastating wound was possible. Yet, the Korean War still seems forgotten, something that is better not mentioned, an unlucky episode of a somehow glorious history.
At the end of my Singaporean period, I read another book, Korea, by Joseph Goulden, which is a deep analysis of the war, finally!, and a demolition of MacArthur too – it was for me the first time that I had heard strong criticisms about him.
Then, a few weeks ago, I stepped in a second-hand book, MacArthur in Korea, The Naked Emperor, by Robert Smith, which, too, opens disquieting scenarios and questions. I “stepped in it”, exactly, because I was following Angelo Paratico in one of his rides across old and hidden shops that you can find in Hong Kong alleys only if you are guided to them. So, in a flat totally packed with old books, with bags full of books and desks covered by books, a maze of disordered topics and ages, I saw the cover of MacArthur in Korea. The pages are very thin, and the previous owner had written many comments and underlined lines and paragraphs: a perfect second-hand book that usually you would avoid. But the content was immediately fascinating and so I couldn’t resist.
Now, I didn’t know Robert Smith. Actually in Google there are thousands of Robert Smith, from singers to football players to writers too. Eventually, on Amazon, I found him and my book, with this description: “General Douglas MacArthur was one of those war heroes about whom much favourable legend was created by his own concerted efforts. This book exposes MacArthur’s megalomania, presenting much evidence that the tragedy of the 1950 Chinese counterattack could have been avoided had the book’s subject been more objective and less interested in his image. MacArthur and his close assistants were informed of the massive Chinese infiltrations and chose to deliberately disbelieve the intelligence. General Almon, a serious admirer of Fascist leaders and principles, continued to pooh-pooh the power of the Chinese even after it became apparent. MacArthur knew of these opinions on the part of his chief assistant, yet continued to keep him in his post. The book carefully documents MacArthur’s misguided attempt to widen the conflict by running his own foreign policy, and objectively traces his disgrace after Truman had to fire him. You can find this book here, of course, or in most used bookstores. The price is reasonable. The information gained about a historical aberration is most worthwhile. I recommend the book highly.”
I don’t want to speak about military tactics and strategies, or politics (never in B39!), but only about culture. Because, forgetting for the moment the development of the book, a real work of demolition, too, like Joseph Goulden’s, yet disordered – not an account of the war but a series of comments and links and judgements, sometimes difficult to follow – forgetting all that, the real problem that emerges from the Korean War evidence (as also from other following wars) is in terms of culture.
Arrogance; selfishness; racism; underestimation of the country, the opponents and the objective conditions; and the incredible unpreparedness of the staff and troops, are all children of a lack of culture. And so it is easy to understand General Hodge, a MacArthur appointee during the post-WWII occupation of Korea (“A sort of born-on-the-farm bumpkin who did not know hay from straw when it came to anything other than farming or fighting. … He was also a butcher in public relations, and what help he received from MacArthur aided him mostly in antagonising the people he was supposed to lead to democracy. … Some biographers accused Hodge of saying out loud that Koreans were ‘the same breed of cat’ as the Japanese’”). And to understand the US choice of Syngman Rhee as the leader of South Korea (“There were policy makers in the Department of State who nearly went bananas when they learned that this old self-aggrandizer had been wafted off ostensibly to become leader of Free Korea.”); the underestimated problems of communication – nobody in the American Army spoke Korean and “Hodge thought that he had solved a good part of the problem of communicating with the Koreans when he chanced to overhear a US lieutenant commander talking to a Korean in the native tongue. He promptly appointed the naval officer as his ‘political advisor’. … Commander George Williams probably could have set down all he knew about politics on the inside of a matchbox cover”; all the mistakes of a misjudged war, etc.
The lack of culture became then an absolute danger when MacArthur, panicking after the massive intervention of China in the war, which was well foreseeable, wanted to use the atomic bomb to end that conflict too.
There were strong jealousies in Washington, it is true: the State Department was extremely jealous of the general for all that he had accomplished during WWII and later in Japan. And the fault of such incredible politics in Korea was not down to MacArthur only, but to a common American sense and behaviour that would emerge then in later wars, starting with Vietnam.
If you want to deal with another country, wherever it is, and not only about military matters, then you have to know it deeply and to communicate with it (and culture is the best key to understanding and communicating, and men of culture are strongly needed). There is a sort of existential, historical and cultural recognition that has to be completed, and requires time, will and passion. Otherwise – even guided by justice, generosity and good will – you risk implausible misunderstandings with other breeds of cat, and causing profound damages.
So MacArthur appears only as an actor, maybe the most brilliant, one of a long series of unfitting post-War characters (do you remember Westmoreland’s escalation strategy in Vietnam? “Bomb, bomb, bomb. That’s all you know. Well, I want to know why there’s nothing else. You generals have all been educated at the expense of the taxpayer, and you’re not giving me any ideas and any solutions for this damn little piss-ant country. Now I don’t need ten generals to come in here ten times and tell me to bomb… I want some solutions. I want some answers. You get things bubbling.” Lyndon Johnson, February 1965”).
However, to know that his subordinates called MacArthur Sarah Bernhardt (“a nickname that suits him far better than Caesar or Hannibal or Alexander the Great’) is only the last historical wound on an up-to-yesterday great myth – and the fall of a myth is always painful.