During the late '30s, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whose 100th birthday would have been Saturday, had a balcony he was fond of that overlooked Manila and the beautiful curve of blue bay. In the cool of late afternoon, he would pace back and forth on it, wearing his blue and gold West Point dressing gown and swinging a cane. He loved to look down on the lush, green jungle and the thatched native huts and watch the sun sinking like a marigold ablaze into the waters near Bataan and Corregidor. It was from this balcony, perhaps -- emblem of his own detachment -- that he wrote to William Allen White:

The history of failure in war can be summed up in two words: Too Late. Too late in comprehending the deadly purpose of a potential enemy; too late in realizing the mortal danger; too late in preparedness; too late in uniting all possible forces for resistance; too late in standing with one's friends.

MacArthur was not trying to rally support by writing this, because he knew by then that it was indeed too late for the Philippines. Whatever the United States could do would be too little; the Japanese in superior force were going to invade those islands simply because they wanted to. The city he looked out on from that balcony was doomed, and all his intense efforts to rouse the vacillating naive American government to action had been fruitless.

Death, then, for himself and his family, was MacArthur's daily companion, ubiquitous and heel-following as any dog. So he lived intensely, as one for whom any day might be the last. Ostensibly, of course, his life was the same as always -- the usual routine of military duties and family responsibilities, the solitary private joy of reading the classics and watching movies each night at 8:45.

Inwardly, however, it wasn't routine at all, and many who saw him during those times remarked on how alive he seemed to be -- the extraordinary beauty of his lucidity and depth of feeling. That, and the way he treated his son, were the only signs of what he knew. He refused to waste time disciplining the boy for the rigors of an adulthood that seemed unlikely to arrive, but catered instead to all his childish whims, played with him for long hours and, when the boy was asleep, retired to his study to read the Bible.

At last it had gotten so bad, with Japanese troop ships already steaming southward, that even the languid, smiling politicians were bestirring themselves in convulsive last-minute efforts to defend the Philippines. But MacArthur knew as well what this would lead to: "Armies and navies," he wrote, "in being efficient give weight to the peaceful words of statesmen, but a feverish effort to create them once a crisis is imminent simply provokes attack." However, he did take the trouble to write to White; to draw the needed lesson for the continent that would be left after the archipelago was gone.

And so it isn't just MacArthur's birthday that causes us to think about him these days. We may be in his boots. Eight divisions of Russian troops, equipped with nerve gas, are rampaging through Afghanistan. More divisions are massing north of the Iranian border. Eastern European military forces are on alert. Russian mobilization seems to have begun. And with Ethiopia, South Yemen and Afghanistan subjugated, it seems likely the pincers are about to bite down deep into the Iranian oil fields. And that will mean nuclear war.

Most of us, I believe, sense in our bones what's up, and in our private lives are involved in the effort of trying to think about that, or in the greater effort of trying not to. Meanwhile, the city's mild rhythms seem to go on as usual -- trips to the shopping center, evening TV, social rounds in which the true subject is never raised, and a work routine that's laced with a sense of absurdity.

Of course, there are a few more practicalities now: deciding whether to subject the family to the final terror if one is the only person wakened by the sirens; mapping the escape route; establishing distant rendezvous points for survivors; and making sure the medicine cabinet is stocked with enough sleeping pills to kill all the family in case of severe radiation burns.

Our public life seems much more tame than our private ones, and we listen to the discussions going on with the sort of might-as-well detachment with which a condemned man might study the ornamental filigree around the doorway to the final room. Of course, there are the inevitable eleventh-hour calls to arms, which should be heeded and probably will be. But beyond that is an understandable aura of silence. After all, there's not much to discuss, although a few commentators seek to assess blame while others tell us what a swell thing it would be to have a chat with Lenoid Brazhnev, and a few public officials muse aloud about whether, in the event summer arrives, we really ought to go over to Moscow and play.

But nobody is sending a message out, as MacArthur did from the Philippines. And the reason is plain: there is no out anymore. Russia is continuing to operate on the notion that we'd like to kill a couple of hundred million of them, and won't; whereas the truth of the matter is precisely the other way around. Knowing that, each of us paces and waits on some private balcony of the soul in this thunderous silence that's almost as devastating as the event that seems about to take place.