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 Harry 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,” Mark Perry writes in his engrossing book on the great, though 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.” 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 Khan, MacArthur was an innovative genius, especially when it came to moving enormous numbers of troops over vast distances. Perry deals only with MacArthur’s role in World War II; the book ends before his successful shogunate in postwar 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 of 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 George C. Marshall. Franklin Roosevelt was well aware of MacArthur’s limitations. In the summer of 1932, when New York Gov. Roosevelt was the newly anointed Democratic nominee for president, he discussed with his advisers MacArthur’s heavy-handed rout 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.”

With his keen insight into human nature, Roosevelt understood that it takes outsize personalities to accomplish great things. Ordinary men, though saner and humbler, lack the will and boldness. The trick was to co-opt MacArthur, which Roosevelt cleverly did by holding him close (so he would not be a political rival) and making sure that he had good commanders to carry out his orders. 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.

"The Most Dangerous Man in America" by Mark Perry (Basic)

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 Clare 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.’ ”

Perry is an excellent military historian who wrote an insightful book, “Partners in Command,” about Gen. Marshall and Supreme Allied Commander Dwight Eisenhower. Perry gets the human element. He understands that human foibles are inevitable and particularly likely to show under the stress of war. These shortcomings can be unfortunate and self-destructive, but also reflect aspects of character that may be necessary to achieve victory. The media and popular opinion can be too quick to glorify military heroes, and historians and revisionists too eager to cut them down to size.

MacArthur was hardly the only military commander with an ego. Perry observes that Adm. Ernest King “despised” Gen. George Patton, and that Army Air Force Gen. Hap Arnold “couldn’t bring himself to talk to King,” and that Eisenhower thought British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery was “conceited,” and that “Patton held all British commanders in disdain,” while Gen. Omar Bradley “plotted ways to take advantage of Patton’s antics.” Aside from vanity, these feuding warlords had only one thing in common: They won.

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


The Making of Douglas MacArthur

By Mark Perry

Basic. 380 pp. $29.99