American Caesar or Worst General Ever?

Saturday, June 12th, 2010

I recently mentioned John A. Adams’ book, If Mahan ran the Great Pacific War, which takes the ideas presented by Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914) in The Influence of Sea Power Upon History (1890) and applies them to the War in the Pacific.

Mahan’s insight is that navies don’t control the ocean in the same way that armies control the land, because navies are tiny compared to the oceans they travel, while armies can form fronts along whole borders.

If you have the superior fleet, you should concentrate it, draw the enemy fleet into a decisive battle, and destroy it. Then you can disperse your fleet to raid his shipping at your leisure.

Submarines and air power complicate things, because stealthy subs are much better at harassing the enemy’s merchant marine fleet than going toe to toe with his main battle fleet, and air power allows a navy — or a land-based air force — to control much more watery territory than an old-fashioned big-gun fleet could.

In his book, Adams suggests that General MacArthur’s entire South Pacific campaign was a waste, because Admiral Nimitz’s Central Pacific campaign won the war. According to Joseph Fouché, Max Hastings’ Retribution says much the same thing. Thomas Ricks, writing in Foreign Policy, goes so far as to call MacArthur the worst general in American history:

It was my contest, so I declared MacArthur the No. 1 loser, because of his unique record of being insubordinate to three presidents (Hoover, Roosevelt and Truman) as well as screwing up the Korean War. Plus additional negative points for his role in the gassing and suppression of the Bonus Marchers in 1932. You can’t defend a country by undermining it.

Foseti, strongly disagrees. His review of William Manchester’s American Caesar cites, above all, MacArthur’s amazing success in rebuilding Japan after the war.

He also cites MacArthur’s description of his strategy, which he called leapfrogging — and which he contrasted against island hopping:

The idea was to bypass heavily fortified Japanese positions and instead concentrate the limited Allied resources on strategically important islands that were not well defended but capable of supporting the drive to the main islands of Japan. This strategy was possible in part because the Allies used submarine and air attacks to blockade and isolate Japanese bases, weakening their garrisons and reducing the Japanese ability to resupply and reinforce them. Thus troops on islands which had been bypassed, such as the major base at Rabaul, were useless to the Japanese war effort and left to “wither on the vine.”

I suppose the question is, could he have leapfrogged even more? Could he have leapfrogged the entire South Pacific?


  1. Foseti says:

    Calling MacArthur the worst general in US history is ridiculous.

    Mark Clark, for example, lost more people taking useless territory in Italy. Read my review — criticizing MacArthur for the number of lives lost is ridiculous. By that standard he’d be better than any general that fought the Nazis and virtually all Union generals of the Civil War.

    Setting this aside, I think you’re missing a critical, bigger point. MacArthur was not fighting solely to beat the Japanese. He was fighting for the US to win in the Pacific.

    To do this, he believed the US needed to have strong influence in the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan. Then, the US was to keep its army off the Asian mainland. (If you wonder why he picked these three island, look at a map).

    MacArthur’s strategy for beating the Japanese included winning the loyalty of the Taiwanese and the Filipinos and, eventually, the Japanese (the latter required actually beating the Japanese in war). By any standard, this plan was incredibly successful. The US still reaps the rewards of his foresight.

    Truman ignored his desire to stay off the mainland in Korea (and later other Presidents ignored his advice in Vietnam), but MacArthur would easily have won the war if the US had actually decided to try to win instead of trying to avoid offending/fighting Chinese. Despite these screw ups, the Pacific has been remarkably peaceful given the rise of such great powers in recent decades (thanks to MacArthur, I’d argue).

    Contrast this to the generals in Europe. To “win” in Europe, the US had to sell-out half the continent into Bolshevik slavery and begin a 50 year Cold War. God help us if we get any more “victories” like the one in Europe.

    I’ll grant that it may have been possible to “beat” the Japanese in an easier way, by deferring to Nimitz. But this victory would have been like the early US victories over the Taliban and Saddam. After a victory under Nimitz’s strategy, the Japanese would not have accepted defeat, the Philippines would have been in constant rebellion and Chi-coms would have believed they could walk all over the US.

    Sometimes to win a war, you actually have to fight a war.

  2. Pursuing the Nimitz strategy and bypassing the Philippines and much of the Southwestern Pacific would have still brought the U.S. within bombing distance of Japan. LeMay would have still burned Japan’s paper cities. Okinawa would have still been invaded. U.S. submarines and mines would still have decimated Japanese commerce. The atom bomb would have still been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Russians would still have invaded Manchuria. Japan would still have been prostrate on its back.

    Japan almost didn’t accept defeat. Elements of the Japanese army tried to launch a coup hours before Hirohito’s surrender message was broadcast. Only a timely blackout as B-29s passed by on their way to bomb an oil refinery in northern Japan disrupted the coup. Japanese air defense officials were afraid the B-29 formation was going to drop an atom bomb on Tokyo.

    As for MacArthur’s supposed long-range vision, it holds true for Japan. However, the Philippines was going to receive its independence anyway. Formosa was assumed to be under the control of the friendly Nationalist government on the mainland and not a factor. Even if the collapse of the Nationalist cause on the mainland was forseen, there was no guarantee that Formosa would have been their last redoubt and that the Red Chinese wouldn’t have taken it. The same logic that called for keeping the Soviets and Red Chinese out of the Japanese and Philippine archipelagos and the island of Formosa also apply to the islands of Hainan and Sakhalin and the Kurile and Dutch East Indies archipelagos. I see no evidence that anyone at the time was pushing for the occupation of those islands. We eventually moved Indonesia into our column, but only as an extension of our overall effort in Southeast Asia. On the mainland.

  3. Buckethead says:

    Foseti’s right, there’s no way that Mac is the worst general in American history. Ambrose Burnside is certainly far worse, Rosecranz, Westmoreland, Omar Bradley — the list of American incompetence is long.

    But that doesn’t make MacArthur the greatest, either. Patton was in my view the greatest American general of WWII. Off the top of my head, Winfield Scott and Sherman were both much better. As was most of the top leadership of the Confederate forces, though whether you can count them is debatable.

    I think Fouche has it nailed, there. The SW campaign was a waste of effort. The leapfrogging strategy should have been pursued to its logical conclusion. Forestalling further Japanese advances towards Australia would have been sufficient.

    The results Foseti mentions in regard to the war in Europe could likely have been — if not avoided — mitigated had Patton’s leash been lengthened. Every time Patton got the Germans running, Bradley cut off his logistics.

  4. Isegoria says:

    Foseti raises a wonderfully Clausewitzian point — that winning the war against Japan is not the same as winning the peace in the former Co-Prosperity Sphere — but I tend toward Joseph Fouché‘s opinion that Nimitz’s strategy would have yielded similar results with fewer — not zero, but fewer — bloody battles against dug-in forces.

    I’m still having trouble grokking how we saw the Soviets as a faithful ally in both Asia and Europe. Like Buckethead, I’m inclined toward the send-Patton-to-finish-the-Reds point of view.

  5. Decapitating Japan was the crucial prerequisite to “winning the peace in the former Co-Prosperity Sphere”. A “Nimitz-only” would have achieved that without being distracted by strategic sideshows. MacArthur’s post-New Guinea campaigns join the Italian campaign and the reconquest of Burma as giant sinkholes that managed to tie down large numbers of Allied troops without significantly tying down large numbers of enemy forces.

    Victory left a giant power vacuum in Asia. Our only rival was the Russians. If we failed to exploit this vacuum effectively, it’s because we’re Americans. We never exploit victory effectively.

    The Soviets were seen as a faithful ally because enormous numbers of useful idiots in our government saw communism as the future. Some were playing the game of trading dead Russians for living Americans with open eyes but, due to the ordinary American’s need for a semblance of pretense, the Roosevelt Administration went out of its way, aided by the useful idiots, to convince the American people that kindly Uncle Joe and his merry men were our kind of people.

  6. Isegoria says:

    For those who don’t regularly follow Joseph Fouché, Buckethead, and Foseti, they each continue discussing MacArthur on their own blogs.

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