Both graduated from West Point, served together in the Army and fought in World War II. Both attained the highest levels of command. But only one reached the White House and became commander in chief. What made the difference?
Since George Washington, 11 more U.S. Army generals have advanced to the presidency. Among the “Greatest Generation,” two five-star generals— Douglas MacArthur and Dwight Eisenhower— competed for the White House. But in a curious twist of entwined destinies, it was MacArthur’s contemporary rival, colleague and onetime subordinate Dwight D. Eisenhower who twice claimed the top political and military prize.
In the early 1930s Franklin D. Roosevelt, then the Democratic nominee for president, characterized General Douglas MacArthur—at the time the glamorous, highly decorated boy wonder U.S. Army chief of staff—and Louisiana populist demagogue Huey “The Kingfish” Long as “the two most dangerous men in America.” Long would be assassinated before the decade was out, and Roosevelt, after spending most of World War II trying to keep MacArthur under presidential control, was himself gone by 1945. In the postwar era only MacArthur was left standing, and he had by then qualified for another epithet bestowed on him by Roosevelt years earlier: “American Caesar.”
MacArthur spent much of his legendary life nurturing such a vision of personal destiny. He seems truly to have thought of himself as a modern incarnation of the figure known to history as “the man on horseback.” As George Washington had been the revolutionary Cincinnatus and Andrew Jackson the backwoods Napoleon, MacArthur, in his role of selfanointed first consul, would have on many occasions happily ridden back from the frontier of the empire to rescue the republic. To his own way of thinking, he was the figure of Caesar reborn as the self-reliant, democratic great captain—in Herman Melville’s phrasing, “a mighty pageant creature formed for noble tragedies.” Fittingly, his fall, his selfprophesied fadeaway, would be spectacular and complete, the predictable result of what the Greeks called hubris.
MacArthur’s vision and style were born of legend, along with a sense of familial destiny. He was the son of a famed Union general who had begun his own career by earning the Medal of Honor, at age 19, for his actions at the 1863 Battle of Missionary Ridge. The senior MacArthur went on to defeat a Philippine insurgency in 1899.
The son’s meteoric rise began with a stellar cadet career at West Point, where he finished first in the class of 1903. He followed that up with heroic exploits in the Philippines and Mexico; an almost insanely brave combat performance in World War I that garnered him seven Silver Stars, the Distinguished Service Cross and nomination for the Medal of Honor (out of which he felt he was swindled by General John J. Pershing); and promotion to general and appointment, at 38, as the youngest division commander in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). Returning home after World War I, he became superintendent of West Point, where he conducted a thoroughgoing educational reform, and then U.S. Army chief of staff. As such, he surely helped save the U.S. military from disintegration between the wars. In a famous exchange with his commander in chief over budget cuts, MacArthur expressed his fervent hope that the dying curse on the lips of an American boy in the next war would not be “MacArthur, but Roosevelt.” Rebuked by the furious president for his insubordinate language, MacArthur afterward vomited on the White House steps. But he got his defense appropriation.
Paralleling the rapid rise of Douglas MacArthur was the contrapuntal steady ascent of Dwight Eisenhower—“Ike,” as everyone called him, from beginning to end of a successful military and political career. In contrast to MacArthur’s flamboyance and belief in the infallibility of his own leadership and personal destiny, Eisenhower was what we would now call a team player and a consensus builder.
The son of German pietists who had migrated from Pennsylvania to Kansas, he grew up in Abilene with five brothers. For the chance at a free education, he worked his way into West Point, where his graduation biography suggests that his main interest, even after he had wrecked a knee, remained varsity football, with perhaps time out for convivial drinking.
Disappointed at barely missing a combat assignment in World War I, he vigorously embraced his stateside duties. As commandant of a new tank-training installation at Camp Colt, outside Gettysburg, Pa., he gained a reputation for his operational and troop training skills. Along with George Patton—a slightly older, self-dramatizing brass hat renowned for fire-breathing histrionics, who became Eisenhower’s World War II subordinate—Eisenhower was an early advocate of the new armored force.
With no worlds left to conquer by the mid-1930s, MacArthur re- signed from the U.S. Army to become an adviser to the armed forces of the Philippine Islands. For the next quarter century he would be associated with the Asia- Pacific region. After Pearl Harbor and the outbreak of World War II, the doomed U.S. defense of the Philippines against the invading Japanese forces in 1941 culminated in MacArthur’s last-minute evacuation (ordered by FDR himself), along with his family and staff, by PT boat and B-17 bomber to Australia. For his defensive efforts and journey of escape, he was awarded the Medal of Honor he had so long felt to be his due. That was the beginning of the long road back to Allied victory. MacArthur would later win acclaim for his grand Pacific strategy of bypassing fortified Japanese positions, marshaling the combined strengths of Army air and ground forces and coordinating major campaigns with the Navy and Marines. In recognition of his strategic genius, he was asked to preside over the 1945 Japanese surrender ceremony aboard USS Missouri. He then assumed the imperial role of guiding the remarkably successful postwar reconstruction and democratization of Japan.
Between the world wars, Eisenhower patiently waited out the Army system, husbanded his own burning ambition and learned to accommodate it within the politics of the professional military. Along the way he pursued a series of protégé relationships, first during a tour in Panama with visionary General Fox Conner and then for a longer period—while stuck for decades at middling rank—with MacArthur, during the latter’s chief of staff period. Photographs from this time show Eisenhower attending MacArthur during the 1932 Bonus March in Washington, D.C., and in the Philippines, where he served as the general’s aide from 1935 to 1939. Eisenhower acquired the seriousness to finish at the top of his class at the U.S. Army Command and Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. And for his role in directing the nation’s largest peacetime military war games, the Louisiana maneuvers in late 1941, he received a career boost from a new mentor, General George C. Marshall.
With a new world war looming, Eisenhower found himself suddenly shifted from a line infantry command with the 3rd Infantry Division to a staff assignment in Washington under Marshall. Early in the war, Marshall told Eisenhower that, as an indispensable planning assistant, he should not expect to keep up with those likely to reach general officer rank through field command. Fuming, Eisenhower started to leave the room, but turned back at the last moment to respond: “General, I’m interested in what you say, but I want you to know I don’t give a damn about your promotion plans as far as I’m concerned! I came into this office from the field, and I am trying to do my duty. If that locks me to a desk for the rest of the war…so be it!” Marshall cracked a rare smile; he knew he had his indispensable man for what would become the European Theater of Operations.
Eisenhower vaulted from lieutenant colonel in 1939 to lieutenant general in the 1942 North African invasion, which he led. Just two years later, as Allied supreme commander with Operation Overlord in Normandy, he would direct the greatest military invasion force in history. At the end of the war, Eisenhower was rightfully acclaimed as one of the grand architects of Allied victory in Europe, in part due to his skill in managing the Allied coalition, which included such difficult British personalities as Winston Churchill, Field Marshal Alan Brooke and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, Charles de Gaulle on the French side, and his own meddlesome commander in chief, Franklin Roosevelt. He further melded British and American naval and air staffs, bringing together such formidable figures as First Sea Lord of the Admiralty Andrew Cunningham, Fleet Admiral Ernest King, General Henry “Hap” Arnold, General Carl Spaatz, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Arthur Tedder and Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory. He kept in line an equally diverse lineup of operational U.S. Army subordinates, including Generals Omar Bradley, Mark Clark and, of course, George Patton. “He supervised everything with a vigilant eye,” noted Churchill, “and no one knew better than he how to stand close to a tremendous event without imperiling the authority he had delegated to others.” Emblematic of Eisenhower’s low-key leadership style through the war in Europe was the message he sent to Washington on the day of the German surrender: “The mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 0300, local time, May 7, 1945.”
In 1950, with the surprise attack by North Korean forces across the 38th parallel and the commitment to South Korea by a largely American United Nations force under his command, MacArthur returned to military leadership. He executed a breakout from the besieged Pusan Perimeter and then a daring amphibious landing at Inchon. MacArthur’s forces pushed the North Korean invaders back across the 38th parallel all the way to the border with Red China. But a surprise counterattack by hundreds of thousands of Communist troops pushed the UN forces back to their original starting points and beyond.
Two years of grinding combat ensued before a cease-fire and negotiated peace left Korea divided precisely as it had been in 1945. Stalemated by the enemy and served badly by a staff that fed him only the intelligence and order-of-battle information he wanted to hear, MacArthur turned to geopolitical bravado and threats. He warned the Chinese of massive bombing and possible invasion and held unilateral discussions with the Chiang Kai-shek regime about bringing Nationalist Chinese forces into the fight. Thereafter, he was relieved of command for insubordination by President Harry S Truman, specifically for his refusal to obey the constitutional authority of the civilian commander in chief. Forced to resign from the Army, MacArthur returned to the United States, where his firing had become a cause célèbre.
MacArthur was greeted as a hero, with ticker tape parades and an unheard-of invitation to address the combined houses of Congress in a speech that concluded with the histrionic refrain, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” Prophetically, his moment of political drama was in fact followed by a gradual fade into obscurity.
Eisenhower became postwar U.S. Army chief of staff, succeeding Marshall, then moved on to the presidency of Columbia University. Shortly, however, he found himself back in uniform, doing his own five-star military reprise as NATO commander in Cold War Europe—a position as much political as military. By this time, both major U.S. political parties had courted Eisenhower as a potential presidential candidate, and more than once Harry Truman had as much as guaranteed Eisenhower the 1948 Democratic nomination, which he declined. Back in civilian life following his NATO stint, Eisenhower finally accepted influential Republicans’ entreaties to enter the 1952 primary, then rode to eventual victory in a nomination battle over conservative traditional elements of the GOP that supported Sen. Robert Taft. Victory in both the 1952 and 1956 general elections affirmed Ike’s status as a popular two-term president.
An account of these parallel careers is a chronicle of distinct temperaments, each comprising a radically divergent vision of the postwar world and the leadership style required in the emerging “American century.”
MacArthur styled himself as a man of previous ages, mixing the Classic with the Romantic. From the outset he had demonstrated a fondness for costume, for the studied insouciance of the uniformed actor, as in a 1914 photograph from Mexico with battered campaign hat, corncob pipe, cardigan sweater and captain’s bars pinned on sideways. World War I photos reveal the swank of crushed caps, short jackets, swagger sticks, fine boots and turtleneck sweaters; in one photo, he poses on a piece of headquarters château furniture that resembles a throne. In another photo featuring a full-length raccoon coat and long scarf, he looks like an aging frat boy on his way to the Yale-Harvard game. The World War II and Korea years brought on his signature late style, its very plainness calling attention to decorative departures from regulation: his “50-mission” crushed cap with weathered embroidery, the aviator sunglasses, the outsized corncob pipe.
For both generals, their families provide keys to their careers and leadership styles. For MacArthur, his father seems always to have been the boy colonel rising above the clouds to gain immortal fame at Chattanooga. His stage-managing mother, “Pinky” (Mary Pinkney Hardy), a Tidewater aristocrat and Confederate diehard, was even by 19th century standards a domineering figure: She spent four years watching over MacArthur at West Point and the rest of her days flattering, wheedling and manipulating whenever an opportunity presented itself to advance her son’s career. As a cadet, MacArthur was legendary for his determination to finish first in his class and his ability to withstand brutal hazing—in one instance to the point of passing out from pain and, at his mother’s urging, refusing during an investigation to name his tormentors.
Married to New York heiress Louise Cromwell Brooks from 1922 to 1929, MacArthur after his divorce carried on a years-long liaison with a young Filipino actress. In 1937 he married a Tennessee socialite, Jean M. Faircloth, and they had a son, Arthur, who became a musician.
Eisenhower, born in 1890, seems more a part of the new century, the age of the management professional. He mastered military decision-making in all its requisite dimensions—from grand battlefield strategy to logistics—and combined it with a leadership style emphasizing delegated authority, cooperative effort and meticulous coordination.
With Eisenhower, what you saw was what you got: The only fashion statement for which he is credited, the World War II Ike jacket, was a blend of smart British battle dress and olive drab American practicality. Numerous photos show him with a cigarette in hand, held the way serious smokers hold them, barely aware they have one between the fingers and ready for the next quick drag. He smoked three packs a day, the bad habit of a onetime athlete.
Eisenhower was a big man: Mamie called him a “bruiser” the first time she laid eyes on him. He was troubled throughout the war by a knee injury he sustained playing football. He was also a golfer, a skilled bridge player and a faithful letter writer. His fondness for reading pulp Westerns prompted Secretary of State Dean Acheson to observe that a man favoring the novels of Zane Grey probably should not qualify as a first-class political thinker into whose hands the destiny of America should be delivered. Eisenhower knew himself to be a man of both uncommon ambition and terrible temper, and spent a lifetime husbanding one and controlling the other.
Images of Eisenhower through the war years and afterward portray a man who is all business in the largest sense—the business of disinterested, loyal, selfless leadership. The most revealing of his troop photos are surely those taken on the eve of D-Day with the 101st Airborne Division, a unit about to jump into France in the face of a predicted 70 percent casualty rate. Ike looks them right in the eye. In that same spirit was a note Eisenhower kept in his wallet for years, as described by historian Paul Fussell: a draft of a letter taking full blame for the failure of the D-Day assault on Europe.
Eisenhower was not, of course, a flawless man: There was his much-talked about relationship with his World War II British driver and staff aide, Kay Summersby. And one might point to certain flaws in his later record, including a shameful failure, during his first presidential campaign tour, to respond to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s attacks on George Marshall.
Through the war, the lives and careers of MacArthur and Eisenhower had been deeply intertwined, professionally and personally. Early in their relationship, each seems to have recognized that the trajectories of their careers would—in terms of power, ambition, command style and political personality—eventually pit one against the other on the grand stage of mid-century history. As a consequence, both remained notably silent on the particulars of their long years together. Perhaps MacArthur felt an understandable jealousy in being superseded by an officer who had started out very much his junior. Perhaps Eisenhower, eventually the ultimate “Marshall man,” felt the need to put distance between himself and a former rival mentor. MacArthur, once Eisenhower had made his mark, became fond of referring to him as “the best clerk who ever worked for me.” Equally telling, but perhaps apocryphal, is Eisenhower’s alleged answer to whether he was acquainted with MacArthur. “Yes,” he reportedly replied. “I studied dramatics for seven years under General MacArthur.”
Not in the least apocryphal are the facts of their presidential ambitions. Before the end of World War II, MacArthur was expressing unconcealed interest in being called home as a Republican presidential candidate. Had that occurred, Democrats planned to solicit Ike, as yet undeclared politically, to run as Roosevelt’s vice presidential candidate. Both men must have known Roosevelt was unlikely to live long enough to serve out another four-year term.
Their divergent views of the presidency were apparent even then. MacArthur, from the 1944 election onward, made no pretense of cloaking his ambitions, regarding himself savior of the republic. Bluntly, he was an authoritarian whose political genius he assumed to be perfectly consonant with that of the American people. Eventually, it became clear he could not have been more wrong. More astute was MacArthur’s awareness that Eisenhower was the man to watch, and that his chief characteristic— one that harried MacArthur to distraction—was that a man of such burning ambition could nonetheless project such normalcy. Another telling exchange between the two, recounted with rancor by Eisenhower, came on the occasion of a visit to Tokyo, where MacArthur had staged a full-dress dinner for his former subordinate, now the hero of victory in Europe. They had repaired to privacy, where they talked into the night. When Eisenhower maintained his utter lack of interest in running for president, MacArthur is alleged to have responded, “That’s right, Ike. You go on like that and you’ll get it for sure!” Eisenhower was infuriated.
By 1948 MacArthur understood that Eisenhower had found the right combination to keep himself in presidential play. And while all the jockeying went on between Truman and Dewey, MacArthur was stuck where his imperial opinion of himself would actually do some good—as proconsul in defeated Japan.
The unfolding conflict in Korea and MacArthur’s relief from duty for insubordination in April 1951 were factors leading into the 1952 presidential election. McCarthy’s Senate demagoguery was in full cry. The meat grinder of a war was continuing along the 38th parallel. MacArthur, back in civilian dress, pushed his “secret plan” to end the war. Oddly, as Eisenhower became increasingly viable as a Republican challenger, MacArthur offered to reveal the plan to his younger rival. It involved bombing the Yalu bridges, dropping atomic weapons in Manchuria and sowing a radioactive dead zone along the border with China. MacArthur also stated his willingness to take on the Russians and get that over with. By then, the Soviet Union was in possession of not only the A-bomb but also the H-bomb, and despite his plans, or perhaps because of them, it appears many Americans felt they didn’t want a General MacArthur making those kinds of decisions. Nor was MacArthur’s case helped by the visible skill and efficiency displayed by his successor in Korea, Matthew Ridgway, in restoring the morale and military fortunes of U.S. forces there, quickly stabilizing the military situation and restoring confidence and esprit to what could have become a broken army.
Still, right up to the 1952 convention, MacArthur and the Republican right, of whom he was the darling, continued their machinations. To muddle the Eisenhower vs. Taft contest even further, MacArthur was installed as the Republican convention’s keynote speaker. A plan was also floated to run him as Taft’s vice presidential candidate, on the presumption Taft was not a well man and quite likely to die in office.
The exact crossing of arcs in the Mac- Arthur fall and the Eisenhower ascendancy occurred at the convention, and the keynote speech provided the moment. It promised to be a matter of triumphant stagecraft, with lofty and stirring oratory, all qualities at which MacArthur was supposed to excel. But he failed. MacArthur’s climactic speech turned out to be “meandering,” “bombastic,” “tedious and overlong,” to quote some of the contemporary assessments. So utterly unmemorable was his speech that today a copy of the text is nearly impossible to find. To be fair, few today remember much of what Eisenhower said, either. The photographs may have been enough: Ike and Mamie, then with the Nixons—a family affair, and a happy prospect of what peace and security in post–World War II American democracy might look like.
In the end, the country chose Eisenhower. It seems that MacArthur, for all his glamour and charisma, had always projected a darker edge of malevolent power hunger, a vaunting ambition that struck most Americans wrongly, perhaps reminding them a bit too much of the totalitarian leaders we had just defeated. We admired but feared MacArthur. On the other hand, we liked Ike and trusted him. He seemed to embody those leadership qualities this country produces when we are at our best: a steady hand, a gift for conciliation, a capacity to inspire public and international trust. One perfectly plain sentence at the beginning of Stephen Ambrose’s biography says it all: “Dwight D. Eisenhower was a great and good man.” With leaders in history, greatness is not necessarily combined with goodness. In Eisenhower, at a crucial time, emerging with a victory from a great world war, Americans found one person in whom the two qualities were met.
For further reading, Philip Beidler recommends: Eisenhower, by Stephen E. Ambrose, and American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880–1964, by William Manchester.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.