|MacArthur, FDR and Admiral Chester Nimitz|
Politically in opposing camps, Gen. Douglas MacArthur and President Franklin D. Roosevelt were alike in many ways — including their shared flair for the dramatic.
“Both were intensely patriotic, authentic patricians, and always onstage,” wrote biographer William Manchester in American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964. “Each was dominated by an ambitious mother who lived to great old age, and each cut a dashing figure.
“Roosevelt was subtler and more of a fixer, but the greatest difference was in their political outlooks. FDR was guided by his liberal vision. Despite the whispers of some New Dealers, MacArthur was not a reactionary of the Father Coughlin stripe. As he would demonstrate during his proconsulship in Tokyo, he too cherished liberal goals. But in the 1930s, he was still a Herbert Hoover conservative and good friend of West Pointer Robert Wood, who was now head of Sears, Roebuck and who probably introduced him to James H. Rand of Remington Rand at this time. Like them, MacArthur was appalled by the social programs which Hoover’s successor was passing through Congress.
“He was also baffled by the new president’s finessing skills. Roosevelt could charm anyone, even MacArthur. Once during a White House dinner, the general asked: ‘Why is it, Mr. President, that you frequently inquire my opinion regarding the social reforms under consideration … but pay little attention to my views on the military?’ His host replied: ‘Douglas, I don’t bring these questions up for your advice but for your reactions. To me, you are the symbol of the conscience of the American people.’ This, MacArthur said, ‘took all the wind out of my sales.’ It meant, of course, absolutely nothing.”
MacArthur wouldn’t prove to be as smoothly persuasive with FDR. “The Bureau of the Budget, determined to pull the government out of the red, announced that War Department appropriations for the coming fiscal year would be reduced by $80 million. (Secretary of War George) Dern asked for a conference with FDR and took MacArthur with him. Roosevelt was adamant: funds for the regular army would be cut 51 percent; funds for the reserve and the National Guard would also be reduced. The general, his voice trembling with outrage, said: ‘When we lose the next war, and an American boy with an enemy bayonet through his belly and an enemy foot on his dying throat spits out his last curse, I want the name not to be MacArthur, but Roosevelt.’
“FDR, livid, said, ‘You must not talk that way to the president!’ MacArthur would remember long afterward that he apologized, ‘but I felt my Army career was at an end. I told him he had my resignation as Chief of Staff.’ He turned toward the door, but before he could leave Roosevelt said quietly, ‘Don’t be foolish, Douglas; you and the budget must get together on this.’
“Outside, Dern said jubilantly, ‘You’ve saved the Army.’ The general recalled: ‘But I just vomited on the steps of the White House.’”
FDR wouldn’t be the last president MacArthur crossed, and I don’t mean Harry Truman. I mean his Republican successor, who had worked for MacArthur. MacArthur described Dwight Eisenhower as the “best clerk I ever had,” and Eisenhower, when asked by a woman whether he’d ever met MacArthur, returned the compliment. “Not only have I met him, m’am; I studied dramatics under him for five years in Washington and four years in the Philippines,” Eisenhower replied. Who says Ike wasn’t witty?