In his autobiography Reminiscences, Douglas MacArthur wrote of his relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt, “In my own case, whatever differences arose between us, it never sullied in slightest degree the warmth of my personal friendship for him.” The truth was far more complicated for these two men, who were alike in so many ways.
“MacArthur has what it takes. If he’s nominated he will be elected.” — Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan
A distant cousin to both Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in the early years of World War II Douglas MacArthur was the country’s most popular general, despite the fact that he had been defeated in the Philippines and forced to evacuate (under presidential order) to Australia. MacArthur’s inaction following news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that led to the destruction of most of his air force by the Japanese remains controversial to this day. But, through a skillful and tightly controlled public relations campaign he masterminded from his headquarters in Melbourne, MacArthur survived phoenix-like with a reputation ironically on the ascendant.
And now, following a series of victories in Operation Cartwheel, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg believed that in MacArthur, the GOP finally had an opponent of sufficient stature to defeat Roosevelt – provided MacArthur had presidential aspirations.
In early 1943, the influential senator received a letter from MacArthur regarding the repeal of a War Department ruling barring army officers for public office (an executive branch extension of the Hatch Act) which Vandenberg accused was specifically designed to keep MacArthur “out of the next presidential campaign.” After thanking him, MacArthur wrote, “I only hope I can some day reciprocate.” As William Manchester observed in his biography of MacArthur, American Caesar, “In short, Barkis was willing.” Vandenberg promptly went to work.
For Roosevelt the operative word of MacArthur’s candidacy was “if” – not “if he wanted to be president.”
For Roosevelt the operative word of MacArthur’s candidacy was “if”– not “if he wanted to be president.” FDR knew MacArthur did and would relish defeating him. Rather, it was “if he managed to win the GOP candidacy.” As David Halberstam wrote in The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, Roosevelt always believed MacArthur “was completely out of touch with domestic American politics, a prisoner of his dreams rather than the country’s changing political and economic realities.” Though he watched the MacArthur-for-President movement like a hawk, FDR was confident something would derail it.
MacArthur’s main rivals in 1944 were New York governor Thomas Dewey, former presidential candidate and Republican Party president Wendell Willkie, and Minnesota governor Harold Stassen. Vandenberg believed MacArthur’s only chance for the nomination was a deadlocked convention, which he knew could be engineered. Then at the appropriate time MacArthur’s name would be submitted and the nomination secured.
But for that to work, MacArthur’s name had to be kept off state primary ballots because any defeat would burst the “infallible” bubble, wrecking everything. Vandenberg and his group’s efforts to control the MacArthur-for-President movement unraveled in Illinois and Wisconsin, where MacArthur’s name managed to get on the primary ballots. Confident of his popularity, MacArthur refused to sign a document from them requesting that his name be withdrawn. MacArthur’s home state, on his father’s side, was Wisconsin. As such MacArthur had to win Wisconsin. Instead he lost – big time, coming in third behind Dewey and Stassen. The resounding victory in Illinois was a hollow one, because his opponent was an unknown.
Then a batch of letters put paid to the movement.
Of all his flaws, perhaps MacArthur’s greatest was a tender ego, which made him a sucker for flattery.
Freshman Republican Congressman Arthur Miller from Nebraska was a MacArthur supporter. Miller’s first letter to the general, dated Sept. 18, 1943, stated in part: “I am certain that unless this New Deal can be stopped this time our American way of life is forever doomed. You owe it to civilization and the children yet unborn to accept the nomination.”
Of all his flaws, perhaps MacArthur’s greatest was a tender ego, which made him a sucker for flattery. In December 1943, Army chief of staff General George Marshall visited MacArthur in Port Moresby. During one of their discussions, MacArthur began a sentence with “My staff,” only to have Marshall interrupt, “You don’t have a staff, general. You have a court.”
MacArthur’s response to Miller included the sentence, “I unreservedly agree with the complete wisdom and statesmanship of your comments.” A correspondence had begun.
On April 14, 1944, Miller, without consulting the general, released MacArthur’s letters to the press thinking they would reinvigorate the general’s campaign. Instead, their highly partisan contents destroyed what was left of it. Vandenberg called Miller’s action “a tragic mistake.” MacArthur was mortified. He tried to fight back, stating truthfully that the letters “were never intended for publication,” but it was too late.
“You don’t have a staff, general. You have a court.”
Upon the advice of Sen. Vandenberg, on April 30, 1944, MacArthur issued a statement that closed with the passage: “I request that no action be taken that would link my name in any way with the nomination. I do not covet it nor would I accept it.”
Not long afterword, Roosevelt left Washington for Honolulu where he, MacArthur, and Adm. Chester Nimitz would hammer out the strategy to defeat the real enemy: Japan.