Trump’s Favorite General Was an Egomaniac Who Wanted to Be President
His career is built upon personal branding. He sometimes refers to himself in the third person. He rarely admits when he is wrong. His desire for fame led him to run for president. These descriptions could apply to both Donald Trump, 45th president of the United States, and General Douglas MacArthur, celebrated hero of World War II and controversial commander during the Korean War.
During the first presidential debate of 2016, Trump invoked MacArthur when Hillary Clinton pointed debate viewers to her website for more details on her plan to defeat Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS). “Just go to her website, she tells us how to fight ISIS on her website,” Trump said. “I don’t think General Douglas MacArthur would like that.”
Trump followed up on this in the second presidential debate by mentioning both MacArthur and General George Patton, another flamboyant U.S. Army commander during World War II. “General George Patton, General Douglas MacArthur are spinning in their grave at the stupidity of what we’re doing in the Middle East,” Trump said.
The presidential debates were not the first time that Trump has wondered what MacArthur would do. In February, Trump hailed both MacArthur and Patton as “great generals” during a discussion of strategies to stop Islamic State. “General MacArthur would be spinning in his grave when he sees what we do,” Trump said.
MacArthur was on Trump’s mind well before the New York City businessman even thought of running for president. In 2003, two months before President George W. Bush announced the U.S. military had begun its invasion of Iraq, Trump again referenced MacArthur in a Fox News interview. “Whatever happened to the days of Douglas MacArthur? Either do it or don’t do it.”
There is certainly much to admire about MacArthur’s meteoric rise within the ranks of the U.S. military. His achievements spanned a half-century career that began in the bloody trenches of World War I and lasted until the start of the Cold War. But as many historians and contemporaries of MacArthur have observed, the general’s enormous ego and inflated sense of self also led him to seek personal fame at the expense of almost everything else. Sometimes his need to satiate his ego came at the expense of the U.S. national interest. In 1951, President Harry Truman fired the general for disobeying the civilian chain of command over the military.
The problem with MacArthur’s enormous ego was that his own interests ultimately outweighed his interest in serving the American people and his country. During the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt viewed MacArthur’s hunger for individual power and fame as a potential threat to American democratic values — he once described MacArthur as one of the most dangerous men in America. The president “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,” according to a Washington Post review of the book “The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur.”
MacArthur was capable of being “intelligent, creative, and audacious” as well as “vainglorious, selfish, and arrogant,” according to David Halberstam, the journalist and historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Vietnam War era. Halberstam’s last work before his death was “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War,” a book that masterfully details how MacArthur’s egocentric personality and behavior ultimately led to the end of the general’s career.
The life and career of MacArthur differs from that of Trump in very significant ways. But given their egocentric personalities, it’s easy to find certain similarities between one of America’s most celebrated war heroes and the brash New York City businessman who became president.
His personal branding always came first. When the United States entered World War II, MacArthur had already risen to become one of the country’s most prominent generals. But the publicity MacArthur gained during his campaign against the military of Imperial Japan in the Pacific only fueled what Halberstam describes as the general’s “addiction” to fame.
He did not merely seek the limelight, he had an addiction to it. He was aware of camera positioning, always making sure that his famous jaw jutted at just the right angle for photographs. Indeed, as he grew older, not only did his staff censor all news photos, ensuring that nothing insufficiently heroic went out, but they tried to impose certain ground rules for camera angles. Not only was he to be shot, if at all possible, from the right side, but one Stars and Stripes photographer had been under orders to shoot the general while kneeling himself, in order to make him look more majestic. He always wore his battered old campaign hat. It was his trademark, and no photographer was ever to be allowed to show that he was partially bald, and working on what would be known eventually as a major comb-over. He needed to wear glasses in his office but did not like to be seen wearing them, and so they too were not to be photographed.
MacArthur also tried to ensure that he alone received credit for much of the U.S. Army’s accomplishments in the Pacific theater of World War II. Officers under his command actively dreaded seeing their own names in the newspapers; they feared being accused of stealing the limelight from their boss.
For he was a man who demanded the ultimate in loyalty from those beneath him, and yet to whom the sharing of credit was the most alien of concepts. He had contempt for those like [General Dwight D.] Eisenhower who allowed their subordinate officers any measure of fame. All dispatches emanating from his headquarters were to begin with his name; thus, the dateline for stories filed from the Pacific would always be “MacArthur’s Headquarters,” implying a dispatch filed from a battlefield headquarters where one man alone made the decisions and did the fighting. All announcements of Pacific victories during the war were to be made in his name. William Manchester once studied the early dispatches from the theater and discovered that in 109 of the first 142 press communiqués sent out in the first three months of the war, no other officer’s name was mentioned.
The most well-known case of MacArthur’s personal branding came from the early days of the U.S. entry into World War II. The general issued his famous “I shall return” statement” after having escaped Japan’s invasion of the Philippines in 1942. Leaders in Washington had wanted to change the statement to “We shall return,” but MacArthur insisted on having his way.
His habits included talking about himself in the third person. Talking about yourself in the third person does not automatically make you a narcissist with an inflated ego. But MacArthur’s lengthy record of egotistical behavior seems to support this interpretation of his character.
MacArthur’s mindset stood in particularly sharp contrast with Dwight D. Eisenhower, a thoughtful and humble officer who commanded all Allied forces in Europe during World War II and was elected the 34th president of the United States in 1953. Earlier in his career, Eisenhower had the opportunity to observe MacArthur as the general’s top military aide.
Dwight Eisenhower, on becoming his top aide in the Philippines in the 1930s, was startled to discover that MacArthur would sometimes refer to himself in the third person, saying things like: “So MacArthur went over to the senator…” In these years, he saw himself — and portrayed himself — as the man who embodied the nation’s living history, history’s man.
Eisenhower also witnessed MacArthur’s tendency to use the third person during one of the general’s most controversial actions. During the height of the Great Depression in the 1930s, a “Bonus Army” consisting of World War I veterans and their families camped out in Washington, D.C. to support a Congressional bill that would have provided immediate financial relief to acknowledge their military service.
By the summer of 1932, President Herbert Hoover ordered U.S. Army troops under MacArthur — the U.S. Army Chief of Staff — to help remove the protesting veterans from the U.S. capital. Crucially, Hoover wanted this action to be as restrained as possible to avoid inflaming public opinion.
Another commander might have realized the political sensitivity of using armed soldiers to suppress a tattered group of impoverished veterans, Halberstam writes. But MacArthur relished the opportunity to seize the limelight. He also shared the U.S. right wing’s view of the Bonus Army as a group of anti-American radicals and criminals. The general decided to personally show up in full military uniform and lead the troops into action against the Bonus Army.
As MacArthur’s aide, Eisenhower tried to convince the general to keep a low profile by staying away from the Bonus Army encampment and avoiding the media coverage that was sure to follow. MacArthur’s reply included the usual third-person reference: “MacArthur has decided to go into active command in the field.”
MacArthur deliberately ignored Hoover’s orders for restraint by sending in troops to burn down the Bonus Army encampment and drive out the veterans. He then held a press conference to praise Hoover for taking such decisive action, which left Hoover saddled with the political consequences of MacArthur having exceeded the original orders. This political disaster for Hoover’s Republican administration helped ensure the election of Democrat Franklin Roosevelt later that year.
His inner circle of “yes men” isolated him from the outside world. MacArthur surrounded himself with a sycophantic staff that never contradicted him and tried to ensure that his will was always carried out. The general had few actual friends because of his huge ego and inability to see anyone else as a peer worthy of respect. Instead, his closest companions mostly consisted of toadies and lackeys eager to please him.
Between World War II and the outbreak of the Korean War, MacArthur’s headquarters in Tokyo became known as a place filled with ineffective or incompetent officers who competed in their flattery of the general. Max Hastings, a British historian and author of the book “The Korean War,” describes the experience of a young officer joining MacArthur’s headquarters at that time as “akin to becoming a page at the court of a seventeenth-century European Monarch.” Senior staff even used the phrase “Close to the Throne” to refer to their standing with MacArthur, Halberstam writes.
Halberstam points to Charles Willoughby, MacArthur’s chief of intelligence, as being the most absurd example of an officer with both questionable judgment and dubious character gaining high rank within MacArthur’s headquarters. A Prussian-born man who occasionally wore a monocle, Willoughby once told a Time magazine correspondent during World War II that the United States “should give England to the Germans” and focus on fighting Japan. He also hero-worshiped Francisco Franco, the Spanish dictator and fascist leader supported by Nazi Germany during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. MacArthur’s nickname for Willoughby was “My lovable fascist.”
Willoughby was also perhaps one of the worst possible choices for a chief of intelligence in terms of actual competency for the job. His pompous attitude reflected a hollow confidence and certainty that mimicked MacArthur’s own tendency to believe he was always right regardless of the facts. When intelligence gathered from the battlefield happened to clash with MacArthur’s views, Willoughby did his best to suppress or spin such information in a way that promoted MacArthur’s viewpoint. He also spent much of his time and energy in trying to censor the work of journalists reporting on the Korean War battlefields.
Staff members such as Willoughby created a bubble around MacArthur that insulated the general from outside views or criticism and enabled him to feel like he was always right. But as leaders both past and present have discovered, living in a bubble isolated from reality can eventually distort their views of reality. MacArthur was no exception.
During the Korean War, MacArthur and his command staff often seemed to be living in a completely different world from the battlefield reality facing the U.S. troops fighting on the Korean peninsula. MacArthur preferred spending his time in the comfortable bubble of his Far East Command headquarters in Tokyo, Japan; he never spent a single night in Korea during the war. Such mental and physical isolation from the main battlefields helped contribute to a false sense of reality and confidence that eventually precipitated the general’s downfall.
His need to always be right skewed his sense of reality. Throughout his career, MacArthur refused to admit that he had been wrong about any decision or viewpoint. That meant MacArthur also refused to take responsibility when his words were proven wrong or when his mistakes led to military defeat. Instead, he preferred to blame his superiors in Washington and almost anyone else for any failures that might tarnish his legend. MacArthur’s attitude bred both conspiracy-minded paranoia and a willingness to lie for the sake of his reputation, Halberstam writes.
One of the great problems with Douglas MacArthur, something that had bedeviled those who had dealt with him for years, was that he did not always tell the truth. He used the truth when it suited him and his cause, and readily departed from it when it got in his way. The truth posed a great dilemma for a man who always had to be right, and yet, for all his grandeur, he was mortal like everyone else, and was often wrong, on occasion very wrong. Because he was surrounded by so many sycophants and no one ever challenged him, his own distortions eventually became crystallized as truths. Challenges to his version quickly became seen as the distortions of sworn enemies.
MacArthur’s inability to admit when he was wrong had severe consequences for both his own career and the course of the Korean War. But first, the general seemed poised to turn the Korean War into his greatest triumph. The initial North Korean invasion had pushed the South Korean and U.S. troops into a defensive pocket around the southern port city of Busan. MacArthur turned the tide of the war by convincing his reluctant superiors to allow him to launch an amphibious landing deep behind enemy lines at Inchon, a port city close to the South Korean capital of Seoul. His daring gambit succeeded in liberating Seoul and sending the North Koreans fleeing back north.
By late October of 1950, MacArthur was recklessly pushing his U.S. and United Nations troops deeper into North Korea despite warning signs that the Chinese Communist Party would intervene to save its North Korean ally. The general and his staff ignored or downplayed evidence that Chinese soldiers had already crossed into North Korea. MacArthur wanted nothing less than complete victory to crown his achievement as the American savior of a free and unified Korea. That goal effectively blinded him to anything that might rain on his parade.
On November 1, 1950, several Chinese divisions launched a surprise attack on lead U.S. Army and Marine forces, inflicting heavy casualties before disappearing into the hills. Incredibly, that highly ominous warning and direct evidence of a Chinese military presence in North Korea did not deter MacArthur. The general kept pushing his troops onward even as the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington — MacArthur’s military superiors — were asking him to halt the advance and create a more defensible line at the narrower neck of the Korean peninsula
When the Chinese generals finally sprang their full trap, the U.S. and United Nations troops were already overstretched and strung out within the mountains and valleys of North Korea. Despite their overwhelming firepower when fighting together, individual U.S. units found themselves fighting for their lives in isolated pockets. T.R. Fehrenbach, a U.S. Army officer who served during the Korean War and later wrote “This Kind of War” about the conflict, explains how the Chinese forces inflicted “upon American arms the most decisive defeat they had suffered in the century.”
There was massive American weapon power among these hills. There were regiments, battalions, a whole division. But only companies fought, and each company fought alone, out of sight, often out of knowledge of any other American unit. The battle boiled down into how long individual companies, singled out and enveloped on all sides by overwhelming numbers, could hold out.
A majority of U.S. Army and Marine units were able to avoid complete destruction. But it was a morale-shattering defeat for the officers and soldiers who escaped the Chinese ambush. The badly shaken troops of MacArthur’s command ended up retreating to new defensive lines around the South Korean capital of Seoul.
MacArthur seemed unable to accept the end of his glorious dream despite reality’s rude awakening, Halberstam writes. First, MacArthur and his command staff tried to spin bad news as good news. While U.S. troops of the Tenth Corps were fighting for their very survival, MacArthur’s headquarters told the Pentagon that Tenth Corps was attacking and tying down six or eight Chinese divisions. “When messages like that came in, it was as if the madness were in the room,” said Matthew Ridgway, the U.S. general who later took over MacArthur’s command in Korea and taught U.S. forces how to fight the Chinese military offensive to a standstill.
Next, MacArthur and his staff claimed that they had known about the Chinese ambush all along. Charles Willoughby, MacArthur’s chief of intelligence, kept telling reporters that MacArthur’s command had known exactly what the Chinese were planning to do. When one reporter asked why MacArthur had still put his troops in danger despite being outnumbered three to one, Willoughby responded that they “had to attack and find out the enemy’s profile.”
MacArthur’s headquarters eventually began releasing what was known in Washington as “MacArthur’s Posterity Papers.” These messages tried to excuse MacArthur from bearing any responsibility for the recent battlefield defeat. They also included complaints about how President Truman’s administration and the Pentagon had limited the military options for fighting the Chinese forces.
The general was unable to bear the humiliation of defeat at the hands of the Chinese forces and the seemingly inglorious end to what was supposed to have been his greatest triumph. Nor could he admit he had been wrong about the Chinese intervention in the first place. Therefore, in his mind, the only way to restore both his reputation and his own skewed version of reality was to punish China for its intervention in Korea.
To get MacArthur’s way, his headquarters “launched a propaganda campaign of doom-laden pessimism,” writes Max Hastings in his book “The Korean War.” The general began arguing that victory against the Chinese military required the U.S. Air Force to bomb Chinese cities and the U.S. Navy to blockade the Chinese coast. He even hinted heavily at the use of the atomic bomb during interviews with journalists.
But the Truman administration and Pentagon had very good reason to avoid attacking China directly. They feared that committing the overstretched U.S. military to a broader conflict with China would leave Western Europe and other regions open to Soviet aggression. Omar Bradley, one of the leading U.S. generals in the European theater of World War II and chairman of the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Korean War, later told a Congressional hearing that an expanded war with China would be “the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.”
Bradley also wrote of MacArthur’s “brilliant but brittle mind” snapping when he realized his superiors would not allow him to broaden the war to China. He described MacArthur’s mindset as follows:
The only possible means left to MacArthur to regain his lost pride and military reputation was now to inflict an overwhelming defeat on those Red Chinese generals who had made a fool of him. In order to do this he was perfectly willing to propel us into an all-out war with Red China and possibly with the Soviet Union, igniting World War III, and a nuclear holocaust.
President Truman finally fired MacArthur when the general began actively sabotaging U.S. diplomatic efforts to negotiate a ceasefire in Korea. The general had crossed one line too many after repeatedly disobeying both his commander in chief and his Pentagon superiors. “He was trying to influence policy,” Fehrenbach writes in “This Kind of War.” “Under the Constitution of the United States, no soldier has that privilege.”
His hunger for fame fed presidential ambitions. MacArthur’s attraction to the limelight led him to consider running for president several times. The general’s conservative views, Halberstam writes, were shaped by the 19th century and very much disconnected from the progressive forces shaping the lives of millions of Americans in the 20th century. But that did not stop him from harboring hopes to become president and gain the greatest platform of all.
The political players who gravitated toward MacArthur tended to be isolationist Republications who hated the progressive policies and internationalist views of the Democratic presidential administrations under Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. MacArthur himself intensely resented both Roosevelt and Truman.
“His views of the two Democratic presidents under whom he subsequently served were nothing less than toxic,” Halberstam writes. “This was especially true of Roosevelt, who, shrewd and cunning, managed to play the general with exceptional skill, much to the latter’s irritation — the irritation of a classic user who finally runs into someone who is even better at it.”
There was little love lost between the general and the Democratic presidents. When news of Roosevelt’s death arrived at MacArthur’s headquarters in 1945, the general turned to an aide and said, “So Roosevelt is dead: a man who would never tell the truth when a lie would serve him just as well.” His view of Truman, Roosevelt’s successor, was similarly toxic. The general often referred dismissively to Truman as “that Jew in the White House.” (Truman was not Jewish.)
Some Republicans were even pushing MacArthur to run against Roosevelt as World War II raged on in 1944. That 1944 presidential run never materialized, in part because MacArthur was embarrassed publicly and damaged politically by his exchange of letters with a Republican congressman. In those letters, MacArthur agreed with the congressman’s strangely sinister and pessimistic view of U.S. prospects under Roosevelt at a time when millions of Americans had united behind the beloved president in the country’s war effort.
MacArthur had greater hopes for a presidential run in 1948. The general was riding high after his pivotal role in the Allied victory that had ended World War II. He was also doing well in rebuilding occupied Japan and helping his former enemy transition toward a liberal democratic society.
But the general’s U.S. presidential ambitions hinged upon a messy coalition of the conservative right. MacArthur’s primary advocate was Robert Wood, former head of the isolationist America First Committee that had opposed America’s involvement in World War II until the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“The general’s most passionate enthusiasts were isolationists — though MacArthur was not one himself, he was willing to dance with them — nativists, racists, anti-Semites, and labor haters,” Halberstam writes. “They were absolutely convinced that they were the truest representatives of what they called Americanism.”
MacArthur’s 1948 presidential run collapsed almost as soon as it officially launched. The general failed to win the majority of Republican primary votes and delegates in Wisconsin, the state meant to test MacArthur’s potential for a broader presidential campaign. Thomas Dewey, the eventual Republican presidential candidate, went on to lose the presidential election to incumbent Democratic president Truman in one of the most well-known political upsets in U.S. history.
When Truman sacked MacArthur in 1951, the general found himself riding high upon his return to the United States. Huge crowds turned out to greet him in Hawaii and San Francisco. New York City held one of the biggest ticker tape parades ever in his honor with supposedly 7 million people turning out to see the general. MacArthur went on to address a joint session of Congress in an emotional farewell speech.
But like many egocentric people, MacArthur failed to understand that the moment was not just about him and his call for a crusade against Communist China. Halberstam sees the huge emotional outpouring by the American public as a sort of “giant anti-war rally,” an explosion of frustration about the new Cold War and the lack of clear victory over the Soviets and their Communist allies.
He thought it had all been about him, not understanding that he was merely a trigger device for something larger. For a time he still chased his dream, giving speeches all over the country. The crowds dwindled, and as they did, his voice inevitably became more strident. Many of his most passionate followers drifted elsewhere in search of another candidate. The game plan for the conservative right had never really centered around him. His real job had been to damage their enemies.
MacArthur’s political star had faded by the time of the 1952 Republican National Convention. He had no real hopes for winning the Republican nomination that year. Instead, he spoke at the convention on behalf of the conservative right’s favored candidate, Bob Taft, an isolationist. Everyone watching could tell that it was an incredibly uncomfortable role for a man who had only ever promoted himself.
The conservative right and Taft did not win that year. Instead, Dwight D. Eisenhower, MacArthur’s former aide in the 1930s and Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, reluctantly decided to run for the Republican nomination in order to prevent the party from being taken over by isolationists. When Eisenhower became president in 1952, one of the first things he did was to visit his commanders in Korea and renew the push for negotiations that eventually ended the Korean War in 1953.
Toward the end of his book “The Coldest Winter,” Halberstam contrasts Eisenhower’s personality with that of MacArthur.
Eisenhower was probably the perfect centrist candidate for that moment as America went through the torturous, grudging process of becoming an international power. He was thoughtful, careful, and experienced, the least jingoistic of military men. He was what the country wanted and probably needed just then, a tempered and tempering figure in an edgy and surely dangerous time. His sense of internationalism was impeccable and hard-won. He had led the largest invasion force in the history of mankind. He was, in personal terms, the anti-MacArthur, generous with subordinates, quick to give them credit, brilliant at suppressing his own ego, and capable of fending off the considerable ego of others.
Donald Trump’s admiration of the flamboyant MacArthur seems natural. Like MacArthur, Trump has many egocentric personality traits that guide his words and behavior. In another striking similarity, Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign attracted a modern-day faction of the conservative right that favored a new but familiar strain of “America First” isolationism.
Many leaders have huge egos to match their accomplishments. But there remains a question of how much narcissism Americans should desire in their leaders. In a 2013 study, psychologists examined “grandiose narcissism” among all U.S. presidents up until George W. Bush. They defined such narcissism as “characterized by exhibitionism, attention-seeking, inflated demands of entitlement and denial of weaknesses.”
The research suggested that grandiose narcissism could be a “double-edged sword” for presidents. Presidential candidates who ranked higher on the narcissism measure often won more votes and tried to accomplish more as president by introducing more legislation, according to a Pew Research Center article about the psychology study. But they were also more likely to engage in unethical behavior or become targets of impeachment resolutions.
As the 34th U.S. president, Eisenhower ranks squarely in the middle on the narcissism measure alongside other “nice-guy” presidents such as Jimmy Carter and George Washington. MacArthur was not included in the study for obvious reasons; he never became president. But the general’s record of actions and words leave little doubt that he would have ranked very high on the narcissism measure.
Given the darker side of MacArthur’s egomania, it’s arguably for the best that Americans never had to live through a MacArthur presidency.
Fehrenbach, T.R. (2010–07–01). This Kind of War. E-Reads, Ltd. 1 July 2010.
Halberstam, David. The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War. Hyperion. 25 Sept. 2007.
Hastings, Max. The Korean War. Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition. 15 Oct. 1988.
Perry, Mark. The Most Dangerous Man in America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur. Basic Books; 1st Edition. 1 Apr. 2014.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I originally wrote this story during the presidential election cycle of 2016. I’ve updated this to reflect the fact that Trump was elected president of the United States.