Where to start with Douglas MacArthur? To say that he was general of the Army? To note that he was superintendent of West Point? To recall his famous exit from the Philippines and his even more famous return? To cite his role in the occupation of Japan? To refer to his time commanding U.N. troops in the Korean War? To reflect on his firing by Harry Truman? To quote his remarkable “just fade away” speech, interrupted numerous times by applause, on Capitol Hill?
We may not know where to start, but we surely know where to end — where MacArthur effectively ended his public career, 50 years ago, when he appeared among the ghosts and memories of West Point and spoke to the sparkling young men who could have known only vaguely on that day in May 1962 how Vietnam would shape and, in some tragic cases end, their lives.
On the surface, he was there to accept the Sylvanus Thayer Award, a coveted honor named for the father of the military academy. But in truth he was there to take his leave, to share the perspective of a man who was forged in the fire of battle, who thrived on military, moral and political conflict, who had grown weary of war and impatient with the conventions of diplomacy that led nations into armed confrontations that seemed ever more senseless and remorseless.
MacArthur was there to say goodbye to the world stage and to the millions whose lives he touched and commanded and whose spirits he lifted — or repulsed. He did so with his customary flourish and flair and in the florid language that was as much a hallmark of his personality as his corncob pipe, always jutting from his teeth at a crisp 90-degree angle:
Duty ... Honor ... Country. Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points: to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn.
These are the three words most commonly associated with MacArthur, but they trace their provenance back to Sylvanus Thayer himself, and thus when MacArthur chose to make these words the leitmotif of his acceptance speech, he was identifying himself firmly with the grandest traditions of West Point.
Let civilian voices argue the merits or demerits of our processes of government; whether our strength is being sapped by deficit financing, indulged in too long by federal paternalism grown too mighty, by power groups grown too arrogant, by politics grown too corrupt, by crime grown too rampant, by morals grown too low, by taxes grown too high, by extremists grown too violent; whether our personal liberties are as thorough and complete as they should be. These great national problems are not for your professional participation or military solution.
This is, in many ways, the most remarkable element of this remarkable speech, for MacArthur is the best-known violator of the most sacred element of the relationship between the military and civilian lives of our nation: the notion that policy is made by civilians and prosecuted by soldiers. It was MacArthur’s criticism of Truman, in a letter read on the floor of the House, that led to his dismissal and here, in the late autumn of a life that would end two years later, he presented an unmistakable critique of his greatest failure as a general.
The shadows are lengthening for me. The twilight is here. My days of old have vanished tone and tint; they have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. Their memory is one of wondrous beauty, watered by tears, and coaxed and caressed by the smiles of yesterday. I listen vainly for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll. In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield.
He spoke this passage without notes, leaning and bobbing in his customary fashion, deliberately creating the impression that he was no longer speaking from his head, but instead from his deepest sentiments. This was MacArthur showmanship at its greatest, for he had worked for days to memorize these words.
“No one could improvise such rhetoric,” wrote biographer William Manchester. “The awed cadets thought that he was coining the phrases as he trod the platform before them, but what they had actually witnessed was the last performance of a consummate actor.”
Today marks my final roll call with you, but I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of the Corps, and the Corps, and the Corps.
These are the final words of the speech, set up by his remark that in his dreams, “I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange, mournful mutter of the battlefield.” To our ears this sort of rhetoric is antiquarian, more suited to the days of Rudyard Kipling than to the era of Norman Mailer.
But there remains something intoxicating about the final passage: “the Corps, and the Corps, and the Corps.” It possesses a martial rhythm, echoing like shots in the very night that occasioned MacArthur’s dreams of guns crashing and musketry rattling.
Glenn Edward Schembechler was 33 years old and still an assistant football coach at Ohio State when MacArthur delivered this West Point valedictory. In 1969, five years after MacArthur’s death, he would ascend to the top coaching job at Michigan, where he would coach for 21 seasons.
It cannot be a coincidence that the remarks for which Schembechler is most famous — indeed some of the most enduring words ever uttered by a football coach — carry eerie echoes of MacArthur. Some 21 years after the West Point speech, Schembechler spoke of “the Team, the Team, the Team.”
MacArthur now is a figure of history, his life remembered by few, his achievements studied by fewer. But this speech, given 50 years ago this week, deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest delivered on these shores, and revered beyond West Point and by more than the Corps, the Corps, the Corps.