Thursday, June 24, 2021

Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz: Five-Star Leadership, Part 2

By Lee Duckworth
HRNM Volunteer

Part 1 of this blog is available here.


The greatest difference between Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz was in their personality. MacArthur was renowned for being egotistical and seeing himself as invincible and infallible. Nimitz was the antithesis: humble and unemotional.

MacArthur felt he was living out his destiny in his meteoric rise to five-star general. He rarely cracked a smile and seldom used profanity. Nimitz, on the other hand, loved to tell stories and jokes. He enjoyed mingling with the troops and had many friends, both junior and senior.
General MacArthur and his chief of staff on Corregidor, Philippines, 1942
(Wikimedia Commons)
MacArthur was domineering, enigmatic, decisive, highly principled, and outspoken. But he was also egocentric, arrogant, had a love for theatrics, and had few friends. MacArthur was an outstanding strategist and superb at seeing the big picture of the war in the Pacific. He worked long hours and expected his staff to do the same: they needed to be completely loyal and energetic. He “wrapped himself in a cloak of dignified aloofness” and “no one was permitted to forget he was both warrior and aristocrat.”[1] He seemed to live by the concept that “rules are mostly made to be broken.” He was a farsighted administrator but flamboyant and had great moral courage that inspired confidence.
Admiral Nimitz pins the Navy Cross on Doris Miller, 1942
(Naval History and Heritage Command)
Conversely, Nimitz was a more reserved leader, had a will of steel, was humble and a team-builder. He too was a superb strategist and tactician. Nimitz was unflappable and calm and had a great sense of humor, which helped alleviate tension. He led by common sense and example yet avoided the press and publicity. He demonstrated an astonishing coolness under pressure and was known for his quiet manner. Nimitz was hardworking, eager to take charge, rule-abiding and conscientious, and was the consummate organizer. He was superb at the art of delegation, freeing himself from the minute details of his job.


What can we glean from the background of these five-stars? Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur were highly intelligent, great strategists, and had loyal followers. As historian D. Clayton James relates, the two men “had much in common. Both had highly trained command minds that cut through underbrush to reach the core of projects and problems. Both had that extraordinary quality of leadership that inspires loyalty; both were endowed with the champion’s will to win. But here the similarity ceases. The admiral seldom rode the emotional pendulum; joy and sorrow would set the general off on lusty zooms or steep dives.”[2] Both were groomed and excelled in their own way. They were both very aware of the political influence they wielded, though MacArthur took more advantage of that influence. Yet, their approach to the vast and seemingly overwhelming responsibilities demonstrates their uniqueness and individuality. MacArthur’s style was "A leadership that kept you at a respectful distance, yet at the same time took you as an esteemed member of his team, and very quickly had you working harder than you had ever worked before in your life, just because of the loyalty, admiration and respect in which he held you."[3]

MacArthur and Nimitz reported to their respective service chiefs on the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) during World War II (MacArthur to General George C. Marshall and Nimitz to Admiral Ernest J. King). Fortunately, the two service chiefs had leadership and personality styles opposite of their corresponding Pacific leaders. King was a notorious workaholic who was driven, outspoken, and extremely demanding. Marshall was the opposite: mellow, calm, and very forward-thinking. King understood Nimitz’s style of leadership and though he pushed hard, he held great respect for Nimitz. Marshall was the perfect foil for MacArthur and knew how to keep him under control. He would wait, sometimes for days, before responding to MacArthur’s messages and demands, completely ignoring them on occasion. Marshall was supportive of MacArthur but never pushed around by him. The two JCS chiefs were perfect matches for MacArthur and Nimitz and supported them extremely well. Had their personalities been exchanged, there may have been bigger battles on the Washington front that there were in the Pacific.
Douglas MacArthur and his staff returning to the Philippines in 1944 
(Wikimedia Commons)
Two of the major actions of WWII in the Pacific highlight their differences: MacArthur’s return to the Philippines and Nimitz at the Battle of Midway. MacArthur’s speech on his return was broadcast all over the Philippines and began: “People of the Philippines, I have returned! By the grace of Almighty God, our forces stand again on Philippine soil…Rally to me!”[4] MacArthur had used the phrase “I shall return” as his clarion for nearly three years and went so far as to have thousands of packets of matchbooks printed and distributed with those words on the cover.

Nimitz, some 30 months earlier (May 1942), flew to Midway a month prior to the battle and inspected the preparations being made to defend the island against the impending Japanese assault. In response to the commander of the ground force’s list of items needed to fight against the Japanese, he asked: “If I get you all these things you say you need, then can you hold Midway?” To the reply of “Yes Sir,” Nimitz smiled and began to look relaxed. “In his usual quiet way he thoroughly alerted the defenders of the atoll and at the same time instilled confidence in them.”[5]
Nimitz explains his recommended strategy at a July 1944 conference with MacArthur, President Roosevelt, and Admiral Leahy. (Wikimedia Commons)
Perhaps most telling is President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s comments during the July, 1944 Pearl Harbor meeting to discuss the Formosa/Philippines strategy. FDR told aides that each man was intelligent, insightful, and gentlemanly. They were consummate professionals, both very respectful of each other and committed to working together.

Nimitz and MacArthur stayed the course, and in their unique styles, triumphed in the war years. It is clear that they were the right men, in the right place, at a most critical time to lead the allies to victory in the Pacific in the Second World War.

[1] James, Vol II, 77, 81
[2] James, Vol II, 398-399
[3] Kinni, 163
[4]  James, Vol II, 558
[5] Potter, 78

Recommended Reading

Borneman, Walter R. The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King: The Five-star Admirals who won the War at Sea. Little, Brown and Co., New York, NY, 2012.

Borneman, Walter R. MacArthur at War: World War II in the Pacific. Little, Brown & Co, New York, NY, 2016.

Hoyt, Edwin P. How They Won the War in the Pacific: Nimitz and His Admirals. Lyons Press, Guilford, CT, 1970.

James, D. Clayton. The Years of MacArthur 1880-1941, Volume I; The Years of MacArthur 1941-1945, Volume II. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA, 1970 and 1975.

Kinni, Theodore and Donna. No Substitute for Victory: Lessons in Strategy and Leadership from Douglas MacArthur. Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 2005.

Manchester, William. American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964. Little, Brown & Co., Boston, MA, 1978.

Potter, E. B. Nimitz. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1976.

Spector, Ronald H. At War at Sea: Sailors and Naval Combat in the Twentieth Century. Penguin & Putnam, New York, NY, 2001.

Stavridis, Admiral James. Sailing True North; Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character. Penguin Press, New York, NY, 2019.

Toll, Ian W. Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific, 1944-1945. W. W. Norton & Co, New York, NY, 2020.

No comments: