So, I’ve been digging into one of many seams of information in the vast mine of our history: that which concerns an intriguing man named General Charles Willoughby. A brave yet cold and reckless soldier, he was born in Germany but moved to the U.S. quickly enrolled with army. He worked up throughout the ranks and, via WW1, became a colonel and eventually a general, serving under Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific.
One brilliant source for amateur historians is the Google archive. Key in search terms that intrigue you and you’ll be lost for hours. I shoved in the General’s name and found a veritable goldmine.
He was, it seems, in many ways, a satirist’s (or Stanley Kubrick’s) idea of a general: marked by a bellicosity suggestive of both arrogance and neuroticism. There are, for example, reports of a screed he penned against journalists reporting on the Korean War. In a diatribe that’s very reminiscent of attacks on dissidents before and after Iraq he claimed the reports were “often innacurate, biased [and] prejudiced”, had “furnished aid and comfort to the enemy” and served to “confuse an unhappy public”. This, from a 1951 edition of the Toledo Blade, is an amusing view of how reporters came to see the man…
Willoughby was no mere a braggart, though. Firstly as unlike today’s chickenhawks he was a brave, capable soldier who’d led men throughout various battles. He was also a fanatic. His appreciation of the hard-nosed military caste wasn’t limited to his devotion to MacArthur; it was displayed in the esteem in which he held their supposed enemies. Not for nothing did his General dub him “my pet fascist”. Willoughby lauded Franco, saluted Mussolini and, as this gossipy titbit from the Spokane Chronicle implies, made no secret of it…
(His loyalty to MacArthur was very real. Franco may have been the second best but Dugout Doug would have been top.)
What’s intriguing, and disturbing, is the influence Willoughby bore. After the Japanese surrender he was placed in charge of G-2 – Douglas MacArthur’s intelligence arm. His decisions at its helm suggest that far from wrapping up the Second World War he’d fixed his gaze upon a third one.
Unit 731 had been the centre of the Japanese programme of human experimentation. Evidence suggests that hundreds were tortured and killed in a series of grotesque trials. When the U.S. captured the scientists behind it, though, they were excited by suggestions that they harboured data which “could not [have been] obtained in [U.S.]…laboratories because of scruples attached to human experimentation”. With the spectre of the Russians looming in his mind, General Willoughby decided to bargain with the veritable Asian Mengeles. As Christopher Reed has written…
On my desk are two documents previously marked Top Secret and dated July 1947. They show not only full U.S. participation in allowing the Japanese medical torturers who escaped to Tokyo to go free in exchange for information, but that the Pentagon actually paid them. As General Charles Willoughby…gleefully noted to his headquarters, these pay-offs were “a mere pittance… netting the U.S. the fruit of 20 years’ laboratory tests and research” in this “critically serious form of warfare.”
He told Arisue Seizo, a one-time officer in the Imperial armed forces, to establish a secret communications group. This, historian Michael Petersen has written, was intended to “target communist elements in Japan”. It included criminals like Kodama Yoshio, a gangster and opiate smuggler, and Colonel Tsuji Masanobu, a rabid killer who’d engineered the notorious Bataan Death March.
In Yakuza: Japan’s Criminal Underworld, David Kaplan and Alex Dubro wrote of how this motley assortment of gangsters and war criminals went on to build the Japanese criminal far-right. Kodama particularly “created a powerful rightist bloc inside and outside…government“, and “tried to foment internal strife” with the help of ultranationalist yakuza gangs. The G-2’s employees “sp[ied] on and disrupt[ed] the left in Japan”. The extent of their activities, however, shall remain unknown because, as the authors inform us, “Willoughby was a burner”.
At this stage in his career, power and prejudice had turned the General into a tactical wrecking ball, swinging violently from campaign to campaign. In Korea he remained MacArthur’s intelligence chief. As the U.S. drove towards the Yalu river, smelling victory against the North Korean forces, thousands of soldiers of the Chinese People’s Army hared across the border, taking Western forces by surprise and, in the Battle of the Ch’ongch’on River, inflicting a grave defeat that prolonged the war considerably.
Months later, in 1951, Willoughby denied that the Chinese attack was a “monumental surprise”…
This was an odd denial considering that the important question was whether the Chinese meant business. And, thanks in no small measure to the General, the realisation that they did was a monumental surprise. Justin M. Haynes has written, in a thesis on the subject…
Despite multiple public statements that indicated that China would commit forces if UN troops crossed the 38th parallel, and despite reporting from the field that supported these indications, Willoughby failed to predict that the Communists would conduct a decisive counteroffensive.
This crippled the planning of the Western troops, as they relied on the intelligence that he’d “virtual[ly] monopol[ised]”. His prejudices – a colleague spoke of his “disdain of the capabilities of the Chinese” – and authoritarianism – he “espoused [a] philosophy on centralised control over intelligence activities” – helped to ensure that he was, in Haynes’ words, “the officer most responsible for the failure”.
Willoughby left his post after the failure at the Ch’ongch’on River and promptly retired. He launched spirited defences of MacArthur’s – and, therefore, his own – behaviour in Korea and – apparently resentful of their spectical reception – a violent salvo against critical reporters. (This affront, it seems, dealt a graver blow to his reputation than the Chinese victory.) He’d have been an awkward fit among the glib political classes and drifted towards the fringe, writing for the journal of the oddball anti-communist Billy James Hargis. His quiet involvement with the web of monied rightists who conducted a subversive war against supposed infiltrators has spawned numerous theories (see, for example, Dick Russell’s The Man Who Knew Too Much). Occasionally he cropped up in the mainstream press, issuing bellicose suggestions to the architects of brave new wars. Here, in 1964, we find him offering advice to the commanders of the U.S. war in Vietnam. His sentiment? ‘Nuke the gooks!’
If I can’t weave some kind of fiction round this man’s life then, by God, someone’s going to have to. He’s a fascinating character.
He was an extraordinary soldier. Not merely because of his achievements and position but as soldiership was so clearly integral to him. He’d joined up about as soon as he’d reached America, and it must have been entangled with his new identity. It’s tempting to think the army may have served to bridge the country with his motherland – neither Germany or the U.S. had or have been shy about their military traditions. Naturally, it would be presumptuous of me to try and psychoanalyse the man with a few essays as my only source material (oh, and a few pop psych books as my general knowledge) but it seems clear that his identity as a soldier and his admiration for the military class per se ensured he was a total warrior: someone whose affinity lay with nothing more than the tribe he fought with.
His work is evidence that human eccentricities can still be damnedly effective within massive institutions. Still, I reckon that extremities of his behaviour revealed less obvious habits of the military caste. A desire to triumph, for example, could be perceived as hard-nosed effectiveness but what’s interesting about Willoughby is that his triumphs moved seamlessly into new conflicts. As soon as victory had been achieved over Japan he was preparing for the real fight against the Soviets. As the U.S. battled the Chinese he’d convinced himself that Mao’s forces were mere pawns for the Russians. Officers need war for their positions to be meaningful and they can perhaps be tempted to move in cycles of conflict. There’s a danger, in other words, that military men will fight for victory in an eternal war; a pursuit that is, of course, as futile as it is destructive.