Why I Read Biographies – American Caesar


There are many good reasons for reading biographies: to learn more about noticeable people, to read about their roots and the secret of their success, to seek inspiration from their behavior in adversity. These are all very good reasons but I usually read biographies out of laziness and for the gossip.

The greatest biography in the English language is nevertheless probably ‘Boswell’s Life of Johnson’. It’s a very big book and very famous, but it’s great fun too.

In Boswell’s Life of Johnson you can find out a lot about the social habits of these venerable characters in the olden days (for ‘social habits’ read sex, food, drink and conversation) and about day to day life before the inventions we take for granted (like bathrooms and hot running water).

The most successful biography of the modern age is said to be Kitty Kelley’s controversial life of Frank Sinatra, which has seemingly sold millions more copies than any other biography.

For the generations that knew and admired Sinatra it’s a fascinating book. And Sinatra hated every page of it.

Laziness is a big motivator for me because I like to learn about history without working too hard. So on this approach to the subject one of the great books – and greatest revelations – for me is ‘American Caesar’ by William Manchester. [Little, Brown & Company 1978]

If I had seen a book called ‘The History of the Philippines, Japan and South-East Asia 1932-1948’ I would certainly have passed it by.

If I had seen a book called ‘The Last King of Japan’ I would not have understood the title and would probably have left it on the shelf.

But this is the life of Douglas MacArthur, war hero, architect of modern Japan, savior of the Philippines and more. He was by a long way the most powerful American never to keep up the office of president and this book shows how he did it. It’s an unbelievable story, but it’s true.

The gossip part is provided by his notorious sacking by President Truman and by the “supporting cast” of his presidents, who were also, of course, his commanders in chief and never meant to be second to anyone. His treatment of his military superior General George Marshall, and his own assistant, a certain Dwight D. Eisenhower was also surprising.

And surely the famous Generals like George Patton thought they were powerful until they came within range of this soldier, prophet, super-manager, egoist, demi-god and icon.

If he was also completely crazy, as some historians think, then on the evidence of this book he was crazy like a fox. They had to sell this book as a biography because they had no choice – it is the true life of an extraordinary man. If they’d tried to sell it as fiction no-one would have believed it.

For the lazy student of history this master work by the eminent William Manchester will explain and fill in the history of South- East Asia and World War II in the Pacific theatre in a comprehensive and fascinating way.

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