Douglas MacArthur was one of America’s most controversial generals. While some claim he was a strategic genius, others say he thought in very narrow terms and made numerous blunders. All agree, however, that he was quite the showman and knew how to project the right image for the moment.
If General Patton is the exemplar of flamboyancy, General MacArthur is the exemplar of understatement. Patton let people know he was in the room with his flashy uniform, medals, and pearl-handled pistols. MacArthur let people know he owned the room by wearing a plain khaki uniform (shirt and pants only) with no medals whatsoever. His rank insignia, marshal’s cap and pipe, said all that needed to be said.
Many people are familiar with the picture of MacArthur wading in the water as he returned to the Philippines in October 1944. As the battle was raging, not far from where he walked onto the beach, MacArthur, with staff and photographers in tow, looked simply like an executive preparing to enter a conference room. What is less known is how MacArthur entered Japan on August 30, 1945, arguably one of his finest moments.
Japan had finally agreed to surrender after experiencing the devastating effects of two atomic bombs. While the formal surrender on the USS Missouri in Tokyo Harbor had yet to take place (it would occur on September 2), MacArthur arrived early by airplane to essentially assume control of Japan. However, nothing about the transition was certain. Though Japan had surrendered, there were still many Japanese soldiers who wanted to fight to the death. There was a very real possibility that there were assassins among the waiting crowd on the tarmac and the thousands of Japanese soldiers lining his fifteen-mile motorcade route.
As we can imagine, many of MacArthur’s staff were nervous about disembarking. But when some of them began to put on their gun belts with their sidearms, MacArthur ordered them to remove them. He explained that, “If they intend to kill us, sidearms will be useless. And nothing will impress them like a show of absolute fearlessness. If they don’t know they’re licked, this will convince them.”
With bated breath MacArthur’s staff waited to see if they would survive the day. MacArthur was proved right. He donned his cap and sunglasses and disembarked the plane with absolutely no personal security. The plainness of his image spoke volumes. It declared to the Japanese people that they were defeated and that MacArthur and the Americans did not fear them. People were stunned, but they got the message. A people that had worshiped their emperor as a deity understood that there was a new sheriff in town.
The importance of projecting the appropriate image as a leadership tool can be seen in this week’s parsha. After Eliezer identifies Rivka as the appropriate person for Yitzchak to marry, he proceeds to her house to negotiate the marriage. Rivka’s family offers Eliezer a meal as a prelim to the negotiations (24:33). Despite his long journey, Eliezer refuses to eat until the negotiations are completed.
The Meam Loez suggests that Eliezer was concerned that Rivka’s family might have an older daughter who they would try to marry off to Yitzchak. He felt that if he ate their food he might possibly feel a sense of gratitude to them, causing him to be less inclined to argue and refuse their offer. Eliezer refused to eat so as not to weaken the fortitude he would need in the upcoming discussions.
The Meam Loez also suggests a second tactical reason. Eliezer, through his accompanying angels, was aware that Betuel and Lavan would try to poison him. He was also aware that the food was switched and that Betuel would eat the poisoned food and not survive the meal. Eleizer was concerned that if they ate first and Betuel died, the family and locals would want to postpone the negotiations until after the funeral and mourning period. He wanted to conclude the negotiations before they ate and Betuel died, thus creating a fait accompli.
In light of the General MacArthur episode we can suggest an image-based reason. By not eating, Eliezer projected an image of power and self-sufficiency. He demonstrated that he was disciplined and focused, and could not be bought. Most important, he demonstrated that he had the upper hand. He was prepared to walk away from the negotiations – even without a meal. Like MacArthur’s matter-of-fact landing in Japan, Eliezer, through his refusal to eat before sealing the deal, declared loud and clear to one and all that he was in charge.
While an image is not leadership per se, if used effectively it is a very powerful tool for leaders to use as they advance their causes. Oddly enough, MacArthur’s arrival in the Philippines when he arrogantly proclaimed that, “I have returned,” is looked upon by historians as an example of a prima donna calling for attention. His business-like arrival to Japan, though, without an accompanying public statement, is viewed by many historians as one of history’s great moments of statesmanship. It helped smooth the way for Japan’s return to the international community.