Loyalty First: The Life and Times of Charles A. Willoughby, MacArthur’s Chief Intelligence Officer

  • Published

Loyalty First: The Life and Times of Charles A. Willoughby, MacArthur’s Chief Intelligence Officer by David A. Foy. Casemate Publishers, 2023, 288 pp.

As he prepared for his fateful return to the Philippines in the fall of 1944, General Douglas MacArthur remarked on the legacy of intelligence chiefs, saying, “There are only three great ones in the history of warfare, and mine isn’t one of them” (43). MacArthur’s evaluation prompts the question, Why did Charles A. Willoughby remain by MacArthur’s side as his chief of intelligence for over a decade? This is one of the core questions David A. Foy attempts to answer in the biography Loyalty First: The Life and Times of Charles A. Willoughby, MacArthur’s Chief Intelligence Officer.

Loyalty First is a rare biography centered on a military intelligence chief, providing insight into the intelligence that fed some of the most significant military campaigns during World War II and the Korean War. As a historian and intelligence officer, Foy is qualified to write a complete account of the controversial Willoughby, blending historical analysis and the practical judgment of an intelligence professional. The result is a needed contribution to the study of MacArthur’s leadership and his use of intelligence and a valuable read for military and intelligence professionals.

Although Loyalty First covers Willoughby’s entire life, Foy narrows most of the book to the 10 years (1941–1951) Willoughby served as MacArthur’s chief of intelligence (G-2). The book is heavily weighted to examining Willoughby’s role during the Korean War. Foy offers a practical evaluation of Willoughby’s actions as both MacArthur’s senior analyst and the leader of the command’s intelligence apparatus. Weaving primary accounts with historical analysis, Foy highlights the inaccuracy of Willoughby’s intelligence assessments and his fierce bureaucratic prejudices. He directly points to MacArthur’s desire for intelligence that confirmed his personal beliefs as the source of most of Willoughby’s failures. The evidence presented astutely paints Willoughby’s role on MacArthur’s staff as less an intelligence chief and more a false prophet.

Foy’s assessment of Willoughby’s shortcomings falls into two general categories: failing to meet the basic analytical expectations of military intelligence officers and demonstrating the overriding commitment to prove his boss correct. Often, it is hard to tell to which category Willoughby’s numerous flawed assessments should be assigned. But, as the book title suggests, the desire to please MacArthur ultimately defines Willoughby’s G2 record.

Loyalty First is not a biography that aims to recast the chronicle developed by Willoughby’s detractors or dispute the list of his professional and personal foibles. Foy’s evaluation is consistent with the bountiful historical and contemporary assessments cited in the book. In fact, the accounts of Willoughby’s devotion to MacArthur are so numerous that, at times, Foy’s use of quoted secondary sources as evidence overshadows his own analysis, hindering the narrative telling of Willoughby’s story.

Still, Foy is able to move past a single snapshot of Willoughby as a flawed G-2 and instead see his shortcomings as an intelligence leader and analyst become more pronounced over a decade of exposure under MacArthur’s egocentric command. Foy skillfully takes caution to avoid “piling on” Willoughby’s shortcomings and instead includes Willoughby’s crucial contributions to the professionalization and organization of military intelligence operations when the US Army lacked leaders dedicated to military intelligence. Willoughby’s effective use and development of linguists in intelligence work also earn praise.

The overwhelming verdict of Willoughby’s G-2 career begs the most obvious question: How did he remain at the helm of MacArthur’s intelligence operations for 10 years and two wars? Foy points to three primary reasons: the value MacArthur placed on sycophants on his staff, the lack of trained quality intelligence officers at the start of World War II, and the reality that intelligence estimates were hard for even the best to get correct. Ultimately, it is the first reason, MacArthur’s appreciation of sycophants, why Willoughby held such a critical role on MacArthur’s staff for so long. As MacArthur’s G-2, Willoughby understood best, “first and foremost, the commander was always right” (116). Although Willoughby has to own his record, it is clear MacArthur incentivized and rewarded Willoughby to bring him intelligence that confirmed his suppositions, no matter how faulty or negligent the assessment.

Given MacArthur’s critical role in Willoughby’s professional and personal life, readers will desire a deeper examination of the relationship between the two men. Yet Willoughby’s dedication to promoting MacArthur’s legacy leaves so little daylight between MacArthur and Willoughby that honest debates, disagreements, or fissures between the two men either didn’t exist or remain deeply buried. After moving past the snapshot quotes and anecdotes that define most of Willoughby’s record, the reader is also left to wonder how any intelligence officer could remain objective under such conditions. This critical question directly ties to the timeless issues associated with the relationship between commander and intelligence and the role and responsibility of each.

An account of Willoughby is essential to understanding MacArthur’s command and the US Army’s operations in the Pacific during World War II and the Korean War. A richer understanding of complex moments resides in understanding the leaders who make decisions and those charged with providing the intelligence to shape the decisions. Willoughby’s record will remain, rightfully so, tied to his flawed assessments and tragic devotion to MacArthur. Still, it is crucial to consider and understand Willoughby as an individual and as an officer ensconced in MacArthur’s cloistered and dangerously powerful inner circle.

Loyalty First provides critical texture to a historical figure often left pillorized without full context. The balanced treatment of a complex, flawed leader is valuable to understanding MacArthur’s command and an instructive lesson for today’s intelligence professionals and those who rely on intelligence to guide their decisions.

Lieutenant Colonel Kyle B. Bressette, USAF, PhD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."