The General’s speech

You may have thought the lowest approval ratings a President has had in America would have been during the Watergate scandal, the Iran-Contra scandal, or perhaps during the financial crisis and bailouts of 2007 shepherded by George W. Bush. In fact, it was in the fall of 1951, when President Harry Truman had an approval rating of about 22%, driven primarily by his decision that April to relieve General Douglas MacArthur of command over United Nations forces in Korea.

MacArthur is a towering figure in 20th century history, having long before the Korean War begun one of the most extraordinary careers in American history by serving with distinction in our occupation of Veracruz in 1914. After this he rose to the rank of Colonel in the First World War, fighting on the western front, and earning more than a half dozen medals for his valor. When he returned to active duty before the Second World War, MacArthur commanded our Pacific forces. Initially forced from the Philippines, MacArthur fulfilled his famous promise (“I shall return”) after two years of fighting. His defense of the Philippines, for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor, was a turning of the tide in the Pacific theater, leading to the leapfrogging strategy which eventually led Allied forces to Japan.

MacArthur’s conduct in the Korean War remains a subject of controversy. Troops criticized him for conducting the war from the safety of Tokyo, and after his dismissal from duty a congressional hearing found he had violated the Constitution by defying the President’s orders.

douglas macarthurWhen he and his wife Jean returned to the United States, it was their first visit since their wedding fourteen years earlier. They travelled cross country to the Capitol where MacArthur address the US Congress to a series of standing ovations.

In retirement, MacArthur accepted West Point’s prestigious Syvanus Thayer Award on May 12, 1962. Visibly frail, the General’s speech is remembered for its frequent refrain, “Duty, honor, country.

You may wonder how we intend to connect the story of “Dugout Doug” to what is usually a blog about music. It’s this 1969 piece by avant garde composer Robert Erickson. General Speech was commissioned by Stuart Dempster, and is written for solo trombone.

new music for virtuosos

From the liner notes to this LP, Music for Virtuosos 2, by Harvey Sollberger:

Based not merely on a text of General Douglas MacArthur’s but as much on his persona or, one might say, the myth he consciously lived and exemplified, the piece uses speech as a bridge between music and theater. The trombonist is required to merge his playing of precisely notated (and often difficult) musical events with the verbal articulations into the instrument of a phoneticized version of MacArthur’s retirement speech at West Point. Thus the opening “Duty, honor, country” (which functions as a refrain throughout this piece) is articulated as “Doo-tee — yonor — cunt’treeee,” etc.

general speech

Robert Erickson was briefly a resident of the Twin Cities, where he studied under Ernest Krenek at Hamline and later taught at St. Catherine’s before moving to the West Coast. He was one of the first American composers to work in Schoenberg’s twelve tone system, but left it behind as his works evolved towards musique concrete. Composers of note who cite Erickson as an influence include Pauline Oliveros, Terry Reilly and Morton Subotnik.

We’re sort of fascinated by General Speech, which we assume was intended as a commentary on the Vietnam War and specifically perhaps on the draft. In personifying the General in the same manner as Charlie Brown’s teacher, Erickson presents the military establishment as disconnected from the people in a mocking tone.

But the choice of MacArthur’s “Duty, Honor, Country” speech strikes us as inconsistent with this interpretation, because shortly before giving his famous farewell at West Point, MacArthur met with President Kennedy at the White House, where he was critical of current military strategy and of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. MacArthur advised Kennedy against continuing to build up a military presence in Vietnam.

In fact, MacArthur was somewhat unique among military leaders of his generation in his attitude towards the people of the Far East. His tenure as the effective ruler of Japan, as the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during the US occupation after World War II, suggests he understood the potential for peace and prosperity to be found in the East. There is a stunning photograph of the General standing next to Emperor Hirohito, a man who many wished to see hanged but who MacArthur actively protected from a war crimes trial.

One can only speculate what MacArthur would have said about the state of our war in Vietnam in 1969, because he had “fade[d] away” (to paraphrase his famous remark) five years earlier. We would like to speculate that Erickson chose MacArthur’s retirement speech because it was well-known to his audience. Had he composed General Speech a year later, perhaps he would have instead chosen General George Patton’s speech to the Third Army, delivered on the day before D-Day. It had become very famous because an abridged version opened the Academy Award-winning film Patton that year.

Contrasting Patton’s speech with MacArthur’s presents a very different perspective of duty, honor and country. If you can recognize it in the trombone solo performed by Stuart Dempster (we certainly cannot), the conclusion of General Douglas MacArthur’s speech at West Point is a painful reminder of the world we have created for ourselves, even fifty years later.

This does not mean that you are war mongers.

On the contrary, the soldier, above all other people, prays for peace, for he must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.

But always in our ears ring the ominous words of Plato, that wisest of all philosophers: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

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