' Skip To Content
MacArthur | Article

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz with Cdr Herbert E. Schonland and LCdr Bruce McCandless aboard USS San Francisco (CA-38), in December 1942. PD.

Although Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz were the two men most directly responsible for the Allied victory in the Pacific, that's where the similarities end. According historian Ronald Spector, it's hard to imagine two people more different: "While MacArthur was a forceful and colorful personality, a man of dramatic gestures and rhetoric, Nimitz was soft-spoken and relaxed, a team player, a leader by example rather than exhortation." 

Growing up in Fredricksburg on the arid plains of central Texas, Chester Nimitz hardly seemed destined to become one of America's great naval heroes. In fact, as a teenager he first inquired about an appointment to West Point, only to be told that none were available. Encouraged to apply to the Naval Academy, he bested his peers in the entrance exam and entered in 1901, graduating seventh in his class four years later. Nimitz's first tour out of Annapolis would be more fateful than he knew: assigned to the battleship Ohio, he saw much of the Orient, and while in Japan met Admiral Togo, father of the navy he would ultimately face. 

Nimitz's early career was strong but hardly remarkable. He became an expert in the new discipline of submarine warfare, lecturing on sub tactics at the Naval War College in 1912, serving under the commander of the Atlantic sub force during WWI, and, in 1920, overseeing the building of the submarine base at Pearl Harbor. But perhaps his most valuable duty came in 1922, during an advanced course at the Naval War college. "The enemy of our games was always Japan," Nimitz would write, "and the courses were so thorough that after the start of World War II, nothing that happened in the Pacific was strange or unexpected." In 1933, he took command of a heavy cruiser division in the Far East. With the Japanese threat growing more ominous by the year, his familiarity with the region would prove a valuable commodity. A week after the debacle at Pearl Harbor, Navy Secretary Frank Knox gave Nimitz command of the Pacific Fleet. 

As considerable as his tactical skills were, perhaps Nimitz's greatest gift was his leadership ability. Naval historian Robert Love writes that Nimitz possessed "a sense of inner balance and calm that steadied those around him." He also "had the ability to pick able subordinates and the courage to let them do their jobs without interference. He molded such disparate personalities as the quiet, introspective Raymond A. Spruance and the ebullient, aggressive William F. Halsey, Jr. into an effective team." 

Of course, these same qualities helped ease Nimitz's relationship with MacArthur, no small feat given the amount of coordination called for between their two services. And it's fortunate that Nimitz did not share MacArthur's need for publicity; even the vast Pacific would not have been big enough for two great military leaders. Journalist Robert Sherrod, who spent time in both of their headquarters, said that "the Admiral was frequently the despair of his public relations men; it simply was not in him to make sweeping statements or to give out colorful interviews." 

But when it came to the honor of the navy, Nimitz was always prepared to make waves. According to his aide Hal Lamar, when Nimitz was told that MacArthur would run the surrender ceremony, "Admiral Nimitz felt that the Navy was being slighted for the job they had done during the war and he told the Secretary of the Navy to inform President Truman that he would not attend." Realizing his mistake, Truman changed the orders. Everyone got something: MacArthur ran the show, Nimitz took the surrender for the United States, and the President got to watch it all unfold on the battleship Missouri. 

Support Provided by: Learn More