The General vs. the President
MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War
By H.W. Brands
448 pp. $30
Reviewed by Bob Drogin
The General vs. the President is H.W. Brands' highly readable take on the clash of two titanic figures in a period of hair-trigger nuclear tensions. This is ground well trod by others, often with greater flair and insight: William Manchester's magisterial work on MacArthur, David McCullough's groundbreaking biography of Truman, and David Halberstam's piercing look at the carnage in Korea, to name three.
Brands is a skilled historian, and he mines letters, memoirs, and transcripts to give gripping blow-by-blow accounts. It's difficult to discern much new here - but history offers few antagonists with such dramatic contrasts, and Brands brings these two to life.
Brands begins his tale in June 1950, when communist North Korean troops invaded the pro-Western south, sending U.S. and South Korean troops into panicked retreat. MacArthur, the U.S. commander in the Far East, was caught "flat-footed and unprepared," Brands notes.
Truman and his aides were determined to respond to what they saw as Soviet-inspired aggression. They approved what Truman called a "police action," not a full-fledged war, wary of potential Soviet countermoves in Europe or the Middle East.
To seize the initiative, MacArthur launched a daring amphibious landing at Inchon, behind enemy lines, in September 1950. A month later, U.S. troops captured Pyongyang, the northern capital, and then, despite orders from Washington, pushed north to the Chinese border. They'd be home by Christmas, he promised.
Instead, the Chinese invaded that December, overwhelming and outmaneuvering the American troops. MacArthur again claimed utter surprise, and Brands surprisingly ignores scholarship that shows he and his aides discounted or dismissed multiple reports of a Chinese military buildup.
Refusing to concede any errors, MacArthur urged Washington to let him expand the war by bombing bases in China. His threats - including one to plant minefields with radioactive waste - worried allies, created turmoil in Washington, and irked Truman no end. The last straw came when MacArthur publicly called for all-out war against China just as Truman was trying to coax the Chinese into peace talks. "Rank insubordination," Truman wrote in his diary. The general, he decided, had to go.
History has been kinder to Truman than to MacArthur. Their epic collision of wills, egos, and policies helped set America's course in the Cold War, as well the backdrop for current tensions in northeast Asia. Brands' engaging book helps explain why.
This review originally appeared in the New York Times.