The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by H.W. Brands
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book is an engaging narrative of the battle between General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry S Truman during the Korean War. Brand uses quotes from original sources to bring the story alive.
Omar Bradley said “he [MacArthur] was awesomely brilliant; but as a leader he had several major flaws: an obsession for self-glorification, almost no consideration for other men with whom he served, and a contempt for the judgment of his superiors. Like Patton and Monty’ – British field marshal Bernard Montgomery – ‘ MacArthur was a megalomaniac.” [Loc 1374]. President Roosevelt “kept a close eye on MacArthur, whom he considered a threat to democracy.”[Loc 1599] and considered him the most dangerous man in America (the second most dangerous being Huey Long). [Loc 1374”]
Most history students know the broad sweep of the Korean War. North Korea invades South Korea in a surprise attack and pushes forces deep into the south. MacArthur develops a brilliant plan to counter attack through a difficult landing and deployment in Inchon. The tide changes and the allies – under the unifying factor of the United Nations – push the North Koreans back up toward the border with China. China sees that as an existential threat and pushes the allied forces back south of Seoul. General Matthew Ridgeway anchors the allies and pushes back toward the 38th parallel where a stalemate occurs until much later a truce is agreed to.
Through it all MacArthur was lobbying (and actually taking steps) to extend the war into China because of course the Chinese wouldn’t come into the war. Wrong! This book focuses on the Korean battlefield to the extent that it highlights the schism between MacArthur and the administration, including the President, the Secretary of State (Dean Acheson), the Secretary of Defense (George Marshall for most of the time) and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (led by General Omar Bradley). MacArthur complained bitterly about not being able to take the battle into China. His view was that the battle against communism would take place in Asia while the administration knew that the real trouble spot was Europe where the USSR was waiting to pounce; the CIA warned that “‘The Soviet Union may seize upon the present crisis to precipitate general war with the United States'” [Loc 4196]
Meanwhile MacArthur confounded the diplomacy of the administration when he offered a cease fire to the North Koreans by threatening nuclear annihilation of China. He also wrote an inflammatory letter to a Republican congressman which contradicted his superiors and the Commander in Chief. These actions ultimately brought about his firing.
Truman came under withering attack from the Republicans after MacArthur’s firing. At first MacArthur was hailed as a hero at the hearings but over the later days of testimony from experts the tide turned against him. H.W. Brand does a fantastic job sourcing the now unclassified portions of the hearings to demonstrate how dangerous MacArthur was. MacArthur decried the administrations limits on attacking China saying his hands were tied behind his back. George Marshall wasn’t having it: “the limitations on fighting in Korea, so loudly assailed by MacArthur and his supporters, in fact favored the American side.”[Loc 6181] It was through this detailed hearing that Congress finally understood what America was facing globally.
For all the furor of the era, when Truman was vilified, time showed that his vision was correct. “Yet it was the American victory in the Cold War that made Truman a genuine folk hero. Americans concluded, after all, that the everyman-president, in crafting the policy of containment, had known better than his critics what defeating communism required: firmness and patience, in balanced measure. Truman hadn’t yielded to communist aggression in Korea, but neither had he panicked and let himself be stampeded into World War III, by Douglas MacArthur or others.”[Loc 6648]
This is the second book by H.W. Brand I’ve read – the first being American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism 1865-1900. Both are excellent histories. The strength of this book is its bringing meeting minutes, phone call notes, and then-classified testimony to life. The chapters are short and cover the topic at hand briskly yet definitively. Don’t look at this summary of events as a spoiler. The beauty of the story is the riveting day-by-day evolution of strategy and battle between MacArthur and his superiors.