Reading corner: The General vs The President

The General vs The President: MacArthur and Truman at the brink of nuclear war

By H.W. Brands

Random House

Historians have plenty to choose from when they examine the years after the Second World War. Dramas large and small played out across fresh geopolitical fault lines as leaders, governments and citizens slowly readjusted to peace, as well as the encroaching shadow of the Cold War.

Here, Brands, one of America’s most pre-eminent political historians, spotlights the tumultuous relationship – both strategic and personal – which existed between President Harry S. Truman and General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander in Asia and one of the most decorated soldiers in US history. It makes for quite a tale.

Brands’ account begins with a gaffe. China had just entered the Korean War, directly contradicting MacArthur’s assertions that “they would never dare”. Truman, livid with his General’s failure to anticipate the attack, announced that, just five years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he was prepared to use the atom bomb and the decision on where and when it would be deployed would lie with the US commander in Korea – MacArthur. As the world reacted with alarm – remember that by now the Soviets, too, had the bomb – Truman scrambled to issue a clarification, reassure allies and avoid global nuclear conflict. MacArthur, by contrast, was fiercely opposed to any form of appeasement and believed strongly in the need to wage all out war against China. The stage was thus set.

Brands’ skill as a storyteller lights up every page. Under his pen, history comes alive with rich portraits of the leading players, as well as the type of re-creations of key meetings and conversations that can only come from huge amounts of detailed research. The results are more than worth it. More novel than textbook, Brands matches high readability with acute analysis and insight – quite a feat.

In the end, in an act of considerable political courage, Truman fired MacArthur and although the general returned to a hero’s welcome, feted in Congress and with parades aplenty, his sky-high reputation was not to endure. Truman, by contrast, enjoyed something of a renaissance after he left office, particularly as America’s subsequent struggles in Vietnam painted his approach of containment – resisting Communism but limiting the war – in a more positive light.

There is already much scholarship  about the Cold War, the Korean conflict and the deep-rooted tensions in East Asia. The General vs The President is nonetheless a hugely valuable addition and required reading for anyone interested in how the clash of people and personalities, egos and opinions, can shape global history – for better or worse.