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The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War

The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War

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by H. W. Brands

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From master storyteller and historian H. W. Brands comes the riveting story of how President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur squared off to decide America's future in the aftermath of World War II.

At the height of the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman committed a gaffe that sent shock waves around the world. When asked by a reporter about


From master storyteller and historian H. W. Brands comes the riveting story of how President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur squared off to decide America's future in the aftermath of World War II.

At the height of the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman committed a gaffe that sent shock waves around the world. When asked by a reporter about the possible use of atomic weapons in response to China's entry into the war, Truman replied testily, "The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of the weapons, as he always has." This suggested that General Douglas MacArthur, the willful, fearless, and highly decorated commander of the American and U.N. forces, had his finger on the nuclear trigger. A correction quickly followed, but the damage was done; two visions for America's path forward were clearly in opposition, and one man would have to make way.
     Truman was one of the most unpopular presidents in American history. Heir to a struggling economy, a ruined Europe, and increasing tension with the Soviet Union, on no issue was the path ahead clear and easy. General MacArthur, by contrast, was incredibly popular, as untouchable as any officer has ever been in America. The lessons he drew from World War II were absolute: appeasement leads to disaster and a showdown with the communists was inevitable—the sooner the better. In the nuclear era, when the Soviets, too, had the bomb, the specter of a catastrophic third World War lurked menacingly close on the horizon.
     The contest of wills between these two titanic characters unfolds against the turbulent backdrop of a faraway war and terrors conjured at home by Joseph McCarthy. From the drama of Stalin's blockade of West Berlin to the daring landing of MacArthur's forces at Inchon to the shocking entrance of China into the war, The General and the President vividly evokes the making of a new American era.

Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Thomas E. Ricks
…H. W. Brands…does a fine job of covering a major episode that deserves the thorough treatment it receives here. With the passage of time, it becomes clearer that Truman, an accidental president, showed great courage in facing down one of the most prominent military officers of the 20th century…It is a good story, and Brands…tells it well…
Publishers Weekly
Brands (Reagan), professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, expounds on President Truman’s decision, in April 1951, to fire Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then the UN commander in Korea, after months of listening to him threaten to expand the war. The issues behind this decision might take up as much as a long magazine article, so Brands adds workmanlike dual biographies and an account of the Korean War before getting down to his main business, which will refresh readers’ memories without adding any special insights. Despite MacArthur’s assurance that they wouldn’t, Chinese forces entered the war in November 1950. During the headlong retreat that followed, MacArthur uttered increasingly shrill warnings about Armageddon unless he was permitted to attack China proper. The general’s superiors never shared the public’s adoration of him, and all supported Truman’s action in relieving him. This produced widespread but short-lived outrage, and historians now agree it was the right decision. Brands does not rock any boats. His Truman is a plainspoken leader whose reputation has risen steadily since bottoming out in 1951. His MacArthur, a military genius with an inflated ego, follows a timeworn tradition. Readers may weary of long quotations from correspondence and committee hearings, but they will encounter the definitive history of a half-forgotten yet bitter controversy. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Brands here illuminates the showdown between President Harry S. Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, especially fraught once China entered the Korean War. Truman slipped once, saying that the military commander in the field was in charge of all weapons use, and the thought of the high-handed MacArthur in control of the bomb was pretty unsettling. Truman's eventual triumph defined America's approach to diplomacy throughout the entire Cold War period.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2016-07-04
Two American heroes tested and tried at their most inspired hours.Brands (History/Univ. of Texas; Reagan: The Life, 2015, etc.) finds in President Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur two perfect counterweights to the unfurling crisis over the aggressive incursions of communism in East Asia. The author works his way backward from the tipping point in December 1950, when the Chinese had joined the Korean War against the United States and its Allies despite the assurances by MacArthur that the Chinese would never dare. The president, “livid” at the general for his recklessness and lack of foresight, assured the press that the U.S. “will take whatever steps are necessary” to repel the Chinese, including the use of “every weapon we have.” This was no reassurance for the rest of the world, terrified of the opening salvos of an atomic war, which the president, immersed in domestic woes involving a Republican-controlled Congress, wanted to avoid at all costs, while the general, rejecting appeasement as the method of cowards (had the world learned nothing from Hitler?), seemed to invite World War III with his brazen attitude. In an elegant narrative, eminent historian Brands fleshes out the two characters and their paths to this moment’s “knife-edge…above an abyss.” Truman, somewhat appalled to be handed the job of president, warmed to the tasks of rebuilding Europe and containing communism from a sense of humanitarian duty and decency. He emerged from the bruising election, fights with Republicans, Joseph McCarthy allegations, the Berlin airlift, and alarming declarations by his rogue general with a “refusal to be discouraged.” MacArthur, on the other hand, inculcated by his ingrained sense of entitlement and public accolades over the Philippines, Japan, and elsewhere, needed at this golden point in his waning career a crowning achievement: an amphibious invasion at Inchon that was so crazily brilliant that it just might work. An exciting, well-written comparison study of two American leaders at loggerheads during the Korean War crisis.
From the Publisher
"The General vs. The President is that rare military chronicle that becomes an instant page-turning classic."
San Antonio Express-News

"Fast-paced, dramatic, and amply illustrates why Truman’s stock has been on the rise in recent decades."
Boston Globe

"A vivid accounting of an event that was, on the surface, a personality conflict between two strong-minded figures and, at the bottom, a courageous act that solidified civilian authority over the military in wartime."
Dallas Morning News

"Brands spikes the shadowboxing between [Truman and MacArthur] with vivid dispatches from the battlefield that give his tale a get-along kick."

"A highly readable take on the clash of two titanic figures in a period of hair-trigger nuclear tensions . . . History offers few antagonists with such dramatic contrasts, and Brands brings these two to life."
Los Angeles Times
“Two American heroes tested and tried at their most inspired hours . . . An exciting, well-written comparison study of two American leaders at loggerheads during the Korean War crisis.”
Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
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6.20(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

The General vs. the President

December 1950

Clement Attlee didn’t like appearing flustered. The British prime minister’s predecessor, Winston Churchill, was the one who indulged in dramatics: the speeches about blood, sweat and tears; finest hours; Iron Curtains. Attlee had evicted Churchill from 10 Downing Street at the end of World War II in no small part because the British people wanted less drama and more predictability. Yet the sudden news from America had even Attlee sweating. The House of Commons was debating the optimal course of British foreign policy when the BBC brought word that Harry Truman was brandishing the atom bomb against China. This itself horrified the British lawmakers. The American president was the only person in history who had ordered the use of the monstrous weapon, and a man who had atom-bombed Japan might, without additional scruple, do the same to China. But there was a crucial new element, these five years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that made the prospect still more appalling. The Russians had the bomb, too, and were China’s allies. A nuclear war in 1950 would not be one-sided.

And there was something else, something that pushed the alarm level in Britain far past that of any previous Cold War crisis. By Truman’s own statement, the decision on use of the atom bomb rested with the American field commander in Korea, Douglas MacArthur. Attlee and many others in Britain could think of no one more frightening than MacArthur to have control of the bomb. MacArthur was brilliant, brave and imaginative—even his critics granted that. But the general had isolated himself so long in Asia, and surrounded himself with such sycophants, that he had lost all perspective. He suffered from an extreme version of the theater commander’s habit of thinking his own region the pivot of any conflict. During World War II MacArthur had behaved as though fascism would triumph or be defeated according to the outcome of battle in the Pacific; in the Cold War he contended that communism would win or lose depending on what happened in Asia. He had chafed at the communist victory in China’s civil war, now a year past. The outbreak of fighting in Korea five months ago had given him his chance to engage the communists, and the sudden entry of China into the conflict, just a week ago, had raised the stakes dramatically. MacArthur seemed to relish the opportunity to smash the communists, using whatever weapons were available. And now Truman was making the ultimate weapon available.

The House of Commons burst into an uproar on hearing the word from Washington. Members of Attlee’s Labour party, already convinced that the Americans were reckless and MacArthur was a maniac, threatened a mutiny against their prime minister for his support of the American-led effort in Korea. To quell the uprising, Attlee announced that he would travel to America. He implied that he would talk sense and restraint into Truman. But he knew, and they knew, that this was more than he could guarantee. The mutiny hung fire, stemmed for the moment yet hardly vanquished.

Britain’s alarm was broadly shared. None of the countries that had supported the United States in the defense of South Korea had bargained on the fighting there triggering World War III. The French distrusted MacArthur even more than the British did, and made no secret of the fact. The French National Assembly called for immediate negotiations to defuse the crisis in Korea. French premier René Pleven hastened to London to meet Attlee before the British prime minister left for Washington, and to lend his voice to those insisting that the Americans refrain from rash moves. Fear of the bomb united rightist and leftist parties in Italy, where protesters branded Truman a war criminal. West German officials, on the front line of the Cold War in Europe, refused to comment publicly but privately said America’s use of the bomb against China would almost certainly compel a Russian response, probably against them. India’s government, which earlier had conveyed a warning from Beijing that the Chinese would enter the Korean conflict if MacArthur insisted on sending U.S. troops to the Korean-Chinese border—a warning MacArthur had airily dismissed—now predicted that a resort to greater force would provoke a cataclysm. Pope Pius XII urged Catholics to pray that the world might be spared.

Americans shuddered as well. “Is it World War III?” asked the New York Times. The paper didn’t say yes, but it couldn’t say no. New Yorkers flooded the civil-defense offices of the city and state with demands to know where they should seek refuge when the Russian bombs began falling. The state director of civil defense tried to calm things but only made them worse when he said his office was operating “on the basis that an atomic or other attack could take place at any time.” The response in other cities and states was much the same. 

Members of Congress displayed caution about criticizing the president for standing up to the communists; none wanted to get into the crosshairs of Joseph McCarthy, at the peak of his red-baiting power. But several took pains to assert that the pertinent legislation gave authority over the use of the bomb to the president alone, not to any general. Nonpoliticians were less leery. Clergy and educators implored Truman to refrain from the terrible step he seemed to be contemplating. Frederick Nolde, speaking for the World Council of Churches, declared, “We would veritably be playing into the hands of those who want to pin upon us the tangible responsibility for starting a world war.” 

If the world was alarmed, Harry Truman was livid. And he blamed Douglas MacArthur for getting him into this mess. In his five years as president, Truman had tolerated repeated slights and affronts from MacArthur: the general’s habit of making pronouncements on matters beyond his military responsibilities, his failure to return to America to brief the government on the U.S. occupation of Japan, his campaigning for president in 1948 without bothering to resign his command. Truman had suppressed his anger, lest a public row between the president and the general threaten the precarious stability of the Far East. When MacArthur had refused to travel more than half a day from his headquarters in Tokyo to discuss the war in Korea, Truman had undertaken the long journey to Wake Island. There he heard the general state with utter selfassurance that the Chinese would never dare to enter the Korean fighting. If they did, they would be obliterated.

A month later the Chinese entered the war. And they proceeded to manhandle MacArthur’s army. Truman was stunned and outraged. How could MacArthur not have seen this coming? Had his arrogance simply blinded him?

MacArthur’s horrendous misjudgment had put Truman in an impossible position. Since 1945 the president had been walking a knife-edge of decision between appeasement and war: between yielding to communist pressure and tipping the planet into a new world conflict. In 1946 a stern warning had sufficed to keep the Kremlin from grabbing Iran. In 1947 a stronger dose of American power, in the form of military aid to Greece and Turkey, had preserved the Balkans from a communist takeover. A massive airlift in 1948 had kept Berlin free. The North Atlantic Treaty of 1949 made clear to Moscow that an attack on any of America’s allies would be met with the full force of America’s arsenal. Billions of dollars of Marshall Plan money continued to pour into Europe to bolster democracy there. 

The North Korean attack on South Korea in June 1950 proved that the communists never rested. Truman had responded with measured force, enough to secure South Korea yet not so much as to bring the Soviets into the conflict. But then MacArthur’s recklessness had provoked the Chinese to enter the fight. The Soviets, linked to the Chinese by a military pact, and as opportunistic as ever, wouldn’t miss a chance to jump the United States where America’s alliances were most vulnerable, should the Asian war escalate further. And further escalation was exactly what MacArthur was demanding. 

The knife-edge that Truman had been walking suddenly terminated above an abyss. He couldn’t go forward without risking a nuclear World War III. He couldn’t retreat without undermining the morale of all who looked to America for leadership of the forces resisting communism. MacArthur had drastically narrowed the president’s options, and the general had the gall to complain that his hands were being tied. 

Reporters had heard of MacArthur’s complaints; they knew they had a story. They asked Truman for a response. What measures would he authorize the general to employ to fend off the Chinese? 

Truman didn’t want to answer this question, not least because he hadn’t decided. Anyway, as a poker player he knew not to tip his hand. But as a Democratic president harassed by Republicans for softness on communism, he judged he had to say something. “We will take whatever steps are necessary,” he replied.

“Will that include the atomic bomb?” a reporter asked.
“That includes every weapon we have.”
“Does that mean that there is active consideration of the use of the atomic bomb?”
“There has always been active consideration of its use.” 

This was huge news. Never had the president spoken so openly about using the bomb. Another reporter wanted to be sure he had heard Truman correctly. “Did we understand you clearly that the use of the atomic bomb is under active consideration?”
“Always has been,” Truman said curtly. “It is one of our weapons.”
How would the decision on use be made?
“The military commander in the field will have charge of the use of the weapons, as he always has.” 

This was even bigger news. MacArthur’s finger was on the nuclear trigger. The reporters scrambled to file their stories. The shock waves rolled around the world. 

As the extent of the alarm echoed back to Washington, Truman’s advisers urged him to let the White House issue a clarification. Truman agreed, but grudgingly, for he prided himself on plain speaking. The clarification stated that use of the atom bomb had been under consideration since the start of hostilities in Korea; whenever the United States went to war, all weapons were considered. As to who would make the basic, strategic decision to use the bomb, that would be the president. Tactical choices about where and when the bomb would be used would be left to the military commander in the field. 

The clarification didn’t alleviate the alarm, for it didn’t materially revise Truman’s own words. The president was considering the use of the bomb, and MacArthur would determine the time and place. 

Truman cursed his bad luck, and he cursed MacArthur. The last thing he wanted was to have to use atomic weapons. He claimed not to have lost sleep over the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but no one takes the deaths of a hundred thousand civilians lightly. He hoped not to have to make such a decision again. And this time the consequences would be far more terrible. World War II had ended with atomic bombings; World War III would begin with them. But he couldn’t back down. The Chinese were watching. The Russians were watching. Americans were watching. The world was watching.

Now Attlee was coming. Truman hated being on the spot like this: having to explain that he wasn’t intending to start another world war, yet having to avoid seeming fearful or reluctant to oppose the communists.

And it was MacArthur’s doing. Truman couldn’t decide whether the general was the damnedest fool in the army, which had its share of fools, or the canniest political operator he had ever tangled with. Truman had to admit that MacArthur had outmaneuvered him, placing him on the brink of a broader war against China, when that was the last place he wanted to be. 

Douglas MacArthur, sitting calmly in his office on the top floor of the Dai Ichi Building in central Tokyo, wondered what all the fuss was about. MacArthur disdained politicians as a class, whether prime ministers or presidents. He believed politicians lacked the knowledge or nerve to make the decisions national safety required. He had dealt with presidents for decades and not found one who didn’t falter at the moment of truth or put partisan self-interest ahead of the country’s interest. This was why he had kept his distance from Washington. His deliberate exile was in its sixteenth year; he had resisted repeated requests from the White House to come home, and he would continue to resist them as long as he could. His work was more important than what consumed the office seekers. He had guided the Philippines to independence; he had defeated imperial Japan and was building a republican Japan. For the last five months he had been holding the line against communism in Korea. 

He was on the verge of doing much more. Since 1945 freedom had been in retreat; communism had captured Eastern Europe and then China. It had come close to engulfing all of Korea. But there he had made a stand and subsequently sent the communists reeling. His success was no thanks to Washington, where the president and his advisers had fretted and quavered until he—Douglas MacArthur—had taken the responsibility upon himself and plunged ahead. 

In short order he accomplished what no one else—no president, no general—had accomplished during the Cold War, rolling back the red tide and reclaiming territory previously lost to communism. And once more he defied the fretters, who didn’t want to upset the communists of China. He again assumed responsibility and ordered his troops to the Korean border with China.

It was then that the Chinese entered the war, causing everyone in Washington—and London and several other world capitals, apparently—to run for cover. MacArthur took the new development in stride. He admitted that he hadn’t expected such large numbers of Chinese to appear in Korea. But what the politicians interpreted as a mauling he accounted the cost of springing the Chinese trap. He had foiled the communists’ plan to annihilate his army; he was retreating but stretching their supply lines and rendering them vulnerable to his airpower. He now had the communists just where he wanted them. 

All that was required was nerve in Washington. He didn’t expect it to appear unprompted. Harry Truman was no less the political animal than Franklin Roosevelt, whom MacArthur had had to educate during World War II. Truman might be educated, too. The general took encouragement from the president’s remarks about the atom bomb; maybe he did see what was at stake in Korea. Would he follow through? Could he stand up to Attlee and the others who would beseech him to step back? Time would tell. 

Was it World War III? Not yet. But if a lifetime at arms had taught Douglas MacArthur anything, it was that an inordinate fear of war was the surest guarantor of war. Hadn’t the democracies learned anything from Hitler? Appeasement of the fascists had caused World War  II; appeasement of the communists would cause World War III. Only the brave deserved to live free. 

MacArthur classed himself among the brave. His country had agreed with his self-assessment, having awarded him all the medals and ribbons it issued. He had risen to the challenge of battle on numerous occasions in the past half century, and, at seventy, he was not too old to rise to the challenge again. He was ready, indeed eager. He had felt this same thrill of anticipation at the crucial moments of World War II, when history had rested on his shoulders. He had delivered then. And if the politicians would get out of his way, he would deliver once more.

Meet the Author

H. W. BRANDS holds the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin. A New York Times bestselling author, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography for The First American and Traitor to His Class.

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The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
16883678 More than 1 year ago
Set against the background of the Korean War, Brands’ work highlights the strengths of both Truman and MacArthur. It also covers their weaknesses. I found the book to be a very fair and even account of struggle between two determined men from America’s history. History has proven that Truman was right and MacArthur wrong. It is a good thing that Truman came out on top back in early 1951. A solid, well-researched treatment of the events of the day. This is the 5th book by Brands that I have read and I definitely recommend it.