Oct. 28, 2016 —Book Review: "The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War,” by H.W. Brands. DoubleDay, 2016.
It might not have been the kind of hand-to-hand combat Teddy Roosevelt preferred, but in The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman At the Brink of Nuclear War, acclaimed historian H.W. Brands argues that Truman wasn’t afraid to get bloody when it mattered.
What mattered to Truman: whether the president of the United States or the commander in the field determined American tactics and policy. General MacArthur, one of the most decorated soldiers in American history, led the American-supported United Nations effort to defend Korea from a Chinese-backed communist takeover. Whereas MacArthur publicly supported the direct bombing of China and hinted at American use of nuclear weapons to end the conflict, Truman believed that containment would ultimately succeed and that the risk of a direct confrontation with the Soviet Union outweighed either the benefits of a direct attack against China or use of nuclear weapons.
These different approaches, Brands shows, played out before American eyes thanks to eager reporters looking for any discrepancy in tactics or policy to come out of the White House and General MacArthur’s own public statements. The two obliged.
Not surprisingly, 15 years after 9/11 and a continued American presence in the middle east, the next white house will no doubt be faced with tough decisions that will likely conflict with the advice of American military leaders.
The case of Truman and MacArthur and the Korean conflict, Brands demonstrates, could have better guided these decisions. Yes, the cold war is over, but containing terrorism, much like containing communism, seems to have been the better approach. Why invade China, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, when keeping the Soviet’s or the Libyan’s or even the Chinese contained would have saved American lives and been more cost-effective? Improved intelligence gathering and analysis was to be the key to taking out Osama Bin Laden and preventing another 9/11, while a war in Afghanistan and Iraq has allowed once marginalized groups to fill the vacuum. Crossing into China may have prevented the split of the Korean peninsula and the small headache that North Korea has so far been for the United States, but at what cost? Truman wasn’t about to find out. Choosing between a communist North Korea or World War III didn’t seem to keep him up at night. Better a wall than a war, perhaps Representative John F. Kennedy observed at the time.
Truman’s cool head and conviction proved correct with the fall of the Soviet Union and thus the de facto end of the communist threat. Doing so knowing that it could cost him his job and possibly usher in a new era of Republican leadership demonstrated true grit – those long-lost Midwestern values that come with doing what is right no matter the consequences.
MacArthur, a World War II hero in the pacific theater and then head of the American effort to transition Japan to a constitutional democracy, was not one to back down from a fight. Whether demanding Truman fly half-way across the world if he wanted a meeting or ordering the bombing of North Korea without presidential approval, Brands shows us that the early stages of the Cold War could have quickly gone in a more violent direction. Nuclear weapons, with a different finger on the button, may have been used, while an American attack on China seemed all but inevitable. Cooler heads in the Oval Office – those able to take a longer view of history – proved better suited to the enormous responsibility that comes with balancing both American foreign and national interests against the perceived immediate dangers of a worldwide communist movement.
So where does that leave us? “The celebration that greeted MacArthur on his return from Asia,” Brands writes after Truman’s public firing, “was unlike anything ever seen in America, and unlike anything ever imagined almost anywhere.
Rome had lavished public triumphs on its victorious generals, and America had done the same after the Civil War and the two world wars, but to save the greatest celebration for a general who had just been fired, amid a war that was far from won, suggested that something larger was afoot. The parades for MacArthur were celebrations, but they were also protests: against the president who fired him, against the ambiguous policies the president pursued, against the constraining circumstances that kept America from smiting its enemies as decisively as it had done in those earlier, more satisfying wars. The millions of Americans cheering and shouting for MacArthur wanted the general to lead them, like a modern Moses, out of the wilderness of uncertainty that seemed to be Americans’ lot in the contemporary struggle against communism. MacArthur was the last general to return home after World War II; if anyone could restore the certainty – the moral certainty, the civic certainty, the political certainty – that had characterized the American life during the earlier struggle against facism, MacArthur could.
But it wasn’t MacArthur, or Joe McCarthy, or Kennedy or Richard Nixon or even Ronald Reagan who all stared communism in the eye and called out evil when it was popular to do so. It was patience, adherence to a well thought-out policy of containment, and most importantly a willingness to sacrifice self for country when it mattered most. Truman did just that and lost his job and reputation, while Brands reminds us how with a different finger in the oval office we now might be arguing over whether World War III had started with a communist invasion of Korea or the American decision to attack China.
An important contribution and a must-read for military historians, presidential historians and those interested in the Korean War.