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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."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-08-08
- Reviewer: Staff
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.)