Review of “The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War “ by H. W. Brands

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

By the end of 1948, the Cold War between the communist East and the capitalist West was in full force. The communists under Mao Zedong had defeated the Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek and had become rulers of China. Chiang and his followers had been chased off the mainland and held a precarious grip on the island of Formosa. In the United States, the Republican Party cast blame on the Democrats, particularly President Harry S. Truman, for “losing China.” Then, on June 24, 1950, the communist North Korean army swept into capitalist (sort of) South Korea and within days captured the capital, Seoul. (Previously, at the end of World War II, Korea had been split into two countries at the 38th Parallel; North Korea was communist with leader Kim Il-sung and South Korea was set up to be a democratic republic.)


South Korea and NATO were caught completely off guard. For several weeks, it looked as if the North Koreans would swiftly conquer the entire peninsula. However, by a stroke of luck, the Soviet Union was boycotting the United Nations Security Council, and their absence allowed the United States to lead the passage of a resolution that authorized the use of force by the UN to oust the North Koreans. American General Douglas MacArthur was put in charge of the UN forces. He quickly assembled a somewhat ragtag army consisting primarily of American troops based in Japan and moved to the southeast corner of Korea. There they established a defensive perimeter around the port of Pusan and arrested the impetus of the invasion.

The United States was reluctant to send a large force to defend Korea because it believed many more troops were needed in Europe to deter a Soviet invasion there. In addition, Truman did not want to risk a more general conflict, and never sought a formal declaration of war. Thus, what was to evolve into a four-year, intense armed conflict became labeled legally as a “police action.”

MacArthur had a well deserved reputation as a capable (some said brilliant) military strategist. He formulated a plan for a counter-offensive that involved landing a large force at Inchon, well behind enemy lines. The Inchon landing allowed UN forces to cut the supply lines of the North Koreans, who were soon driven into a wild retreat. By October, the North Korean army had been driven from the south and was fleeing north of the 38th parallel (the border between North and South Korea).


MacArthur wanted to destroy the North Korean army even if it required chasing them all the way to the border of China. Truman feared that chasing them too close to the Chinese border might provoke the Chinese into greatly expanding the scope of the conflict. Truman flew all the way to Wake Island (a trip that took several days) to confer with MacArthur, who assured him that he (MacArthur) knew the mind of the “Asiatics,” and that the Chinese would not intervene. But the Chinese did intervene with overwhelming numbers and nearly destroyed the American Eighth Army. So much for being able to divine the ratiocinations of the “inscrutable Orientals.”

What to do next became the subject of a vitriolic debate within and between various factions of the American civilian and military establishments, and the subject of dozens if not hundreds of history books.


H. W. Brands is a professor of History at the University of Texas. In The General vs. the President, he fashions a history of the beginning of the Korean War painting it as much as a confrontation between the two chief American protagonists (MacArthur and Truman) as a battle between the United Nations and the invaders of South Korea. MacArthur wanted to hit the Chinese with every available weapon, even atomic bombs. At the very least, he wanted to bomb supply bases in Chinese territory. In addition, he wanted to “unleash Chiang,” that is, use the Nationalist Chinese army on Formosa either to invade China proper or reinforce UN troops in Korea. In his view, he was being forced by Washington to fight a “limited war” with one hand tied behind his back.

MacArthur observes the naval shelling of Inchon from USS Mount McKinley, 15 September 1950 with Brigadier General Courtney Whitney (left) and Major General Edward M. Almond (right).

MacArthur observes the naval shelling of Inchon from USS Mount McKinley, 15 September 1950 with Brigadier General Courtney Whitney (left) and Major General Edward M. Almond (right).

Truman, mindful of the Soviet threat in Europe, wanted to limit the conflict as much as possible in order to husband American military power for other potential hot spots. MacArthur attempted to take his case directly to the American people. He circumvented civilian authority by publishing a letter to the American Legion outlining his position. Truman fired him for his insubordination, even though MacArthur did not directly disobey a presidential order.

Their conflict over strategy was not the only source of rancor between them. As Brands writes:

“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.”

Brands reports that “Truman had suppressed his anger, lest a public row between the president and the general threaten the precarious stability of the Far East.”

MacArthur briefly became a hero of the American political right, receiving many honors and starring in several ticker-tape parades. His actions did not withstand scrutiny of a Congressional investigation, however. Within a few months of his return to America, he had more or less faded into oblivion.

New York Times, April 21, 1951 showing the ticker tape parade for Douglas MacArthur

New York Times, April 21, 1951 showing the ticker tape parade for Douglas MacArthur

Brands points out three major considerations of which I (and, according to Brands, MacArthur) had not been aware. First, South Korea was not connected by land to any friendly territory. Thus, all resupply of the UN forces had to come by water or air, and South Korea had very limited seaport and airport facilities. American airpower was stretched very thin. Moreover, the Soviet Union had a large submarine fleet based in nearby Vladivostok. If the military situation became unfavorable, a retreat or withdrawal from the peninsula would be perilous in the extreme. Second, the Chinese and Soviets also seemed to be fighting in a limited way because they had not struck very vulnerable UN air bases in Korea. They too were fighting the war with one hand tied behind their backs, in part because of the same obstacles to fighting in Korea as beset UN forces. (Brands avers “China’s restraint . . . had been crucial to the survival of American and UN forces in Korea.”)

As for the Soviet Union, it chose to stay on the sidelines (aside from providing MIG fighter jets and possibly some experienced pilots to the Chinese), letting the Americans and Chinese bleed each other.  However, the Soviets remained a menace and a potential threat that could have greatly upset the balance of military forces if they had intervened. Third, the American military had been so reduced after World War II that it was in no position to fight in Korea while simultaneously maintaining a strong defensive position in Europe.


Much of the unfavorable information described above was outlined in secret testimony to Congress, but was not made public or disclosed to MacArthur until much later. Brands opines that MacArthur may not even have been aware of the real reasons behind his dismissal. Congress had also been unaware of much of the American vulnerability in Korea. Brands notes that “[t]he Committee members were sobered, if not stunned, by the chiefs’ and [George] Marshall’s descriptions of the actual condition of the American military vis-a-vis America’s enemies. Americans tended to believe that having won World War II, the American military could dispatch China with one hand and whack Russia with the other. The secret testimony of Marshall and the chiefs made patent that America’s military had its hands full already.”

Discussion: This history exhibits yet another period in American history when an American leader was frustrated and even infuriated by the recalcitrant behavior of generals, but for a variety of reasons was loathe to jeopardize the popularity of a conflict by dismissing them. In particular, the case of Lincoln and McClellan comes to mind. In this case just like other such conflicts, and like most reputable historians, Brands sides with Truman in the clash between the local military commander and the civilian authority.

Events may unfold differently in the future. Our current president frequently demonstrates his ignorance of historical nuance by unequivocal praise of MacArthur. I guess narcissists admire other narcissists as well as themselves.

Evaluation: The General vs. the President is a well argued addition to Korean War literature.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, 2016

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2 Responses to Review of “The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War “ by H. W. Brands

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    This is probably too academic for me. I grew up near the MacArthur Memorial and we always took company there but I really don’t know much about him.

  2. Those are fantastic pics.

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