Kirkus Star


MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War
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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.

Pub Date: Oct. 11th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-385-54057-5
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 2016

Kirkus Interview
H.W. Brands
October 11, 2016

As noted historian H.W. Brands reveals in his new book The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War, 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. General MacArthur, by contrast, was incredibly popular, as untouchable as any officer has ever been in America. 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. “An exciting, well-written comparison study of two American leaders at loggerheads during the Korean War crisis,” our reviewer writes in a starred review. View video >


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