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How power struggle between a US general and president brought world to brink of nuclear war

General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman in an automobile on Wake Island on Oct. 14, 1950, during discussions about the Korean War.
General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman in an automobile on Wake Island on Oct. 14, 1950, during discussions about the Korean War.Associated press/file/Associated Press

During two terms in office, Harry Truman presided over the end of World War II, the start of the Cold War, and the final sputters of any illusions Americans might harbor of isolationism as a foreign-policy option. He tangled with many opponents — Republicans, journalists, his own Democratic Party, and Stalin. But few of his antagonists tested his mettle (or patience) like Douglas MacArthur. One of America’s most celebrated generals, MacArthur led the nation into the Korean War, proceeded to alienate Truman and his advisers with his aggressive tactics and strategic missteps, and was finally relieved of his command in April 1951.

In his latest book, “The General vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War,’’ the prolific historian H.W. Brands details how the dispute played out in the charged atmosphere of the early Cold War years. Though his account is thin on context, it is fast-paced, dramatic, and amply illustrates why Truman’s stock has been on the rise in recent decades.

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Brands’s story opens in December 1950 with Truman scrambling to deal with the international furor he’d ignited by unintentionally suggesting that the brilliant but hawkish MacArthur would have the option to use nuclear weapons against China, whose troops had entered communist North Korea to lend support against advancing South Korean and UN troops under MacArthur’s command. A regional conflict was veering dangerously close to a wider war that some feared would turn into an all-out global conflagration, a mere five years after Truman ordered the first atomic bombs dropped on Japan.

From here, Brands steps backs, briskly tracing the lives of Truman, the World War I artillery captain, plain-spoken Missourian, and FDR vice president who became an unlikely commander in chief, and MacArthur, youngest ever major general and a hero of World War II who presided over the occupation of Japan with an eye to being president one day.

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About a year after MacArthur handed over power to the Japanese government, North Korea invaded South Korea and made swift progress to “liberate’’ the entire peninsula. The United Nations voted to send military support, and MacArthur was picked to command the forces.

From the start, Truman stepped carefully and was reluctant to even call the conflict between North and South Korea a war at all — he sent troops under the cover of the UN sanctioned “police action.” Truman was desperate to finesse the situation and avoid a confrontation with the Soviet Union. The tensions were high. For starters, the Soviet Union, like China, bordered on North Korea. It was also linked to China by military pacts and was the only other nation besides the United States that had nuclear weapons.

Whatever the import of Truman’s ill-considered comment, it is he who Brands argues was a cautious, patient, and sober presence, who at once had to fend off charges he was soft on communism and show a strong resolve against North Korea.

In this, Truman succeeded, Brands argues. It was MacArthur who comes off as reckless and insubordinate. He was staggeringly conceited; acts of lese-majeste were his specialty. He had irked FDR with small slights. And he and Truman were on a collision course.

After a brilliant success landing American troops at Inchon in September 1950, a risky amphibious operation some feared would end in disaster, MacArthur became determined not simply to repel the invaders but to press the fight into North Korea. At a meeting on Wake Island, MacArthur proclaimed confidently, “I believe that formal resistance will end throughout North and South Korea by Thanksgiving.” He assured Truman that the Chinese would not intervene. It was a calamitous prediction.

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In truth, as Brands notes, the Americans misjudged the Chinese situation — a dithering Truman, the CIA, the State Department. But it was the bravado of the virulently anti-communist MacArthur and his decision to drive his troops to the Yalu River, North Korea’s border with China, that triggered a major military response by Beijing and resulted in a rout of UN forces. MacArthur caused endless headaches for the administration with his saber-rattling to veterans groups and his grandstanding, but his decision far exceeded his brief.

It was the beginning of the end for MacArthur despite his popularity with the American people. George Marshall, himself a celebrated general and secretary of state, reflected “what has brought about the necessity for General MacArthur’s removal, is the wholly unprecedented situation of a local theater commander publicly expressing his displeasure at and his disagreement with the foreign and military policy of the United States.’’

MacArthur’s firing and the stalemated Korean War would seal Truman’s political fate as his approval ratings plummeted. Brands notes that Truman was “castigated as an appeaser and howled into retirement,’’ but decades later his reputation and views would be vindicated. “The collapse of the Soviet Union and the Chinese abandonment of communism in all but name,’’ Brands concludes, “confirmed Truman’s belief that democracy would endure if Americans kept their faith and their heads.’’

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THE GENERAL VS. THE PRESIDENT:

MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War

By H.W. Brands

Doubleday, 437 pp., illustrated, $30


Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at mprice68@gmail.com.