In This Review

MacArthur's War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero
MacArthur's War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero
By Stanley Weintraub
Free Press, 2000, 385 pp.
Odd Man Out: Truman, Stalin, Mao, and the Origins of the Korean War
Odd Man Out: Truman, Stalin, Mao, and the Origins of the Korean War
By Richard C. Thornton
Brassey's, 2000, 447 pp.

The 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War is a suitable time for reflection, and these two new books do just that. Weintraub's excellent account tracks the opening and conduct of the war on the American side until spring 1951, after the front stabilized and President Truman fired his supreme commander in the Far East, General Douglas MacArthur. As a campaign book, it is well written for the general reader yet still offers solid scholarship. Weintraub, a Korean war veteran, has a perceptive eye for action and makes clear-eyed judgments that are generally damning to MacArthur -- and to the high command in Washington. Although he is less knowledgeable about the wider strategic context, Weintraub has read enough to get by.

Thornton, in contrast, puts the larger strategic context of the Korean War at the center of his study of the interactions of Stalin, Mao, and Truman. Using much of the new evidence, he offers careful analysis of their plans. This approach is commendable and often acutely perceptive in detail. But Thornton overreaches in his interpretations of all three major actors. He sees Stalin deliberately entrapping Mao in a war to stop a U.S.-Chinese rapprochement that Mao supposedly wanted. He has the Truman administration welcoming Chinese intervention to justify its program for American rearmament. Poor Mao himself is cast as the victim, the "odd man out" of the title. But none of these big conclusions withstand scrutiny.