The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War

U.S. President Harry Truman’s dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur in April 1951 is a classic moment in civil-military relations. MacArthur, as supreme commander of un forces in Korea, had added to his already awesome reputation with the boldest move of the campaign: the amphibious landing at Inchon. But he had also squandered the advantage he’d earned with that maneuver by pushing his luck. Driving forward to the Yalu River, he provoked China into intervening, a possibility that he had previously dismissed. As his forces were pushed back, he raised the stakes, urging that the United States and its allies should take the war to the Chinese. Truman’s patience had already been sorely tried by MacArthur’s condescension: when the president made a long journey to meet the general at Wake Island in the Pacific Ocean, MacArthur did not even bother to stay for lunch. With the stakes so high and the British fretting about a wider (and possibly nuclear) war, Truman decided he’d had enough of this “rank insubordination.” MacArthur still enjoyed great support from the American public, but not from his fellow generals. Brands’ book is not a revisionist account, and it skimps a bit on the wider context of the spat. But Brands is an accomplished storyteller and skillfully captures Truman’s seething irritation and MacArthur’s self-regard and almost comical grandiloquence.

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