In the years following World War II, Americans enjoyed a brief respite from global conflict. But in December of 1950, China entered the war against the U.S. and its allies in Korea. President Harry Truman assures the American people he will defend South Korea but also wants to avoid escalation into a third world war. His commander of forces in the Pacific is Douglas MacArthur, beloved hero of World War II. MacArthur wants to fight the Chinese and North Korean forces all the way out of Korea. The two leaders soon clash over strategy and President Truman ultimately fires MacArthur. Diane talks with historian H.W. Brands about the struggle for power between an untested president and a powerful general, and how it changed the course of history.


  • H.W. Brands Professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin

Read A Featured Excerpt

THE GENERAL VS. THE PRESIDENT by H.W. Brands. Copyright (c) 2016 by H.W. Brands. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House.


  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. In the years following World War II, peace was restored, but a new Cold War soon threatened to plunge the world back into conflict. President Harry Truman wanted to defend South Korea from an invasion, which involved China and Russia. His commander in the Pacific, Douglas MacArthur, had different ideas. A strong anti-Communist, he wanted to drive the North Korean and Chinese forces entirely out of the country.

  • 11:07:29

    MS. DIANE REHMIn a new book, historian H.W. Brands writes about the clash between a cautious and internationalist Harry Truman and his go-it-alone general and how it changed the course of the Cold War. The book is titled "The General vs. the President," and H.W. Brands joins me in the studio. I know many of you will want to join us. Perhaps you remember those years as I do. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. It's good to have you here.

  • 11:08:12

    PROF. H.W. BRANDSDelighted to be back, Diane.

  • 11:08:14

    REHMThank you. Remind us of General MacArthur and Harry Truman's standing in the world in 1950.

  • 11:08:26

    BRANDSDouglas MacArthur was one of the great heroes of American military history, indeed of world military history. He had been highly decorated in both world wars. He had held the highest offices in the American Army. He had been the chief of staff. He had been sent off to the Philippines in the late 1930s in order to prepare that country, which was still an American colony, for independence, and he was there when World War II began, and he was the commander of the American forces there.

  • 11:08:58

    BRANDSHe was ordered by Franklin Roosevelt to evacuate and to go to Australia, where he headed up the American command, actually the joint command, in the Southwestern Pacific. He became one of the great heroes of World War II, and in fact, one of the reasons for the celebrity that surrounded him is that he was the last of the American generals, the heroes of World War II, who had yet to receive their victory celebration because he never came home.

  • 11:09:26

    BRANDSFrom command against Japan during World War II, he headed up the occupation of Japan in the several years after the war, and he did a remarkable job. I've never encountered anyone else who affected the transformation of a great country and culture the way MacArthur did. So in 1950, MacArthur was this celebrity, he was a military hero, and he was a mythical figure in large part because he had never come home.

  • 11:09:51

    BRANDSPeople in the United States had heard about him, but they had seen Eisenhower close up, they had seen the other generals.

  • 11:09:58

    REHMI was about to say...

  • 11:09:58

    BRANDSBut MacArthur was this figure who was aloof, he was known to be brilliant, he was also known to be arrogant, and he -- it was as though he had assumed some of the trappings of an emperor himself because he was the de facto emperor of Japan.

  • 11:10:15

    REHMAnd he lived in this extraordinary building.

  • 11:10:21

    BRANDSHe did, he lived in the U.S. embassy, and his headquarters were in this converted insurance building, and he -- he was one that people could see coming and going from the office. But he kept sort of odd hours, and he very much kept to himself. He never got out, he didn't press the flesh, he didn't -- he had occasional press conferences, but for the most part he was this figure who was quite distant.

  • 11:10:45

    REHMWas his wife with him that whole time?

  • 11:10:45

    BRANDSYes, yes. In fact Jean MacArthur was his second wife, and they had a son, Arthur, and so the family -- he -- Douglas MacArthur was a good family man, but the family sort of didn't get out much. He was their whole world. So this is Douglas MacArthur.

  • 11:11:06

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:11:06

    BRANDSAnd Harry Truman, Harry Truman is this accidental president, and before he became vice president, almost nobody in the country had heard of him. Those who had thought he was a hack politician from Kansas City who had come up through the Pendergast political machine.

  • 11:11:18

    REHMWhy did FDR choose him?

  • 11:11:22

    BRANDSBecause there was a revolt within the Democratic Party against Henry Wallace. It was quite clear that Franklin Roosevelt, well, might not live forever, but in any event his fourth term was definitely going to be his last term because the country was on the verge of winning World War II, and Roosevelt would either retire after that, or he might die in office. But...

  • 11:11:44

    REHMAnd 48 days after he was sworn into office that fourth time, he does die.

  • 11:11:50

    BRANDSWell that's exactly what happened, and Henry Wallace was one of the last unreconstructed New Dealers, and the New Deal was pretty long in the tooth. In fact, by that time Franklin Roosevelt himself was distancing himself from the New Deal. At one point he said that, you know, Dr. Win The War has replaced Dr. New Deal. And so there were Southern Democrats, there were fairly conservative Democrats, who wanted to make sure that Henry Wallace would not become president of the United States should Roosevelt die in office.

  • 11:12:18

    REHMBecause he would have continued.

  • 11:12:19

    BRANDSExactly, he was far too liberal for the mainstream of the Democratic Party by that point. And this largely reflected the fact that the economy had recovered. There were Democrats, in the South in particular, who would grudgingly go along with the New Deal when the country was in economic crisis, but prosperity had returned during the war, and they didn't want to have anything to do with this.

  • 11:12:36

    BRANDSAnd Wallace was also suspect on civil rights, that is he was more interested in civil rights reform than Southern Democrats wanted him to be. So they insisted that Roosevelt get rid of Wallace as vice president, and this was in the days when the political parties had a bit more control over who the vice presidential candidate would be. Nowadays it's accepted that the presidential nominee gets to dictate the vice president. That was not quite the case even for Roosevelt.

  • 11:13:02

    BRANDSSo Roosevelt had to accede to their demands that he get rid of Wallace, and he figured that Harry Truman would be one that nobody would have much against because he really hadn't taken a high-profile position on anything but government spending during the war, and he was an efficiency guy, and so that sounded good.

  • 11:13:19

    BRANDSTruman himself was a little bit reluctant about this because he didn't know why he had been tapped to be vice president, and he never had any ambitions to be even vice president, and then, as you mentioned, just a short while later, he becomes president of the United States, and he was stunned. His first reaction was to think, I don't belong here, and as soon as I can get out of here conveniently, I will.

  • 11:13:41

    BRANDSAnd so one of the first things he did was to try to talk Dwight Eisenhower into running for president in 1948, saying, I will gladly step aside, I will help you get the nomination. Eisenhower decided he didn't want to do that, at least not at that point.

  • 11:13:55

    REHMHe was not ready.

  • 11:13:57

    BRANDSAnd Truman gradually grew into the job in his own mind. He developed decision-making processes, and he developed a certain confidence in his ability to make these important decisions. But this didn't translate into public confidence in Truman. He did get elected, not reelected, but elected in his own right in 1948, but it shocked the Republican Party, certainly, it shocked much of the country.

  • 11:14:19

    REHMI'll never forget that headline.

  • 11:14:22

    BRANDSYes, the headline that says Dewey defeats Truman that was -- that was printed by his arch-rival Chicago Tribune. And so the Republican Party, after losing that race, which they thought sure they would win, there's no way they could lose, they went into all-out attack mode, and everything that Truman did was opposed by the Republicans.

  • 11:14:42

    REHMThat sounds familiar.

  • 11:14:43

    BRANDSBarack Obama -- oh yes, Barack Obama feels that, you know, he has been targeted by obstructionist Republicans. Well, the Republicans did it to Harry Truman starting in the late 1940s.

  • 11:14:54

    REHMAll right, so take us to the point where both China and Japan are beginning to make their moves into Korea.

  • 11:15:09

    BRANDSOkay, well, Korea had been colonized by Japan in the early part of the 20th century, and it had been under Japanese control until the end of World War II. At the end of World War II, the United States needed to figure out how to accept the surrender of Japanese forces in Korea. The Soviet Union had just entered the war, just before the end of the war, and the Soviet Union has a border, a short border, with the northern part of Korea, not yet called North Korea.

  • 11:15:40

    BRANDSAnd so as a matter of convenience, the United States and the Soviet Union, allies during World War II, agreed that they would divide up the job of accepting the surrender of Japanese forces, and just as a matter of convenience and because the 38th Parallel ran across roughly the middle of Korea, there was a dividing line, and the Soviets would take occupation and control of the north and the American occupation and control of the south.

  • 11:16:05

    BRANDSAnd it was thought that this would be as temporary as the division of Germany was thought to be at the time. Well, both divisions attained a certain air of permanence, and as in East Germany versus West Germany, in North Korea versus South Korea, a pro-Communist regime emerged in the five years after 1945. A pro-American, more precisely anti-Communist, regime developed in southern Korea. But neither the Soviet Union nor the United States considered Korea strategically important, and both Soviet and American troops were withdrawn from the Korean Peninsula with the idea that eventually there would be some kind of deal, and Korea would be put back together.

  • 11:16:45

    BRANDSThere was no thinking that this was a permanent division of the peninsula, and as a result, when war broke out in June 1950, it surprised the United States.

  • 11:16:58

    REHMBetween who?

  • 11:17:01

    BRANDSOkay so the Communist regime of North Korea attacked the anti-Communist regime of South Korea. This surprised the United States. It probably did not surprise the Soviet government because Kim Il-sung, the Communist leader of North Korea, had been to Moscow and had been given the green light by some go-ahead. Americans interpreted this as this was part of Stalin's attempt to expand Soviet and Communist influence around the world.

  • 11:17:29

    BRANDSThat certainly overstated things. It was a matter of, okay, go ahead if you want to.

  • 11:17:36

    REHMAll right, short break in that discussion, and I must say, this book reads like a novel, fascinating, "The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War" by H.W. Brands. Short break here, right back.

  • 11:19:53

    REHMIf you are just joining us, we're talking about H.W. Brands' new book, "The General Vs. The President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War." And just before the break, Bill Brands, we -- you were talking about how the north of Korea began incursions into the south, and what was going on with the Soviet Union and where was MacArthur?

  • 11:20:31

    BRANDSMacArthur was in Tokyo. His headquarters were in Tokyo, he'd been there for five years. He was actually looking forward to his retirement. There would be a negotiated treaty between the United States and Japan. He would sign the treaty on behalf of the United States and he'd come home to a well-deserved retirement and finally get his victory parade. It didn't happen. It didn't happen because war broke out in Korea. And if the war in Korea had broken out, say, three years earlier, the reaction of the United States might have been quite different.

  • 11:20:58


  • 11:20:58

    BRANDSBecause Korea was not considered strategically important. And what happened there, even if all of Korea fell under Communist hands, probably was not that big a deal. But it became acutely important for two reasons. One is that Harry Truman had been elected president and the Republicans had gone into attack mode. And then, in the year after Truman was elected president, China was taken over by the Communist Party. So in the terminology of American politics, China fell to the Communists and, more precisely, Truman lost China. This is what the Republicans alleged against Harry Truman. And if the world's most populous country...

  • 11:21:32

    REHMBlaming him.

  • 11:21:33

    BRANDS...exactly -- had gone Communist, then Truman needed to stand up against any other regions that might go Communist. So China went to the Communists in October 1949. In June 1950, just the following spring, there is this outbreak of fighting in Korea. So Truman feels -- both for political reasons but also he understands that politics has diplomatic ramifications and if the United States is seen as not standing up to Communism, then America's reliability with the alliances, with the allies that it really considers important, would be called into question because the NATO alliance, the North Atlantic alliance is hardly a year old at this point. Will the United States stand up for its allies in Europe, will the United States stand up against Communism?

  • 11:22:17

    BRANDSSo Truman believes that it's necessary for the United States to respond and to respond quickly. Well, and the quickness of the response led to a fateful decision on Truman's part, and that is not to call Congress into session and ask for a declaration of war. He realized that it was a matter of days. In fact, the surprise attack by the North Korean Communists was so effective, they overran Seoul, the capital of Korea, and it looked as though were they going to overrun the entire peninsula unless the United States moved in immediately.

  • 11:22:46

    BRANDSAnd Truman knew that if he went to Congress and asked for a declaration of war, there would be a debate. The Republicans would have an incentive to try to drag their feet. And Korea might be lost before this could happen. And so Truman, on his own authority, for the first time in American history, ordered American -- substantial American military forces into battle. And he never did ask for a declaration of war. He considered it -- he called it a police action under the authority of the U.N. Security Council.

  • 11:23:12

    BRANDSNow there was an odd quirk of politics that allowed the Security Council to take action. Generally speaking, since the beginning of the Cold War, the Soviets and the United States had been on opposite sides of important issues. And one or the other would veto action by the other. The Soviets, however, were boycotting the Security Council over America's refusal to seat the new Communist representative from China.

  • 11:23:33

    REHMHuh. Huh.

  • 11:23:34

    BRANDSAnd so the Soviet representative was out of the city and was not available to veto this resolution. So the United States was able to come to the defense of South Korea under the auspices the aegis of the United Nations. And for this reason, when Douglas MacArthur was named commander, he was not simply the U.S. commander, he was the United Nations commander. And for Truman this was a big deal. Because it wasn't simply on America's vote that this was going on. This was for the purpose of the United Nations as a whole.

  • 11:24:02

    REHMSo MacArthur and Truman see this differently. While Truman orders troops, American troops into Korea, MacArthur has a totally different point of view. What does he want to do?

  • 11:24:23

    BRANDSMacArthur was subject to -- I can call it a failing that very often afflicts theater commanders, and that is they believe that their theater of war is the entire world. MacArthur was notorious for this during World War II, where he was often in arguments with Dwight Eisenhower, who was the commander for Europe, and he was the commander for the Pacific. And he would try to get more resources off to the Pacific because he would claim that this is where the battle for the world is taking place. MacArthur tended to believe that he was at the center of whatever was going on in the world.

  • 11:24:52

    REHMAnd he thought he knew better than anyone else.

  • 11:24:56

    BRANDSMacArthur was a brilliant man. And he did know a lot. But he also surrounded himself with sycophants who told him how brilliant he was and never gave him any bad news, any contradictory news. So he tended to develop this idea that he actually was the only one who had this insight into the direction of world affairs. MacArthur believed, in essence, that World War III had already begun.

  • 11:25:19


  • 11:25:19

    BRANDSIt was, World War II had been the struggle against fascism, World War III was the struggle against communism. MacArthur was also a product of the mindset of World War II, where there's a distinct difference between war and peace. And when you go to war, you go to war.

  • 11:25:33

    REHMAnd what was the reaction of the people around this country when Truman sent those troops into Korea?

  • 11:25:44

    BRANDSThere was a general recognition that it was probably the right thing to do. But there was serious doubt about whether it was done in the right way. Now one of the tricky aspects about this for Truman was that Americans were all thinking in terms of World War II, okay? There's a war and we go all out. And Americans understood that the Soviets perhaps were behind this and they were a big threat. And so a lot of Americans were saying, well why don't we go after the Soviets? You know, why don't we take on the head of the snake instead of just the tail of the snake? And this was MacArthur's thinking too.

  • 11:26:14

    BRANDSBut Truman understood that the United States was in no position militarily and logistically to fight a World War III. MacArthur might say that this was really World War III, but MacArthur himself wasn't fully aware of how unprepared the United States was. And this was a very difficult position for Truman because he couldn't go public and say, we're not ready to fight the Soviets. Because that would simply invite the Soviets to attack the United States.

  • 11:26:36

    REHMWhy did Truman not feel that the U.S. was sufficiently prepared to take that on?

  • 11:26:47

    BRANDSAfter World War II, the United States began to demobilize, the way it had after every war previous. And the demobilization had gone pretty far. Eventually, with the emergence of the Cold War, Americans began to re-arm. But Americans were relatively slow to do it. And furthermore, the Soviets had never disarmed. And the Soviets outnumbered the United States in conventional forces dramatically. The United States was beginning to make a decision that we would never match the Soviets troop for troop, tank for tank. We would rely on nuclear weapons. And it seemed to be a relatively easy thing to do as long as the Soviets didn't have nuclear weapons.

  • 11:27:24

    BRANDSBut what made the crisis the Korean War so fraught was the Soviets had just acquired nuclear weapons. So from 1945 to 1949, the United States could threaten the Soviets, implicitly or explicitly.

  • 11:27:36

    REHMBecause we had them.

  • 11:27:37

    BRANDSWe've got nukes and they don't.

  • 11:27:38


  • 11:27:39

    BRANDSBut as of 1949, they did.

  • 11:27:41

    REHMHow did they manage to get them in that time?

  • 11:27:46

    BRANDSIt was a combination of espionage and simple technology. So the atomic secret was really not a secret, but sort of how you do it, what dead ends to avoid. They managed to avoid some of those by espionage. And there were Soviet spies within the Manhattan Project who were leaking information. But some of it was simply a matter of, okay, this is how you do it and now let's go and do it. They couldn't do it during World War II. They were fighting for their lives. But after World War II. Everyone understood that eventually the Soviets would get nuclear weapons. The timing was a little bit of a surprise to some people.

  • 11:28:21

    BRANDSBut nonetheless, when Harry Truman -- and who occupied and still occupies a unique position in all of world history, the only person ever to order the use of nuclear weapons in war -- when he considered, well, the possibility that they might -- the United States might be using nuclear weapons again, now he had to realize that the other side would be shooting back. And the other thing was that Truman understood or Truman believed something that MacArthur never believed or understood, that the cockpit of the Cold War was not East Asia. The cockpit of the Cold War was Central Europe.

  • 11:28:52

    BRANDSAnd Truman understood that Berlin, the divided city in the center of the Soviet zone of Germany, was essentially indefensible. And that if the Soviets really decided to jump Berlin...

  • 11:29:04


  • 11:29:05

    BRANDS...there was almost nothing the United States could do about it. And Truman's great fear was that the United States would become over involved in East Asia and tempting the Soviets to take on the United States in Germany, where the United States could not make an adequate defense of Berlin.

  • 11:29:18

    REHMHow did MacArthur react to Harry Truman's ordering the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

  • 11:29:30

    BRANDSMacArthur was of the school that, if you have a weapon, you use it. And if this is going to hasten the defeat of Japan, all the better. And so the -- Truman ordered the bomb. The bomb was dropped. Japan surrendered.

  • 11:29:45

    REHMSo he and MacArthur were in sync...

  • 11:29:48


  • 11:29:48 least on that.

  • 11:29:49

    BRANDSYes. No problem there.

  • 11:29:51

    REHMBut when it came to Korea, what did MacArthur want to do and what did Harry Truman want to do?

  • 11:29:59

    BRANDSMacArthur wanted to wage all-out war against China.

  • 11:30:02

    REHMWhat did that mean?

  • 11:30:04

    BRANDSIt meant that the United States would -- well, once the Korean War began, it meant that the United States would bomb into Chinese territory. Now, there's a moment -- there's an early period in the Korean War where the Chinese are not openly fighting. There are some so-called volunteers, but not in large numbers. And so this lulled MacArthur into believing that the Chinese would not fight. There's a critical moment. So, to recapitulate, the North Koreans attack South Korea. The United States and the South Korean forces have to retreat. And through the summer of 1950 it looks really bad. It looks as though the American and South Korean forces will be driven off the Korean Peninsula.

  • 11:30:41

    BRANDSBut then MacArthur organizes and launches an astonishing counteroffensive -- a landing at Incheon, just south of Seoul, which take the North Koreans quite by surprise and basically changes the war entirely.

  • 11:30:54

    REHMBut that was with the permission of the White House.

  • 11:30:59

    BRANDSThis is with the grudging permission of the White House and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And there's an interesting dynamic that takes place here. It's not the civilian officials in Washington against the military, it's civilian officials in Washington and the Joint Chiefs of Staff against MacArthur. And MacArthur has this idea for this very daring and risky operation. The Joint Chiefs are convinced that this is too risky and too daring. But -- and here's one of the striking aspects to this story -- MacArthur, in effect, outranks even his military superiors. He outranks the chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He outranks all the other chiefs. Not, I mean, strictly speaking yes, in terms of his seniority in office. But also because he is this celebrity figure.

  • 11:31:39


  • 11:31:40

    BRANDSAnd he was untouchable. And so the Joint Chiefs, as I say, grudgingly allowed him to go ahead with the Incheon landing. But they were all on record as saying that they had advised against it. So if it goes badly, it's on you, Doug, and it's not on us.

  • 11:31:53

    REHMSo what did he put at Incheon?

  • 11:31:57

    BRANDSWell, so, it's very risky because there are these extraordinarily high tides, which allow an amphibious force just a few hours window to land and secure a foothold. If they don't get it by then, then they're stranded and they're sitting ducks to the artillery of the defenders. But precisely because it was so risky, MacArthur believe that the North Koreans would leave Incheon undefended, which indeed they did. So the landing, the counteroffensive took place, and it succeeded brilliantly. And MacArthur, almost overnight, nearly captured the entire North Korean Army, which caused the Truman administration to get greedy.

  • 11:32:30

    BRANDSBecause the original war plan of the United States was simply to liberate South Korea, to get the north -- the Communists out of South Korea and then leave it at that. But once it became clear that the North Korean Army was almost all captured or decimated, then Truman gave the order -- more precisely, he acquiesced in MacArthur's desire to invade North Korea. But MacArthur was warned, do not send American troops right up against the Chinese border. We don't want to fight China.

  • 11:33:00

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We don't want to fight China, but that's what happened.

  • 11:33:13

    BRANDSYes. Yes. More precisely, Truman didn't want to fight China, MacArthur did. And that was the fundamental difference.

  • 11:33:20

    REHMWhen you say it was the fundamental difference, how was it argued out? Did they go mano a mano? What happened?

  • 11:33:33

    BRANDSDo you want me to tell you now or when we get back on the air?

  • 11:33:34

    REHMWe're on the air now.

  • 11:33:36

    BRANDSOh, oh. Okay. Sorry.

  • 11:33:36


  • 11:33:37

    BRANDSOh, well. So what happened is that MacArthur very grudgingly agreed to meet with Harry Truman. Now Truman had twice ordered him back -- not quite ordered. You didn't order Douglas MacArthur...

  • 11:33:49


  • 11:33:50

    BRANDS...but made suggestions that MacArthur should come back to the United States and brief the president on what's going on in Japan, what's going on in East Asia. But MacArthur always said, I'm too busy, you know, I can't be spared from the job.

  • 11:34:00

    REHMCan't come back. Can't be bothered.

  • 11:34:01

    BRANDSExactly. So in a remarkable slap at the President of the United State, MacArthur agrees to fly to Wake Island, which is just a couple thousand miles from Japan. Truman has to go 14,000 miles.

  • 11:34:13


  • 11:34:14

    BRANDSBut Truman did it.

  • 11:34:15


  • 11:34:15

    BRANDSAnd this, after the Incheon landing. And the question is, so is the United States going to be able to take over, liberate all of North Korea?

  • 11:34:22

    REHMOkay. But wait a minute. After the Incheon landing, MacArthur becomes even more...

  • 11:34:29


  • 11:34:29

    REHM...of a hero, a celebrity.

  • 11:34:31

    BRANDSThere's no question about it.

  • 11:34:32

    REHMAnd where is Truman standing at this point?

  • 11:34:37

    BRANDSTruman is willing to bask in the glow of MacArthur's success...

  • 11:34:42


  • 11:34:42 Incheon, in the belief that and on the assurance by MacArthur that the war is nearly over. There is just some minor mopping up to do and we will liberate all of North Korea. And for Truman, this was going to be a real coup. Because the Republicans had been blaming him for losing ground to the Communists. This would be the first time since the Cold War that Communist territory had been liberated. And so Truman would be able to say, look what I've done. But the Chinese had been worried about an American attack on China, because of the Republicans in Congress who'd been saying, we need to take on China directly.

  • 11:35:14

    BRANDSAnd there was talk in Congress of, and the term was, unleashing Chiang Kai-shek, the defeated of the Chinese Nationalists who had evacuated the Chinese mainland to Taiwan or Formosa, as it was called then. And the Republicans in Congress are saying to Truman, you need to unleash Chiang Kai-shek so we could reopen the Chinese Civil War. And the Chinese had been listening to this. And when American troops start moving into North Korea, they send warnings to the United States. If American troops get closer to the Chinese border -- because they had reason to believe the Americans might very well attack across the border, especially since Douglas MacArthur was saying that's what we ought to do and MacArthur was the commander.

  • 11:35:59

    BRANDSBut Truman and MacArthur didn't believe that the Chinese really would enter the war in Korea. And at this meeting at Wake Island, Truman asked MacArthur, so what are the chances of the Chinese getting in the war? It's not going to happen. They will not dare. And if they do, they will be annihilated. So on this assurance, Truman says, okay, go ahead. Now the Joint Chiefs and George Marshall, who is the secretary of defense at this point, they tell MacArthur -- they don't explicitly order him -- to keep American troops away from the border with China. They said, as a matter of policy, it would be better of American troops not go up against the border.

  • 11:36:40

    BRANDSNow this is much of the confusion. Because the Joint Chiefs, even the secretary of defense, even General Marshall, declines to give MacArthur a direct order.

  • 11:36:50


  • 11:36:51

    BRANDSAnd in fact, so somebody was asking one of the Joint Chiefs, so why don't you give MacArthur an order, for Heaven's sake? He said, well, because he would reject the order, he's disobey the order and then what would we do? And the answer finally was, well, you're going to have to fire him. But that's a little bit farther away.

  • 11:37:08

    REHMAll right. And here's where we have to take a short break. When we come back, Bill Brands, otherwise known as H.W. Brands, will continue his narrative on his new book, "The General Vs. The President." Stay with us.

  • 11:39:53

    REHMAnd welcome back. H.W. Brands's new book, "The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War," a fascinating read about what happened between Harry Truman and General MacArthur when the North Koreans began to invade the South Korean Peninsula, the question of what MacArthur wanted to do versus what Harry Truman wanted to do. And give us that moment when the two met and when in fact Harry Truman decides he cannot live any longer with MacArthur at the helm.

  • 11:40:51

    BRANDSSo they met at Wake Island, and the agenda was for there to be a full day of discussions. MacArthur briefs Truman during the morning and then abruptly announces that he has to leave before lunch. And for a general to tell the President, sorry, I'm not sticking around for the afternoon, this was another slap in Truman's face. But the thing that Truman took away from this was MacArthur's assurance the Chinese would not enter the war.

  • 11:41:19

    BRANDSFor Truman, the nightmare was that this would become a bigger war. Truman was willing to fight the Korean War in Korea, but he didn't want to take on China because he knew that China had recently signed a treaty of alliance with the Soviet Union. And a war against China would become a war against the Soviet Union.

  • 11:41:33

    REHMAnd would become World War III.

  • 11:41:37

    BRANDSIt might very easily become a nuclear war. It also jeopardized the American position in Europe. Truman was a firm believer that Europe was the most important prize in the Cold War. If Europe could be held, then democracy could hold. What happened in Asia was not unimportant, but it was not as important as what happened in Europe. MacArthur disagree with this. MacArthur believed that what happened in East Asia was more important than what happened in Europe.

  • 11:42:04

    BRANDSHe also professed to believe that he could take on China, and the Soviets wouldn't come to the aid of the Chinese. He had no basis for this. He was not an expert in Soviet politics. He had no particular understanding of the Soviet-Chinese relationships. So MacArthur agitates again and again, we need to take on China, and he essentially ignored orders to keep American troops away from the border with China.

  • 11:42:27

    BRANDSThe Chinese then entered the war to MacArthur's great surprise, and they manhandled American forces, who were not prepared for this.

  • 11:42:36

    REHMWith how many troops?

  • 11:42:37

    BRANDSBetween 200,000 and 300,000 troops.

  • 11:42:38

    REHMOh, I see.

  • 11:42:39

    BRANDSWho essentially slipped across the border unrecognized, unnoticed by American intelligence.

  • 11:42:45

    REHMAnd how many troops did the U.S. have there at the time?

  • 11:42:47

    BRANDSThe U.S. and the South Koreans had some, maybe 150,000 troops there. But they certainly weren't prepared for this onslaught, and the American and the South Korean troops are spread out over a much larger front. So the Chinese troops beat the Americans and the -- they really decimated the South Korean troops, and they forced American troops into a hasty withdrawal.

  • 11:43:12

    BRANDSMacArthur was taken quite by surprise, he was shocked, and in fact when Dwight Eisenhower heard of MacArthur's reaction, he said that MacArthur once more has lost his nerve. Eisenhower had served under MacArthur, and he developed a rather low reputation -- pardon me, a low opinion of MacArthur. He thought that MacArthur was much more impressed with himself than he really ought to have been.

  • 11:43:37

    BRANDSActually, one time Eisenhower was asked sort of where he learned to sort of deal with the (unintelligible) he said, well, you have to understand that I studied theater under Douglas MacArthur for five years. So anyway, so MacArthur was taken quite by surprise, and American forces were forced into retreat, and MacArthur himself said this an entirely new war. And this is when MacArthur believes, okay, now we've got to go after China because the Chinese forces are attacking my forces, and I can't cross the border into China. They can cross the border into Korea, but I can't cross the border into China.

  • 11:44:10

    BRANDSAnd so he begins complaining aloud to friendly members of Congress, to the press, that he is having to fight this war with one hand tied behind his back.

  • 11:44:18

    REHMBecause Harry Truman has said you cannot do this.

  • 11:44:22

    BRANDSExactly, because Harry Truman does not want a wider war against China. And to Americans, who remember World War II as the good war, the war in which America fought all-out, this idea of fighting a limited war came with great difficulty. And so there was this surge of sympathy for MacArthur, especially when MacArthur would couch it in terms of, my men are being killed because I can't defend them adequately, and so it was hard times for Harry Truman, it was a tough case for Truman to make that the United States should continue to fight this limited war when MacArthur is saying, and eventually he does say explicitly, there's no substitute for victory.

  • 11:45:01

    BRANDSBut MacArthur has to be held back by Truman, and Truman issues increasingly stringent orders, no more public statements, you know, don't give these press conferences, don't talk to the public and say that we need to do this when it is American policy not to do it. And finally when MacArthur writes a letter to one of the Republican leaders in Congress endorsing the most vitriolic attack on Truman and saying, you know, these are the remarks of a great patriot, Truman decides you've really crossed the line here because -- well, part of the background here is that Truman had already -- I'm sorry, MacArthur had already run for president twice.

  • 11:45:38

    BRANDSHe ran in 1944 against Franklin Roosevelt while still in uniform running against his commander in chief. He had done the same thing against Truman in 1948, again still in uniform, still subordinate to the commander in chief but ran for president. And Truman was pretty convinced that MacArthur was working up another campaign for president.

  • 11:45:58

    BRANDSThere were some in the Truman administration who believed that MacArthur deliberately got himself fired so he could come home and campaign more explicitly against Truman. It's -- MacArthur never admitted that. MacArthur believed that he was the victim of ignorance and vindictiveness in the Truman administration. But he did get himself fired, and he came home, and he was met with tickertape parades in New York, the largest tickertape parade in New York history.

  • 11:46:26

    BRANDSHe was invited to give an address to a joint session of Congress, and this was just at the dawn of the television age. Most Americans heard it on radio. But if you go on YouTube, you can actually see the speech.

  • 11:46:38

    REHMWas this before or after Truman fires him?

  • 11:46:42

    BRANDSThis is after he's fired because until he gets fired, he never comes home. And so now he has to come home because he no longer has a position, but he gives this speech before Congress that ends with the famous line, old soldiers don't die, they just fade away.

  • 11:46:54

    REHMNever die, right.

  • 11:46:57

    BRANDSAnd of course Truman, I mean MacArthur, MacArthur did not expect to fade away at all because he segued into a campaign for president. And from Truman's perspective, this was all very predictable, but it was this very remarkable moment where the fired and presumably discredited general is being feted around the country, he's being given these parades, and the president of the United States is being hanged in effigy.

  • 11:47:19

    REHMAbsolutely, and it wasn't until years later that Harry Truman gained that place in politics that he deserved. Here's an email from Bill. "Would you care to comment on the recent biography of MacArthur by Arthur Herman, which is very kind to MacArthur and says he should have been allowed to pursue his policies against China at the risk of starting World War III. Some 65 years later, this argument is still around."

  • 11:48:03

    BRANDSThe argument is still around. It's a wonderful biography, and Arthur Herman is a wonderful historian and biographer. I disagree with him, particularly on this point. I think -- I happen to think that Truman was right, and MacArthur was wrong, that the United States would have gotten bogged down in a war against China if -- even if it had not led to World War III. And I think that at the time, it was seen as almost a tossup, so who was right here.

  • 11:48:28

    BRANDSBut when the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, essentially on American terms and on Truman's terms, then this is when Truman's reputation really rose to the level it is now, which is -- which is solace to presidents who leave office under a cloud. Maybe, maybe history will vindicate you.

  • 11:48:45

    REHMAll right, and let's go to Barry in Arlington, Virginia, you're on the air.

  • 11:48:52

    BARRYHi Diane, I have a question regarding Russia's motivations as to the North Korean attack of South Korea. Mr. Blass indicated that they took sort of a non-position in condoning what North Korea might do. There's a book called "An Inoffensive Rearmament" that actually was written by my dad many years ago because he was chief of staff of the Japanese Defense Forces. And I've never talked to him about this point because he's now deceased, but his view in this book was that the Russians actually encouraged the attack by the North Koreans because the Americans had forced the Russians out of the ability to be in Japan with the Americans to run the Allied effort there. I wonder what Mr. Blass thinks about that point.

  • 11:49:49

    REHMActually it's H.W. Brands, B-R-A-N-D-S. Go ahead.

  • 11:49:57

    BRANDSThank you, and thank you for the question. It's still a matter of some interpretation as to how much encouragement Stalin gave to Kim Il-sung. My position on this is that Kim Il-sung wanted to be the Korean hero, he wanted to be the unifier of Korea, and he wanted to make it Communist. And Stalin basically said okay. This almost certainly was not Stalin's idea. Stalin considered Korea to be as out of the way as Truman did. Stalin was much more interested in what was happening in Europe than what was happening in East Asia.

  • 11:50:29

    BRANDSAnd the other thing is it's become clear over time that Stalin was not anywhere near as adventurous in his attitude toward other countries as he was thought to be at the time. Stalin was a pretty cautious guy. He understood, in fact, that the Soviet Union, too, was vulnerable, and he wanted World War III, it turns out, no more than Truman did.

  • 11:50:51

    BRANDSSo if Kim Il-sung could go ahead and go across the line, that's okay, but it would be an exaggeration to say that Stalin put him up to it.

  • 11:50:59

    REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. One of our callers would like to know, did President Truman consider using the atomic bomb against China during the Korean War?

  • 11:51:19

    BRANDSTruman considered only to dismiss it. So he was aware that it was -- it was possible. In fact there's a crisis in the middle of things, but it's a crisis of public relations. When Truman is asked at a press conference just after the Chinese have entered the war, so what kind of weapons is -- are the Americans considering using against China, and Truman didn't want to say that we will never use nuclear weapons because that would basically take America's advantage off the table.

  • 11:51:47

    BRANDSSo he said -- he thought he gave a very judicious response that, well, we are considering the use of every weapon in our arsenal. Now this is back in the days before press conferences were recorded or televised or anything like that. And so the president could be quoted only with his permission. And so somebody said, okay, well, does that mean the atom bomb, and Truman reiterates, he says, yeah, every weapon we've got. And then reporters say, can we quote you on this. And Truman sort of prided himself on being the straight-talking Harry Truman. Yeah, you can quote me on that.

  • 11:52:19

    BRANDSAnd then they asked the question, so who will make the decision on this. And Truman hadn't thought through this very far because he really hadn't been considering this, but he said the decision on use of weapons is with the commander in the field. Well, when reporters got wind of this, that the United States is considering use of the atom bomb, and Douglas MacArthur will be making the decision, so I open the book with an emergency visit by Clement Attlee, the British prime minister, to Washington because the British public and the British House of Commons is alarmed that there might be this World War III that they're going to get sucked into because Douglas MacArthur has his finger on the nuclear trigger.

  • 11:52:58

    BRANDSOne of the reasons I wrote the book is that this is one of those sort of forgotten nuclear crises.

  • 11:53:05


  • 11:53:05

    BRANDSWhen people think of the nuclear crises of the Cold War, they think Cuban Missile Crisis. This one was earlier, and in some ways it was even more dangerous.

  • 11:53:13

    REHMEven more dangerous. Here's a tweet from Robbie, (PH) who says you were a professor of his at UT Austin. He loved your lectures on LBJ. What historical context would Professor Brands give for the 2016 election?

  • 11:53:34

    BRANDSWell, Donald Trump has declared Douglas MacArthur one of his favorite generals and this I think because MacArthur is that figure who represents when war was decisive. And so when Republican candidates talk about carpet-bombing ISIS, it is -- it appeals to the sense of, come on, if we're at war, let's fight and win, why can we not win this war.

  • 11:53:55

    BRANDSSo the questions of limited war, sometimes called asymmetrical warfare, had been with us since the beginning of the Cold War, and it's in the nature of the world that we're going to have to live with that, we're not going to be able to return. I mean, we certainly hope we don't have to return to the context of World War II. World War II is, you know, called a good war in American memory, but 60 million people lost their lives. That's not a good war by any stretch.

  • 11:54:19

    BRANDSSo it's in the nature of the world we live in that the United States is never going to be able to use its full arsenal against enemies, and that leads to great frustration.

  • 11:54:29

    REHMAnd an email from Bud. "Would you talk about MacArthur's life and experiences before World War II and how that shaped his leadership?"

  • 11:54:42

    BRANDSMacArthur was essentially born into the military. His father was a military hero, Medal of Honor winner from the Civil War. And he grew up in that family with those exhortations. He was very smart. He was first in his class at West Point. He was sort of the youngest of every step along the Army's career ladder. So he became commandant of West Point, he was a many-times-decorated hero in World War I, he became chief of staff at a relatively early age, and then he, as I mentioned earlier, he went off to the Philippines to head up American -- the transition from American colonial rule to Philippine independence. And that's where World War II found him.

  • 11:55:21

    REHMAnd Jim in Tacoma Park, Maryland, says that when MacArthur was a superintendent -- he must mean commandant.

  • 11:55:31


  • 11:55:32

    REHMAt West Point, he pretended he slept in a Spartan room. Everyone knew that wasn't true. Is that true?

  • 11:55:41

    BRANDSThat everyone knew that it wasn't true? Probably. MacArthur was one, he very early formed this habit of living in hotels. So he lived in the Manila Hotel when he was in the Philippines.

  • 11:55:54

    REHMHe enjoyed comfort, in other words.

  • 11:55:56

    BRANDSHe did, he did, and in fact when I was first thinking of the book, the title, the working title that I had was going to be "The Siege of the Waldorf," and it was going to be the story as told in retrospect, with MacArthur, who lived at -- after he got fired, he moved to New York, and he lived in the Waldorf Towers, and he -- here is this aging general, looking down on this world that increasingly has left him behind and has gradually forgot him, but he's going to sort of relive this story in retrospect.

  • 11:56:24

    BRANDSWell, I didn't in fact write it quite that way, and I elevated Truman to this character of equal stature. But, you know, this is -- this was the life that he liked. He liked to be pampered. He liked to be the center of people's attention.

  • 11:56:43

    REHMH.W. Brands, he's the author of "Traitor to His Class," but his newest book is titled "The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War." Fascinating book, thank you so much.

  • 11:57:01

    BRANDSThank you for having me back, Diane, I was delighted.

  • 11:57:03

    REHMAnd thanks, all, for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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