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Review: Brands' 'General vs. the President' looks at high-level conflict over Korean War

At dawn on June 25, 1950, Communist North Korean ground forces advanced across the 38th Parallel into democratic South Korea with the intention of capturing the capital of Seoul and taking over the entire country. The United Nations immediately adopted a resolution branding the North Korean attack a breach of peace and ordered the aggressors to withdraw. North Korea ignored the order.

The U.N. Security Council called upon the president of the United States, Harry S Truman, as its executor for the war in Korea. In turn, Truman appointed Gen. Douglas MacArthur as the commander in chief, United Nations Command. The Korean War, which would last into 1953, had begun.

H.W. Brands, professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, is the bestselling author of eleven historical works, including Reagan: A Life (2015) and Traitor to His Class (2008). In his new work, The General vs. the President, Brands focuses on the touchy relationship between the feisty Truman, who was 66 when the war began, and the haughty MacArthur, a vigorous 70.

Brands describes Truman as a simple, plainspoken political product of the powerful Kansas City Pendergast machine. He wanted to be neither the vice president nor the president, a position he rose to when Franklin D. Roosevelt died in office on April 12, 1945. Speaking to reporters at the time, he announced "Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now."

By the late 1940s, Brands tells us, the country was weary of the Democrats and the president; Democrats had held sway in Washington for more than 15 years. Truman's approval rating had sunk to Depression-era lows.

MacArthur's star, however, was never higher. Iconic victor of the Pacific War and the godlike ruler of a peaceably occupied Japan, the five-star general succeeded in bringing that country into the modern era. Though egotistical and arrogant, MacArthur was adored by Americans — and he evinced presidential ambitions.

As the Korean War progressed in 1950, Truman was quickly presented with an array of Scylla-and-Charybdis-like dangers. North Korea bordered Communist China, and many American advisers feared that the Chinese would come to North Korea's aid in battling South Korea. The Soviet Union, it was also feared, would somehow enter the conflict.

Brands informs us that to stop the North Korean onslaught, MacArthur devised an ingenious plan to invade the western South Korea port of Inchon in a huge amphibious assault. Though the Joint Chiefs, including WWII hero Gen. Omar Bradley, were skeptical, the landings at Inchon on Sept. 15, 1950, were an astounding success, with U.S. troops suffering "modest casualties."

Brands introduces us to Marguerite Higgins, intrepid reporter for the New York Herald Tribune, who talked her way onto one of the assault ships (no easy task for a female reporter) headed through the enemy-occupied channel. Our ships, she wrote, were "booming away at the beach … a final deadly pounding. The quake and roar of the rocket ships was almost unendurable."

Although the war appeared to be going well for MacArthur's troops, Truman began to have serious misgivings about the general's adherence to orders from the president and Congress. For instance, MacArthur, Brands shows, never seemed to miss an opportunity to overstep his authority in chasing the North Koreans up to the border of China — a country which MacArthur was strictly ordered to stay away from lest it become involved in the war and, by extension, involve the Soviet Union.

At the brief meeting that MacArthur and Truman had on Wake Island in October 1950, the general assured the president that Chinese forces would never come to the aid of North Korean troops. That guarantee exploded when China entered the fray in November 1950. More than 200,000 Chinese troops suddenly attacked and inflicted heavy casualties upon stunned American and South Korean soldiers.

The military situation in Korea had become so desperate that during a press conference, a flustered Truman accidentally mentioned possibly using an atomic bomb, although, Brands writes, he "never intended to use nuclear weapons."

But it was more Truman's acute and justified fear of what the insubordinate MacArthur actually might do — Would he attack China? Would he really use nuclear weapons? — that finally forced the president's hand.

On April 11, 1951, Truman relieved MacArthur of his duty to the United States Army. In a nationwide broadcast he stated, "We do not want to see the conflict in Korea extended. We are trying to prevent a world war; not to start one. … Gen. MacArthur did not agree with that policy."

Brands' book is a detailed, dramatic study of two towering historical figures.