This is the first post-World War II book I have read in almost as long as I can remember. But I needed to do some reading on the Korean War, and had picked up this book several months ago because I knew I would enjoy it whenever I can get around to reading it.
I wasn't disappointed – I intended to just read the first couple of chapters for something I was working on for a class, and got so into it that I was routinely reading 70 pages or more a night, and knocked the whole thing out in less than a week. Brands tells a good story, and with respect to both Truman and MacArthur described their positive and negative traits in a way that I found very helpful. For example, MacArthur is an easy historical figure to hate, but Brands doesn't let you forget that he had extraordinary talents as well, and the people that dealt with him – let's take Gen. Matthew Ridgway for example – could express extreme praise for his talents, but also recognize his shortcomings.
It was also refreshing to watch Truman wrestling with the extraordinary risks the country face during this period as well as MacArthur's repeated actions that Truman could have taken his insults, that didn't.
It would be a mistake to consider this a balanced treatment of Truman – while his stubbornness comes out occasionally, he was at his best dealing with foreign policy, it appears. The picture in terms of domestic policy, including claims of cronyism with respect to some of his appointments, is not quite so rosy. But it was a distinct pleasure to watch the seriousness with which he was taking his job when it came to foreign policy.
There was one specific incident related in the meeting where he told his advisors that he was relieving MacArthur and went over the public statement. One of his younger advisors thought he should have included that his actions were taken based on the unanimous advice he had received from all of his advisors, and when the president asked if anyone had any input, he spoke up and suggested that that insertion be made. Truman acknowledged the suggestion, but said that he wanted it clear that the responsibility was wholly his – he didn't want to appear to be passing off responsibility for what he knew would be a very controversial decision.
One of the best parts of the book, however, was the last section, which dealt with the congressional hearings that followed MacArthur's firing. He was initially the man of the hour, but when the congressional hearings into US policy in Korea got underway, it became increasingly obvious that MacArthur's view of US policy in Asia was not just not supported by Truman – it was not supported by anyone within the leadership of the administration, and Defense Secretary George Marshall and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Omar Bradley explained in detail why. But because much of their testimony was designated as confidential, neither the public nor MacArthur ever understood why Congress dropped MacArthur like a hot potato in the weeks following the hearings.
In the end, the difference between MacArthur in Truman could be summed up as the difference between a theater commander and a president. What MacArthur wanted was for the United States to take the steps that he needed it to help him succeed militarily in Korea. But Truman was playing a much bigger game, and recognized what MacArthur did not – that the actions MacArthur was asking him to take would have run a very significant risk of a major war with Communist China and with the Soviet Union. MacArthur did not think that was likely to happen, but then MacArthur had assured Truman that the communist Chinese would not join the war in Korea very shortly before they did so, so his judgment was not infallible on this point.
Again, a great read.