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CECELIA BOOK REVIEW📚

“The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War” by H.W. Brands, Doubleday, New York (2016, 437pages)

Reviewed by Steven R. Maher

One of the reasons I write book reviews is to educate my readers about the historical origins of some of today’s global and political challenges. With that in mind, I decided to look at the issue of Korea and nuclear arms. To understand why so many older Americans are freaking out over President Donald Trump’s antics, the reader might want to take a look at The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by H.W. Brands. It is a good starting point for explaining the history and background of the countries and characters involved.

The Korean War

In June 1950 North Korea invaded South Korea in what can only be described as a naked act of aggression. Our President at the time was Harry Truman, who became President after Franklin D. Roosevelt died during his fourth term in office, near the end of World War II, in 1945. Truman was informed that the United States had developed a nuclear bomb. He ordered the bomb dropped on two Japanese cities: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan surrendered.

Douglas MacArthur was the Pacific theater commander in World War II. He developed an “island hopping” strategy in which he used amphibious squadrons, with Marine units, to invade deep into enemy territory.

The Marines cut off Japanese supply and communication lines by seizing well picked and strategically placed islands (Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa). When the Korean War began, MacArthur employed these tactics against North Korea. He devised a brilliant flanking amphibious assault at Inchon, far behind the North Korean supply lines, that cut off and destroyed the North Korean army.

Chinese Warnings

As the author Brands details, the U.S. then invaded North Korea to reunify the country under U.N. auspices. It would have been a tremendous U.S. victory at the dawn of the cold war. Both China and the Soviet Union warned they would enter the conflict militarily if U.S. forces approached their border. MacArthur said these warnings were empty saber rattling the Chinese couldn’t back up militarily. MacArthur said the Chinese lacked the armed forces to effectively intervene and told Truman at a Wake Island conference that U.S. airpower would slaughter the Chinese if they intervened.

In November 1950 the Chinese attacked the U.S. forces with an army of 300,000 men. In a considerable gaffe, Truman stated at a press conference that the use of nuclear weapons was under consideration and that the decision of where they were to be used would be left to the theater commander, i.e., MacArthur. This was hastily clarified, but MacArthur’s reputation was such that British Prime Minister Clement Attlee flew immediately to the U.S. to explain how unnerved America’s allies were by the thought of MacArthur being able to order nuclear strikes: “The story that lead the day’s news was his [Truman’s] threat to use atomic weapons against China.”

As the allied forces staggered back in retreat in late 1950, MacArthur urged the deployment of nuclear technology. He wanted a “Super-Inchon” where he would seed North Korea’s borders with radioactive nuclear materials, sealing the country off from China and the Soviet Union. Once again, this set off alarm bells in U.S. government circles, showing the danger of nuclear technology.

The U.S.-Korean history shows how dangerous miscalculations can be. Both sides miscalculated. North Korea underestimated how the U.S. would respond to a Hitler-style blitzkrieg against a U.S. ally, which led North Korea into a conflict where North Korea’s own army was destroyed. The U.S. and its allies effectively ignored Chinese warnings not to approach China’s borders with U.S. troops, resulting in a bitter and bloody war that went on for years.

One can only hope that the Trump era’s conflict over North Korea’s nukes can be resolved diplomatically – something that has evaded U.S. governments, whether Democrat- or Republican-led, for decades.

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