October 18, 2013

When voters in the United States elect presidents, they are naming a civilian to lead the country’s military. There’s a bit of an odd disconnect in this, because that civilian ultimately leapfrogs people who have spent their lives rising through the ranks but have to answer to a person who may not have any military experience.

Nonetheless, the notion of the military brass answering to a civilian commander in chief has endured, even when challenged in some high-profile ways. When Gen. Douglas MacArthur challenged President Harry Truman in 1950 and 1951, a popular general was undermining an unpopular civilian leader. MacArthur’s dismissal in April 1951 prompted thousands of shocked Americans to protest to their congressional representatives and to the White House.

MacArthur was neither the first nor the last general to disparage the commander in chief, but he “most overtly defied presidential supremacy,” as military historian Bevin Alexander writes in his new book, “MacArthur’s War.” The dispute was centered on opposing notions of how to conduct war. “MacArthur personified the idea that wars are to be fought to the finish, to total victory,” Alexander writes, while Truman had adopted a containment policy. But the confrontation was about more than these differing viewpoints. It was about who would make command decisions and why.

Alexander focuses more on Truman’s and MacArthur’s actions and their meaning than on sketching nuanced portraits of the men. Although MacArthur’s name is in the title, the general disappears for long stretches as Alexander fills in the historical moment. His book is an engaging account of a pivotal time that cemented just who leads this country’s military.

— Mark Berman


‘MacArthur's War: The Flawed Genius Who Challenged The American Political System’ by Bevin Alexander (Penguin)

mark.berman@washpost.com

MACARTHUR’S WAR

The Flawed Genius Who Challenged the American Political System

By Bevin Alexander

Berkley. 248 pp. $25.95