President Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur in 1950. The general wanted to escalate the Korean War, against Truman’s orders. (Associated Press)

Beverly Gage is a professor of history at Yale University. She is writing a biography of J. Edgar Hoover.

Two unexpected events made Harry S. Truman president of the United States. The first was Franklin Roosevelt’s sudden death by cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, less than three months into Truman’s term as vice president. The second was Truman’s election in his own right in November 1948, a race that almost nobody in the punditocracy predicted he would win.

That race bore certain similarities to our present one. As the awkward successor to a charismatic Democratic president, Truman found it hard to gin up enthusiasm among ordinary voters. Two offshoot anti-establishment candidacies added to his troubles: Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party and Strom Thurmond’s States’ Rights Democratic (or Dixiecrat) Party both drew votes from Truman’s base.

Under those circumstances, the arch-reactionary Chicago Tribune felt so confident about the prospects of Truman’s Republican rival, Thomas Dewey, that editors went ahead and declared victory before the votes were counted out West — thus producing the famous photograph of a gleeful Truman holding a Tribune declaring “Dewey Defeats Truman.” In the end, Truman pulled off a comfortable victory, with more than 49 percent of the popular vote to Dewey’s 45.1 percent.

Not long after this, as historian H.W. Brands notes in his engaging new book, “The General vs. the President,” Truman began to have second thoughts about whether the whole presidency thing was such a good idea after all. One of the country’s most prolific political historians, Brands has made a name for himself recounting the high drama of national politics, from “The Heartbreak of Aaron Burr” through Ronald Reagan’s unlikely ascendancy as president.

Though Truman rarely sought out such political drama, it had a way of finding him. In 1949, the first year of his second term, the Russians exploded their first atom bomb and the West “lost” China to the communists. The following year, accused Soviet spy Alger Hiss went to jail on perjury charges, Sen. Joseph McCarthy burst on the political scene, and North Korea invaded South Korea — and that was just the first six months. Of all these second-term events, though, none loomed larger in Washington than Truman’s showdown with Gen. Douglas MacArthur, supreme allied commander in Asia and one of the most decorated soldiers in U.S. history.

In textbook accounts, their clash usually boils down to a single moment: In April 1951, Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination, thus restoring the primacy of civilian control over the military. Brands takes the long view of this incident, showing the slow escalation of a personal as well as strategic conflict in a rapidly shifting postwar environment where, frankly, nobody knew quite what to do.

His opening chapters offer portraits of two men hurtling through the world along different paths, one military and one civilian, one brimming with self-confidence, the other less sure he belonged in his position of power. At 70 years old, the “old soldier” MacArthur, who had defeated and then reconstructed Japan, felt sure he had all the answers. Truman, by contrast, often seemed out of his element, an accidental president besieged on all sides. Truman knew that MacArthur harbored presidential ambitions; the general had even floated the idea of running for the Republican nomination in 1948. Concluding that his post in Tokyo did not make an ideal base for a U.S. presidential campaign, MacArthur never fully entered the race, but the possibility that he might, or felt that he should, still rankled.

Then came Korea. In the annals of modern U.S. warfare, Korea is often the neglected middle child, caught between the glories of World War II and debacle of Vietnam. Brands’s book reminds us what a terrifying — and unexpected — conflict it actually was. Sharing borders with the Soviet Union and China, Korea was no mere regional outpost or proxy battleground. It had the potential to erupt into a global nuclear conflict and to set off a war for the fate of the world.

Both Truman and MacArthur recognized this danger, but as Brands shows, they viewed the challenge in profoundly different ways. MacArthur sought a crushing military victory, modeling his actions on his recent total-war triumphs in the Pacific. Truman, by contrast, viewed the prevention of another catastrophic global war as his highest order of business. Other men in other circumstances might have been able to mediate such a difference of opinion, but in 1951 neither Truman nor MacArthur saw much room for compromise.

Brands’s book follows this tragic arc, describing the two figures as their conflict widens and deepens and then, inexorably, erupts. Along the way he visits secondary players such as Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who “oozed arrogance” toward nearly everyone in Washington, and Marguerite Higgins, the New York Herald Tribune’s pioneering female war correspondent in Korea. To tell these stories, Brands relies heavily on long quotes from official memos and newspaper reports; many chapters consist of little else. At its best, this technique gives “The General vs. the President” a you-are-there quality, showing how historical characters wrestled with difficult and uncertain situations. At its worst, it abdicates the role of the historian to interpret the available sources — to tell us not only what was said but what it all meant.

MacArthur and Truman themselves never read the same documents in the same way, and each man delivered his discontent with the other through the subtle messaging of Washington power politics. When the Veterans of Foreign Wars asked MacArthur for a statement about Korea, he happily obliged but neglected to consult with the president. When Truman wanted to meet MacArthur in person, the general insisted that the president fly to Wake Island — a 7,000-mile journey for Truman but only a 2,000-mile trip for the Tokyo-based MacArthur. Truman did his best to indulge his brilliant but cantankerous general, absorbing the slights without lashing back, at least in public. It was only when MacArthur declared his intent to widen the Korean conflict into China — in direct violation of both U.N. and White House directives — that Truman finally took drastic action and fired his famous subordinate.

Though he maintains an admirable even-handedness, Brands seems to side with the long-suffering Truman, who ultimately had no choice but to put the aggressive, pipe-smoking general in his place. But as Brands shows, in 1951 this was an act fraught with political peril. MacArthur’s return to the United States started as one long celebrity pageant, with millions of Americans lining the streets for his motorcade in San Francisco, and millions more gazing toward the sky as his plane flew over the Midwest toward Washington. When MacArthur finally landed in the capital, he was whisked before Congress to testify about Korea and — to nobody’s surprise — implicitly to denounce the president. Truman’s reputation was saved not by his own actions but by the somber rebuttal of Gen. George Marshall, who informed Congress in no uncertain terms that MacArthur did not know what he was talking about. The president who fired a general, in short, also had to be saved by one.

Truman’s approach arguably paid off over the long term: Despite tens of thousands of U.S. casualties, the Korean War did not escalate into World War III. Yet his actions also set the stage for future conflicts. Truman never asked Congress for a declaration of war in Korea, preferring to describe the conflict as a “police action” carried out under the auspices of the United Nations. Presidents ever since have followed his lead, dispatching U.S. troops around the world without congressional consent. Though many Americans in his own day viewed Truman as a weak president, he did as much as any modern executive to strengthen the powers of the White House and to change the character of modern war. American presidents — and generals — have been living with those consequences ever since.

The General vs. the President
MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War

By H.W. Brands

Doubleday. 437 pp. $30