Author explores Truman, MacArthur controversy

Best-selling author H.W. Brands will discuss his latest novel, The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War, at Wilton Library the evening of Wednesday, Oct. 11.

The book tells the story of how President Harry Truman and Gen. Douglas MacArthur squared off to decide America’s future in the aftermath of World War II.  

Brands said he knew about the controversy with Truman and MacArthur for “a long time,” but never studied it in detail.

“I thought that it would make an interesting psychological and political study, because here are two very forceful individuals who occupy positions of great power and responsibility, and had diametrically opposite views of how the United States ought to handle a crucial issue in American foreign policy,” he said.

“Eventually, the dispute between the two of them led to President Truman’s decision to fire Gen. MacArthur.”

Brands, a history professor and the Jack S. Blanton Sr. Chair in History at the University of Texas at Austin, said he did not know that the United States would be “on the edge of, perhaps, nuclear war with North Korea” today.

“The subject became more timely after the book was published, but it’s very easy to trace the roots of our current controversy in Korea with the events of the period I described in the book,” he said.

Brands said the hardest and “most important” part about writing the book was trying to “transport people back to that time in history” and “make the world look the way it looked then.”

When writing a historical book, Brands said, it can be “tempting to cheat and use historical hindsight.”

“We know that the world doesn’t blow up in 1950, but the people in 1950 didn’t know that was going to happen, so the hardest part was to recreate the alarm that people felt at that time,” he said.

“There was this serious concern that we could all be dead in two weeks. We know they weren’t all dead in two weeks, but here’s where the historian has to try to inject a little bit of the uncertainty of the present into the past.”

While he doesn’t think there’s going to be nuclear war with North Korea in the next two weeks, Brands said, he does know it’s “a possibility.”

Brands said his favorite part about writing the book was “getting to know Harry Truman.”

“He was very underestimated during his day, but he is an appealing character as president,” said Brands.

“He became president accidentally upon the sudden death of Franklin Roosevelt and he wasn’t the kind of person who would have just run for president himself. He was an honest, plain-spoken guy, who didn’t think particularly high of himself.”

Truman “just tried to do the job that was put in front of him,” said Brands, and “rose to the occasion of being president.”

“It was tough-going ...  and at the time, Harry Truman was very unpopular,” said Brands.

“He was the most unpopular president in American history while he was in office, but he made decisions that subsequent events have borne out as being pretty wise decisions.”

When historians and political scientists look back on Harry Truman now, said Brands, “they say he did a pretty good job.”

“He was the most unpopular American president when he took office and now he’s usually ranked in the top five or so of America’s greatest presidents,” said Brands.

“It goes to show that if you do the right thing and if you have patience, maybe history will vindicate you.”

Brands said his book also reveals the historic “implicit tension” between civilian officials of the American government and the generals and admirals of the military.

“The the people whose profession is arms and war often think, for a good reason, that they’re the experts on arms and war and that people who are mere civilians don’t have that kind of expertise,” he said.

“That’s true, however, the founding fathers thought it was important to keep in mind that in a republic, where political power rests on the people, that the people have to make those decisions and that the president of the United States shall be the commander-in-chief during wartime.”

The Korean War was the first of America’s wars that wasn’t formally declared by Congress, said Brands, so “it was a little bit muddy as to what it constituted.”

Nonetheless, he said, the issue of “who controls America’s military force is as timely now as ever — in fact, there are some people who are hoping that this time around, it’s the generals who maybe will rein in a president.

“President Trump is speaking more openly of the use of nuclear weapons than any president ever has,” said Brands.

“A lot of Americans find that very alarming and they hope that should President Trump say, ‘Let’s start a war and nuke North Korea,’ that somebody in the military chain of command will say, ‘Hold on, Mr. President — that’s not such a good idea.’”

Brands said that’s “just the opposite” of how things were back in the 1950s.

“In the 1950s, it was the general — Douglas MacArthur — who wanted to use nuclear weapons and the president who reined him in,” he said.

“The difference between the military and civilian leaders is something that we encounter — at least potentially — all the time, and I think it’s something that’s worth paying close attention to.”

Interest in history

Brands said his interest in history dates back to childhood.

“When I was a kid, my dad used to take me and my siblings around to historical sites in Portland, Ore., where I grew up,” he said.

“I always thought it was interesting to imagine that there were people who lived here long ago — people who were kind of like me in some ways, but not like me in other ways — and so I tried to imagine what the world looked like back then.”

Brands said the “sort of romance of history” is what he finds appealing.

Brands studied history at Stanford University in California and eventually taught history at the high school and college level. He later earned graduate and doctorate degrees in history.

“I still think that history and the human past is the source of the most fascinating stories,” he said.

“I love stories; I like to tell stories, and I think the best stories are the ones that actually happened and that allow us to understand that there were people of the past who were kind of like us, who faced the same kinds of challenges we faced, but they were also different from us in certain ways.”

Brands is a member of various honorary societies and has authored more than 20 books, including Pulitzer Prize-finalists Traitor to His Class and The First American.

His author talk at Wilton Library will take place from 7 to 8:30 p.m., followed by a Q&A. Book signing and purchase will be available, courtesy of Elm Street Books in New Canaan. The talk is free, but registration is highly recommended.

To register, visit or call 203-762-6334.