The General Vs. The President

Andrew Bacevich writes:

H.W. Brands is a well-known and prolific historian of an old-fashioned sort. With no axe to grind and no agenda to advance, he is all about telling stories, which he does exceedingly well. In The General v. the President he recounts a remarkable episode in American history: the clash between President Harry S. Truman and General of the Army Douglas MacArthur that culminated with MacArthur being sacked in April 1951. US history is replete with examples of military officers losing their jobs, usually for incompetence, sometimes for dishonesty or moral turpitude. Only once, however, has a president fired his senior field commander during wartime for blatant insubordination. As a chapter in the history of US civil-military relations, the Truman-MacArthur controversy is seemingly sui generis, but to treat it as such, as Brands does, is to miss its larger significance. Ending in what appeared to be a decisive affirmation of civilian control, it revealed the challenges inherent in reconciling democratic practice with the exercise of militarised global leadership: challenges that persist – in different form – in the presidency of Donald Trump.

(LRB 27 July 2017)

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