After nearly seven decades, it is easy to forget the fierce, frantic terrors of the early Cold War.
Despite victory in World War II, America had lost its nuclear monopoly due to Soviet spies, was confronting Soviet pressure in Europe, had "lost" China to communists and was battling the demons of McCarthyism at home.
But the only shooting war in late 1950 was in distant Korea. U.S forces fighting under a United Nations mandate were being mauled by Chinese troops who had crossed into the country.
In Washington, President Harry Truman worried not only about Russia, China and other threats. He was unable to control Gen. Douglas MacArthur, his commander in Korea.
For five years, the popular general had defied and insulted the president. MacArthur publicly challenged administration policies, refused to return from Asia to brief the White House, courted a presidential bid while in uniform, and most importantly, openly threatened to use nuclear weapons against China.
When Truman insisted on a face-to-face meeting, MacArthur agreed to fly only half a day from his Tokyo headquarters to Wake Island in the central Pacific. Truman was forced to fly 14,400 miles to sit down with what he caustically called "God's right hand man."
MacArthur assured Truman that the year-old communist government in China would not send troops into Korea, and that they would be destroyed if they did.
He was dead wrong on both counts. And then he announced he was too busy to stay for lunch. Truman was livid.
In the end, Truman fired MacArthur. The general returned to cheering throngs and ticker-tape parades, standing ovations from both houses of Congress, and then a failed run for the White House.
All this provides ample grist for "The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War," H.W. Brands' highly readable take on the clash of two titanic figures in a period of hair-trigger nuclear tensions.
This is ground well trod by others, often with greater flair and insight: think William Manchester's magisterial work on MacArthur, David McCullough's ground-breaking biography of Truman and David Halberstam's piercing look at the carnage in Korea, to name a few.
Brands is a skilled historian and he mines letters, memoirs and transcripts to give gripping blow-by-blow accounts of internal debates. But it's difficult to discern much new here and he neglects to explain just why Korea was divided at the 38th parallel after World War II, or how MacArthur's miscalculations led to needless American deaths.
Still, history offers few antagonists with such dramatic contrasts, and Brands brings these two to life.
Truman, a farmer and haberdasher before he entered politics, never attended college and was famously plain-spoken. A reluctant nominee for vice president in 1944, he only had met Franklin Roosevelt once or twice when the president died in April 1945, vaulting the untested Truman into the Oval Office.
MacArthur, a career soldier, was ambitious, bold and brilliant. He had helped win the Pacific War (although most historians give him far less credit that he claimed), and as head of the occupation, was building a robust democracy from the ruins of postwar Japan.
But at 70, he was pompous and arrogant, given to flowery language and bombastic pronouncements. He was surrounded by sycophants, obsessed with his public image, and in the view of his critics, a megalomaniac prepared to start World War III.
Brands begins his tale in June 1950 when communist North Korean troops invaded the pro-Western south, sending U.S. and South Korean troops into panicked retreat. MacArthur, the U.S. commander in the Far East, was caught "flat-footed and unprepared," Brands notes.
It wasn't the first time. In 1941, when MacArthur held a similar post in the Philippines, Japanese warplanes destroyed most of his aircraft on the ground nine hours after he'd gotten word about the attack on Pearl Harbor. His negligence guaranteed America's bastion in the western Pacific would fall.
Nine years later, Korea was not vital to U.S. interests but Truman and his aides were determined to respond to what they saw as Soviet-inspired aggression. They approved what Truman would call a "police action," not a full-fledged war, wary of potential Soviet countermoves in Europe or the Middle East.
To seize the initiative, MacArthur launched a daring amphibious landing at Inchon, behind enemy lines, in September 1950. A month later, U.S. troops captured Pyongyang, the northern capital, and then, despite orders from Washington, pushed north to the Chinese border. They'd be home by Christmas, the general promised.
Instead, the Chinese invaded that December, overwhelming and outmaneuvering American troops. MacArthur again claimed utter surprise and Brands surprisingly ignores scholarship that shows he and his aides discounted or dismissed multiple reports of a Chinese military buildup in the area.
Refusing to concede any errors, MacArthur urged Washington to let him expand the war by bombing bases in China. His threats — including one to plant minefields with radioactive waste — worried allies, created turmoil in Washington and irked Truman no end.
The final provocation came when MacArthur publicly called for all-out war against China just as Truman was trying to coax the Chinese into peace talks. "Rank insubordination," Truman angrily wrote in his diary. The general, he decided, had to go.
MacArthur's star quickly faded back home. Gen. Omar Bradley, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, helped seal his fate when he told Congress that the general's "strategy would involve us in the wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time and with the wrong enemy."
History has been kinder to Truman than to MacArthur. Their epic collision of wills, egos and policies helped set America's course in the Cold War as well the backdrop for current tensions in northeast Asia. Brands' engaging book helps explain why.
Doubleday: 448 pp., $30