Author and UT professor H.W. Brands has spent most of his life thinking and writing about history, and he's always looking for compelling moments or figures in American history as possible book subjects.
His latest such work is The General Vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nucleur War, which focuses on the stressful relationship between President Harry Truman and General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War, specifically their conflicting views on the possible use of nuclear weapons during that war.
For Brands, tackling this moment in American History takes him back to his postgraduate days. "When I was a graduate student, I was studying the early 1950s, and I was aware of this controversy that developed within the American government between the president, Harry Truman, and the American commander for the Far East, Douglas MacArthur," he says. "I had this vague notion then that the United States and the world might've been closer to nuclear war then than at any other time in American history."
Back then, many of the documents that would have shed light on the story were still classified, and Brands wasn't able to fully research the topic. But in more recent years, access to those materials has gotten easier. "By the time I got around to writing on it... nearly all of the pertinent materials had been declassified, so I can tell aspects of the story I couldn't have told if I had tried to tell it in the early 1980s when I first came upon the story," Brands says.
That access made the story appealing to Brands, as did the characters involved. MacArthur is a larger-than-life figure, revered in America after World War II. Truman, in Brands' words, "has a charisma of a very different kind. He's a plainspoken guy. He's the underdog." The General Vs. the President gets inside the minds of both men, Truman the reluctant leader and MacArthur the ambitious war hero. "Truman didn't want to be president -- in fact, he didn't even want to be vice president," Brands says. "And it took him quite a while to become comfortable with the idea that he was president. By contrast, Douglas MacArthur wanted to be president for a long time."
After spending so much time getting to know these two historical figures, Brands says, "I came away with greater respect for both of my main characters. They differed quite dramatically, but each one was willing to push his position as far as it would go. But stopping short of trying to evade or violate the constitution."