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The Greatest Person then Living

by Bill Hayes

In The Greatest Person then Living for the London Review of Books, Andrew Bracevich reviews The General v. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by H.W. Brands.

War on the Korean peninsula, formally divided by the Allies into two states in 1945, erupted unexpectedly in June 1950 when North Korean forces attacked across the 38th Parallel, providing the setting for the confrontation between Truman and MacArthur. Brands focuses on their personalities, but the larger context complicated matters and ratcheted up the stakes. For Americans these were unsettled and unsettling times. Victory in World War Two had almost immediately given way to an ominous Cold War, with freedom itself seemingly beset by an insidious form of totalitarianism. Expectations that the UN, created with great fanfare in 1945, would pave the way for world peace were already falling victim to East-West divisions. The US monopoly in nuclear weapons, the ultimate guarantor of American security, had ended after just four years, when the Soviet Union successfully tested a weapon in August 1949. A month or so later China ‘fell’ to communism. At home, the Second Red Scare, commonly known as McCarthyism, fuelled partisanship and sowed paranoia, especially among left liberals or progressives who were vulnerable to the charge of fellow-travelling. The Korean War compounded these issues.

Truman responded to North Korean aggression with alacrity. Promising to assist South Korea’s overmatched army, he secured authorisation from the UN Security Council to ‘repel the armed attack’ and designated MacArthur, a hero of both world wars, to command the coalition assembled to do so.

The appointment met with widespread approval. In a Gallup poll, Americans had dubbed MacArthur the ‘greatest person then living’. Asked ‘to name the greatest figure in world history’, they had ranked him fifth, after Roosevelt, Lincoln, Jesus Christ and Washington. [more]

For a free related classroom lesson, see Truman, MacArthur, and the Korean War from  CRF’s Bill of Rights in Action Archive.