Category: Flawed Great
Term in Office: 33rd president, 1945-1953
Political Party: Democratic
Home State: Missouri
When Harry Truman left office in 1953, he was grievously unpopular. His party had lost control of both houses of Congress and the presidency, he had tanked to almost historic lows in the polls. He was, in reputation and in pocketbook, “dead broke,” to use the phrase of a modern-day presidential aspirant. Towards the end, his administration was beset by scandals and petty graft, and an atmosphere that projected neither control or competence. Today, he is one of the consensus picks for a good-bordering-on-great president; conservative and liberal alike easily find a bevy of accomplishments that make them wild about Harry. When presidents have dismal approval ratings, they now point to Harry Truman as evidence that history will vindicate them in the end. When they are down in the polls, they never fail to point to 1948: Truman pulled a last-minute triumph over the all-but-certain victor, Thomas Dewey. What happened? Why has a president who seemed less than successful at the time routinely placed among the near-greats?
If any American benefitted from Watergate, it was surely Truman. Truman died within weeks of the Watergate story becoming national news, and it soon became very easy to contrast Nixon’s double-dealing and subterfuge with the public memory of Truman’s plain-spokenness, and “buck stops here” philosophy. Chicago even had a top twenty hit lamenting the lack of Trumanesque leadership in the mid-70s. Between James Whitmore’s excellent portrayal of Truman in a one-man stage show, and David McCollough’s prize-winning biography, there is no shortage of praise for Truman in the entertainment and literary worlds. Today, we generally see Harry Truman as a successful president, his virtues tied to sharp, incisive decision-making and good, sound judgment. He validates so much of the American mythology: you don’t have to be rich, or charismatic, or well-educated to be a good president. At its worst, a Truman mythos suggests that facts be damned, public opinion be damned, scholarly assessment be damned, decisiveness, fortitude, and rugged honesty will win in the end. This understanding of history could not possibly be more wrong or more dangerous.
Either way, Truman’s near-greatness seems the closest historians come to consensus; all but the most callous libertarian places him somewhere in the top ten. What’s my take on him? It’s sort of like looking over your high school friend’s Geometry homework, agreeing with the answer they came up with, but being puzzled by the process that got them there.
I am most critical of Truman where others praise him most highly- foreign policy, and most impressed by him in an area where he is often considered less successful- domestic affairs.
Context matters. When we assess Truman, it needs to be said that he probably assumed the presidency in the most difficult circumstances of any president. When he was added to the presidential ticket in 1944, Truman was a one-and-a-half term senator from Missouri, with a reputation for rooting out waste in military operations. The Roosevelt-Truman ticket won, but mere weeks into Harry’s vice-presidency, FDR was dead. Worse, Truman had never really been made privy to the operations of government, so he came into office wholly unaware of major strategic elements of the war, including the Manhattan Project. The result was a certain discontinuity between the two men, despite a number of administration holdovers and a common liberalism shared between them. Truman hated the Soviet Union in a visceral way his predecessor Roosevelt never did (he said, off the record, during WWII that the best possible outcome would be the Soviets and the Nazis shooting each other to death.)
When I look at presidents, I look at many factors, including social justice. That’s not always the end-all, remember: Carter has a great social justice score, but was such a poor administrator and leader that he was still (slightly) below average in my ranking. Truman deserves a great deal of credit for the broad aims of the Fair Deal. He aggressively pursued many good ideas that could have transformed America: universal health insurance, legislation guaranteeing full employment, more public works, and assistance to small businesses to help the economy transition to peacetime. Many of them didn’t happen or were watered down, blocked by a coalition of Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats. But the point is, contrary to, say, Obama and Clinton initiatives, which started with “compromise” as an opening bid and went downhill from there, Truman’s administration aimed high and aimed ambitiously. And for what its worth, I’m very glad we had him in the presidency during the “Do Nothing” 80th Congress, a reactionary House and Senate elected in the 1946 off-year election. When you consider the awful bills they passed over Truman’s veto (especially Taft-Hartley), I shudder to think what they would have done with, say, Robert Taft at the helm.
Truman also attempted to enact these measures in the most racially egalitarian manner plausible. Franklin Roosevelt danced an elegant quadrille with the Southern senators from his party who held the fate of his legislative program in their hands. As a result, almost no New Deal program was without embarrassing provisions that blocked most black Americans from enjoying its benefits. We’ll talk about this more when FDR’s turn comes up, but FDR was very often lukewarm on extending the blessings of the New Deal to everyone equally, viewing civil rights as more of Eleanor’s purview. As for Truman, his civil rights record, certainly, is perhaps the third best of any president, coming after only Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson. As David McCollough notes, this was in spite of his upbringing in the ‘border state’ of Missouri: “He did not favor social equality for blacks and he said so. But he wanted fairness, equality before the law.” And he pursued that ideal vigorously. He addressed the NAACP in Washington and gave the strongest presidential speech in favor of civil rights since Ulysses Grant. He used his power as commander-in-chief to desegregate the military, a huge substantive and symbolic victory. And he established a commission that would ensure fair employment practices by the federal government. It bears mentioning that he did so at great peril to his own career— actions such as these led American Voldemort (more conventionally called “Strom Thurmond”) to bolt from the Democrats to form an openly racist third party in 1948.
So far, so good. Here’s the problem for me— I am more skeptical about Truman’s handling of the Cold War. Many historians believe that, on the eve of Hiroshima, the Japanese government was trying to send subtle, face-saving signals that it was willing to surrender (a practice that is sometimes called “stomach art”), but Truman and his administration were unable to decipher their intentions. In the same way, the Truman administration failed to understand the cultural reasoning behind Soviet activity in the months immediately following the war, premised on the repeated history of invasion and ruinous conflict through the West. This isn’t to excuse the manifold human rights violations that took place under the Soviet Union— I just wonder whether the Cold War was the best way to engage with this problem. Truman accepted, wholesale, the ideas of George Kennan in the world of diplomacy and Reinhold Niebuhr in the world of theology that the Soviet Union had always, and would always, see the USA as the enemy, and was an enemy that had to be contained. It is worth wondering, even if you ultimately disagree, whether the Cold War, which cost immeasurable lives and diverted billions of dollars that could have been spent more constructively elsewhere. The logic of the Cold War would also compel us to take sides with truly vile and anti-democratic regimes (Battista, the Shah of Iran, Pinochet, Diem, the Contras) simply because they opposed the USSR. Worse, on the domestic end, Cold War era bills like the McCarran Internal Security Act (passed over Truman’s veto) eroded civil liberties at home, emboldened McCarthyism (a far greater danger to the American project than the USSR would ever be), and led to an unwieldy and ultimately unjust ‘shadow government’ under the FBI. Truman’s instincts were so anti-Soviet that it is a worthwhile thought experiment to ponder how international relations would have gone if FDR had been at the helm to serve out that fourth term.
Even so, it needs to be said that Truman’s approach was substantively better than Eisenhower’s. If it was Truman’s policy to give arms to legitimate governments trying to stay in power (Greece, Turkey), Eisenhower often armed insurgents in such a way that they toppled democratically elected governments he did not like, as I discussed in his write-up. Generally, Truman was a good neighbor to Latin America, and respected the sovereignty of other nations imperfectly, but certainly more than most twentieth-century presidents.
One element that I’ve always found strange is how we’ve given Harry a pass for some puzzlingly sub-standard Supreme Court nominations. Most are rated “Below average” by law scholars (who love evaluating Supreme Court justices almost as much as historians love evaluating presidents.) They were, for the most part dim bulbs who were mostly picked for their personal relationship to Truman over their fitness for the job. My favorite story in all this is how, upon hearing that a vacancy on the court had opened up, ex-senator Sherman Minton took the first flight he could get to Washington, arranged a meeting with his old colleague and friend, and ultimately got Truman to nominate him. FDR appointed several of the best justices of all time— Black, Frankfurter, Jackson, Douglas. Eisenhower had William Brennan and Earl Warren, two bright stars in the jurisprudential firmament. Truman’s picks weren’t terrible or anything; three of them contributed to the unanimous Brown vs. Board decision, if nothing else. But they lacked the weightiness and gravitas of their contemporaries during one of the most important eras of the Supreme Court’s development.
So, I’ll defer to the consensus that Harry Truman was a successful, even in some ways visionary, president, even though I also feel as though I’ve backed myself into a corner and have to put him at #5, which feels a bit too high. Nevertheless, he dealt with the messy implications left over from the war and the depression, and he spent his terms solving extent problems rather than making new ones. By way of a sacrilegious metaphor: FDR was the liberal Jesus, a charismatic figurehead with the right lineage, full of pithy aphorisms, apparent miracles, and a first-rate set of disciples. Moreover, in the same way that Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet whose vision was only supposed to apply to a world that he didn’t expect to last long, FDR’s liberalism was designed merely as a stop-gap measure for the Depression, not as a permanent modus operandi. Truman was the liberal St. Paul- cranky, divisive, not a natural leader, but stubborn and persistent. Paul had to establish a permanent, functional Church in a way Jesus didn’t have to. He had to contend with internecine factions, heresies, arguments about what Christianity was and wasn’t. In an analogous way, Truman had to establish what liberalism stood for on a more permanent and institutional level; he had to build something that would last and sustain itself in an unstable world, and despite a number of hiccups along the way, it did last. He had to define the project as something viable, humane, and robust, protecting it from the loopiness of Henry Wallace and others like him, and the gentile cruelty of the Dixiecrats. It makes me wonder whether people like myself ought to give Truman the same kind of plaudits conservatives are so eager to bestow upon Reagan. He turned liberalism from “a way out of Depression and war” and into “a mechanism through which a better, more equal society might be achieved.” To make a less blasphemous comparison, I am also reminded of Uncle Scrooge in Carl Barks’ Disney comics legendarium. The rich cartoon duck would often tell his nephew Donald and his grandnephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie that he succeeded in life by being “smarter than the smarties and tougher than the toughies.”
As a final thought, I worry sometimes that the modern Democratic Party is playing it too safe, that they believe the near-term history is on autopilot, that demographics (more single people, more openly gay people, many more racial minorities, more atheists) will translate into permanent success. Inevitability is the fool’s bedfellow. One should consider Truman, who achieved success by sharp planning, a strong moral compass, and a willingness to be decisive and stand for something, even if one makes enemies along the way. Truman was a winner, and he won with black, southern, mountain western, and most striking of all, blue-collar, rural, and small-town votes. The road to success runs, I think, not through FDR or Clinton or Obama, but Harry S Truman.