A historical revision of Harry Truman has been underway for some time. Historians are now smiling at the 33rd President. His was an accidental presidency, and his contemporaries, the political swamp of his day, did not like accidents. The more things change, as the French say, the more they remain the same.
Victor David Hanson -- a classicist historian and the author of “The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won,” in addition to “A War Like No Other,” the best and most riveting account of the Peloponnesian War (431–404 BC) between Athens and Sparta -- has written the best short account of the Truman presidency for The Washington Times.
Anti-Trumpists will be spooked by the title and subtitle: “Truman as a model for Donald Trump: The outsider president succeeds because of what he does, and in spite of what he says.”
Political leaders within the Democrat Party during the last years of the Franklin Roosevelt administration were less than satisfied with Roosevelt’s Vice President, Henry Wallace, who founded The Progressive Party, heartily supported Roosevelt’s quasi-socialist New Deal and favored conciliation with Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Stalin was the dark star of the Soviet Union, incorporating by force much of Eastern Europe and spreading his noxious Marxist/Leninist ideology everywhere. Henry Mencken thought Wallace was soft on communism. Though pressured to do so, Wallace refused to disavow his endorsement by the Communist Party. For this and other reasons, he was dumped during Roosevelt’s last run for the presidency. When Roosevelt died, Truman succeeded him as president.
The outsider Truman, Hanson writes, “had been immersed in scandal, owing to his ties to corrupt Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast. When Truman assumed the presidency, he knew little about “the grand strategy of World War II. No one had told him anything about the ongoing atomic bomb project.” And during the seven years of his presidency, he delivered one shock after another to the Washington DC swamp.
“Over the objections of many in his Cabinet, he ordered the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan.
“Over the objections of most of the State Department, he recognized the new state of Israel.
“Over the objections of the Roosevelt holdovers, he broke with wartime ally the Soviet Union and crafted the foundations of Cold War communist containment.
“Over the objections of many in the Pentagon, he integrated the armed forces.
“Over the objections of some of his advisers, he sent troops to the Korean peninsula to save South Korea from North Korean invasion.
“Over the objections of civil libertarians, he created the CIA.
“Over the objections of most Americans, he relieved controversial five-star general and American hero Douglas MacArthur of his duties.”
Give’em Hell Harry had tongue that could set Hell on fire.
“I didn’t fire him because he was a dumb son of a bitch, although he was,” Truman said of MacArthur, “but that’s not against the law for generals. If it was, half to three-quarters of them would be in jail.”
When a critic for the Washington Post panned his daughter’s piano playing, Truman bullishly attacked: “It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful,” Truman wrote in a letter to Paul Hume. “Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens, you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”
Incurring disfavor from fellow political writers on the left – pretty much all editorial writers on the eastern seaboard and California – Hanson writes, “It took a half-century for historians to concede that the feisty Truman had solid accomplishments, especially in foreign affairs. Even his vulgarity was eventually appreciated as integral to the image of ‘Give ‘Em Hell’ Harry. But if he’d had access to Twitter, or had a Robert Mueller to hound him, the loose-cannon Truman likely would have self-destructed in a flurry of ad hominem tweets.”
Truman was a disappointment to the Democrat establishment of his day, but not to blood drenched Jews, not to soldiers in the Pacific who, invading Japan and its Pacific holdings, assuredly would have died by the hundreds of thousands had not Japan surrendered under an atomic cloud, not to segregated African Americans, not to Koreans in South Korea, not to Stalin’s victims languishing in the Gulag Archipelago, not to post war Cold War fighters who appreciated the spooks in the CIA, not to most Americans who believe that the US. military should operate under the thumb of a civilian president, and not to daughter-sensitive presidents who think that critics should refrain from launching verbal missiles at first ladies, first sons and first daughters.
When he left office, Truman’s favorability ratings among his elitist critics -- was not Truman little more than a Missourian haberdasher? -- were in the tank. But now that time has passed, historians are correcting the tendentious record. "Time," says the poet, "there will be time for a hundred visions and revisions that time will soon erase."
The personal circumstances of Truman and Trump are undeniably similar, however wounding they may be to the anti-Trump crowd. Such are historical truths, which are larger than any efforts by partisans to bend the truth to their own narrow purposes.