Published October 15, 2006
As we stumble toward the lackluster midterm elections with assorted politicians scrambling for a place in the sun, it may be appropriate to reflect on the virtues of one of America’s greatest and most underrated presidents — Harry S. Truman. After FDR’s sudden death on April 12, 1945, an underestimated Vice President Truman was sworn in as president and, for the first time, was told the U.S. had the atomic bomb.
The next day he told reporters: “I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.” Three days later he said: “The responsibility of the great states is to serve and not dominate the world.”
The former Missouri senator was thrust onto the world stage at a time of obvious promise and unrecognized peril. Nazi Germany had been defeated, but the problem of how to crush Japan without a massive U.S. invasion loomed.
Within weeks Truman demonstrated he had a firmer grasp of history and world politics than his predecessor. The dynamic FDR who had brought us to victory against Adolf Hitler had failed to take the measure of Josef Stalin’s imperial appetite. Though very sick, Roosevelt thought he could manage the Soviet tyrant by his celebrated charm and traditional balance-of-power tactics.
At the Yalta conference in February 1945 with Winston Churchill and Stalin, FDR capitulated to the Stalin’s demand to swallow Poland, an ominous prelude to his taking over all of Central Europe. In contrast, Churchill predicted “the barbarians will be in the center of Europe.”
At the Potsdam big power conference July 1945, Truman demonstrated a keen sense of history, politics and morality rarely seen in earlier 20th century U.S. presidents. He regarded Stalin a brutal dictator with a ravenous imperial appetite. He also knew Japan had to be quickly and decisively beaten. With little hesitation, he ordered the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a courageous decision that humbled Tokyo and avoided a massive U.S. invasion that could have cost as many as 2 million lives, mainly Japanese.
Accepting the challenge of Churchill’s Iron Curtain speech on March 5, 1946, Truman was determined to frustrate Stalin’s ambitions in Eastern Europe. The first test came in April 24, 1948, when Stalin tried to expel U.S. military forces from occupied Berlin, by abruptly blocking all surface traffic from the Western zones to West Berlin where 2.5 million Germans depended on supplies from the West.
Immediately, Truman ordered a massive airlift of food and coal. After 2 million tons of lifesaving supplies had been delivered, Stalin lifted the blockade on May 11, 1949. West Berlin would remain free. It was Truman’s finest hour. (One is tempted to compare Truman’s heroic response to Stalin’s blockade to John F. Kennedy’s feeble response to the barbed wire barrier erected between East and West Berlin on Aug. 13, 1961, by Nikita Khrushchev — soon to become the Berlin Wall that cut like a rapier between Eastern and Western Europe for 28 years.)
From the outset, President Truman drew on the wisdom of George Marshall and Dean Acheson. He set in motion the Marshall Plan, NATO and military aid to Greece and Turkey.
On Jan. 5, 1950, Churchill aboard the presidential yacht Williamsburg, said to Truman, “You, more than any other man, have saved Western civilization.” Later that year, Truman again proved himself worthy of Churchill’s appraisal by ordering U.S. troops to repel the June 25 invasion of communist North Korea over the 38th Parallel into South Korea. Truman saw the attack as yet another battle in the war against communist tyranny and succeeded in enlisting 21 allied nations in the prorogued effort. And in 1951, he had the courage to dismiss the popular Gen. Douglas MacArthur for exceeding his orders as the U.S. commander in Korea.
Truman’s efforts to defend America and the West were sustained by a keen sense of history and moral clarity. He condemned tyranny and the blindness of those in the West who in the name of morality called for appeasement. This was demonstrated by his handwritten note on the cover of a Federal Council of Churches (FCC) statement that to my knowledge has never been made public before.
On April 26, 1948, Truman read the FCC executive committee’s pronouncement titled, “A Positive Program for Peace,” that criticized the Marshall Plan and other U.S. postwar foreign policies. After reading it, he wrote on the cover in a bold hand: “This is a perfectly asinine document — as full of sophistry as the Communist Manifesto. Let’s analyze it for what it is. HST.” The FCC later became the National Council of Churches. (See: Truman Papers, Box 803, f:213)
Truman had not gone to Harvard like Franklin Roosevelt, but he was articulate. In 1955, he wrote, “Being a president is like riding a tiger. A man has to keep on riding or be swallowed.”
Unlike Churchill, some sophisticated Americans have been slow to recognize Truman’s contribution to peace with justice. Is there any current Senate member, including the handful who want to be president, who can match the wisdom and virtue of the man from Missouri who served in that body from 1935 to 1945?
— Ernest W. Lefever, founding president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is author of America’s Imperial Burden: Is the Past Prologue?