Thursday, September 9, 2010

Presidential Showdown: Harry S. Truman

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One of Us

Harry Solomon Truman grew up on a farm. Unlike most of the children his age, Truman was often left to his own devices, made fun of and avoided because of his nerdy glasses and gentle nature. So he devoted himself to books, music, and family. He came to be a man who valued friendship, family, and loyalty above all else; a man who held himself to the pinnacle of moral standards, following the lead of the heroes he read about out of the pages of literature and legend. His models were Andrew Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt; presidents who acted entirely on their beliefs, men who denied compromise and who held to their standards even at the cost of cooperation and popularity.

Truman did not want to be president. When presented with the prospect of being vice president to FDR, he was resistant. He was satisfied as a senator. So he said no. But Roosevelt wouldn't have it, and in a telephone conference call accused Truman of being the enemy, a man seeking to destroy the Democratic party. Then Roosevelt hung up. Feeling left with no choice, Truman called back and agreed. Three months later, he was president.

Nobody thought he had a chance. He had not only spent most of his life working for the good of the state of Missouri, but he had had a habit of making political friendships that made him look like a tool. His associations with the Pendergast political machine would haunt him over his entire life, but he didn't care. The Pendergasts had supported him. They were friends. And he would refuse to condemn that friendship for political convenience. This approach was very common for him; he would embrace as friends those who were loyal and seemed well-meaning. Those who compromised, wheeled, and dealed were distrusted and viewed with wariness.

Truman decided that he would adopt the stance of Cincinnatus, his premier role model in his time as president. Cincinnatus was an ancient Roman leader who was called upon by the Roman people to become Emperor of Rome in a time of dark need for unified, quick decisions. Cincinnatus took on the role reluctantly and, once the threat passed, the Romans, jubilant, asked him to remain as ruler over Rome. He could have ruled for decades, installed his own heriditary monarchy, his own dynasty. Instead, he stepped down and went back to his farm. Morality, happiness, and his love for family trumped the siren call of power. Since the presidency was forced upon Truman, he decided that he would administrate in the name of doing the right thing; he decided that reelection and the approval of other politicians were not things that should influence his thinking.

Thus, as no other president had before, Truman cared over the United States without regard or care to what either party thought of him. He proposed aggressive reforms in the name of advancing civil rights, despite the fact that this was political suicide at the time. He fought for universal health care, despite the fact that virtually nobody else in the government would even consider the idea. When reelection time came around, he was universally unpopular and regarded as a joke. The majority of the country believed him to be unsuited to the job, and a pale shadow compared to the legend of Roosevelt. But, despite this atmosphere of disapproval, despite the fact that most of his political allies and friends were leaving his side in droves, despite his own party worked against him, Truman decided to go on an epic campaign for reelection. He was the very incarnation of optimism, with many people unable to believe how happy he seemed given his chances. But he so enjoyed fighting in the name of what he believed to be right that he took to it with unprecedented enthusiasm, travelling 21,928 miles to make speeches that challenged people's notions of him and the American political system. And thus did he triumph, his fist shaking in the face of everyone who doubted him, climbing to victory on a platform of continuing to do what was right and moral.

But his personality and approach to the presidency did have its faults, however. There are times where he could have made more of an effort to compromise in order to achieve a goal. While he always made an effort to rise above the parties and deal with both in a bipartisan manner, he would often refuse to budge from his position because he believed that what was right could never be compromised on. This was an admirable position, but not one that is necessarily fair or considerate toward other points of view. Also, his devotion to his friends and cabinet ran him into trouble a number of times when scandal affected one or the other. He stuck by his friends no matter what, and thus was occasionally blind to the fact that some of them had actually done wrong with regard to scandalous behavior and tendencies toward corruption. Thus, although his personal approach to the presidency was excellent and should be aspired toward, it did have weaknesses and moments where he should have considered deviating from the norm in the name of the greater good.

Guardian of the World

Truman's presidency was a tumultuous time, marking the end of World War II, the beginning of the Cold War, and the entering of the Korean War. And that doesn't even include the domestic issues of the time: the reorientation of America toward a peacetime economy, countless strikes, the Communist scare, McCarthyism and more. Even though problems such as these popped up one after another, Truman dealt with them with unbelievable skill and determination.

One of his major accomplishments was guiding the United States through an immensely fragile and disruptive transition from all-out war economy to a peacetime one. This should not be understated in importance; America during World War II was almost entirely without unemployment, what with every able-bodied man, woman, and child working tirelessly to supply the troops abroad. When that peace was finally declared, the system began to fall apart like a deck of cards. With weapons, ammunition, and military vehicles no longer needed, hundreds of thousands of jobs disappeared into thin air. Strikes broke out everywhere, and rioting was additionally fueled by the growing fear of Communism and the Soviet Union. When railway workers took to the streets, all transportation within the United States ground to a halt, actually leaving states stranded from one another. Cars were nowhere near as prevalent as they are today, thus creating a nightmarish scenario for the entire country.

Truman took control of the reins of power and, after doing everything he could to negotiate fair terms for strikers, seized control of the railways and threatened to draft every single striking worker into the army if they did not cease and desist. After millions of jaws hit the floor, all the workers agreed to terms proposed earlier and returned to work. Truman, despite the immensity of the situation, had acted decisively to save the United States from consuming itself.

Another of Truman's achievements was his treatment of Soviet Russia as the Cold War began and stretched on. Faced with a potential World War III, Truman made every effort to communicate to Soviet Russia that expansion outside of the bounds of agreement made in the Potsdam Conference was not going to happen. Despite a lack of foreign policy experience, and despite severely mixed opinions on how to react to the Soviet threat, Truman made the decision that would, in the end, win the Cold War. He set into motion the Truman Doctrine, a policy to contain Soviet Russia and to refuse to give in to the lures of appeasement. He also approved the Marshall Plan and created NATO, two moves that would help shore up the post-war weakness of the European continent against the threat of foreign invasion. In the end, the precedent Truman set would be followed by every president to come, leading to avoidance of World War III, a lack of direct conflict with the Soviet Union, and American victory in the Cold War.

Finally, Truman became the first president since Lincoln to take major steps in the direction of securing civil rights for all, essentially sowing the seeds for what would become the Civil Rights Movement. Despite overwhelming hostility and opposition to this effort, Truman ignored death threats and apoplectic rage to issue executive orders to end segregation in the army, to make it illegal to discriminate based on race for those applying for civil service positions, and to insure that defense contractors could also not discriminate based on race. His other, many efforts to secure civil rights were overturned and failed, but Truman set the nation on the path. What made this particularly powerful and ironic was that Truman himself was a rather racist character. When asked about this paradox, he said that he had to make decisions that were the best for all, not necessarily based on what he himself believed. What was moral was the most important guide to follow.

Hours of Difficulty

Controversy visited Truman many times. One of the most biggest controversy to this day is his decision to use the atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

During the war, the Japanese front featured the bloodiest battles yet seen in warfare as the United States doggedly conquered island after island as they waded west toward mainland Japan. It was a dark foreshadowing of what was to come in the Korean and Vietnam wars, constant death in an incredibly hostile environment fighting an unrelenting enemy with no compunctions over using terrorist methods of dealing death and destruction. The Japanese Empire was militaristic and zealots of their own cause, willingly executing kamikaze attacks with astonishing regularity and damage.

Everyone wanted the war to end, and FDR had authorized the project inventing that could do the job. The rationale for using it was that a prolonged war and assault on the Japanese islands would prove horrifically costly, and thus any way to avoid it was justifiable. Japanese children were being trained to sacrifice themselves for the emperor, and orders were being executed that would have the entire Japanese race choosing to die instead of surrender. A shock is what was needed, and so Truman, after much deliberation, decided it was necessary.

It is still controversial to this day as to whether the bombings were needed to end the war. Many debate whether dissident elements within the Japanese empire would have overthrown the emperor after the invasion began. Some historians assume that the Japanese plan would never have been executed for long, as major dissent would have raised up with Japanese civilians dying by the thousands. At the time, though, the opinion was near universal that the step needed to be taken to do anything to avoid more American deaths. And so it was made.

Another controversy was Truman's involvement in the Korean War. After North Korea crossed the border to invade the South, Truman decided that America needed to hold to the doctrine of his name and respond in order to contain the Communist expansion. America quickly became embroiled in a conflict that many viewed as being not in America's interest in a nation as far away as you could get from the United States itself. When China entered the war on North Korea's side, popular opinion of Truman sank even lower. When General MacArthur began to dismiss orders and act on his own volition, Truman fired him, causing approval of Truman to hit the toilet. This, despite the fact that MacArthur had suggested nuking a line between North Korea and China, keeping China back with a solid wall of radioactive waste! The war ended with a return to the status quo and a return to the division between the two by the 38th parallel, leading many to view the entire war as pointless and waste of American lives and money. But Truman viewed it as a success. The expansion of Communism had been contained, and that was a victory of its own.

The final controversy was Truman's reaction to the rise of McCarthyism and the Red Scare spreading virulently throughout the United States. McCarthy, seeking to garner attention and score political points, spread rumors of Communist spies being located in every single crevice of the government. Despite the majority of McCarthy's claims being entirely false, the media and populace seized on this fear-mongering and began to panic. Everyone began to believe that Truman was unable or unwilling to do anything to search his government for saboteurs.

Instead of acting out decisively against the spread of McCarthyism, Truman decided to ignore it. He felt that the movement would exhaust itself as many other movements had historically, and that giving it any attention would be to give it validity. Without any opposition until it was too late, Truman was viewed as a Communist crony, and McCarthyism and fear dominated the public mind. This became a prominent theme and issue for several presidencies afterward when it need not have been nearly so influential.


In essence, despite controversy, Truman was proof that democracy could work decisively and work brilliantly. After all, he was the average man, not of noble birth, who mispelled transcripts and had never set foot outside of the United States til his presidency. His was a deviation from the norm of the rich president. And despite this, he turned out to be very successful, a man who believed ultimately in following the right path for the nation, no matter what people said or did to oppose him. Until 1991, his presidency was marked at separate times by the highest approval rates ever marked and also the lowest. Controversies occurred and went, but his standing with the common man was unmatched. For Truman was "one of us", and thus garnered support from the lower and middle classes that helped propel him to reelective victory in the face of expected failure. Undoubtedly, Truman was one of the best presidents the United States has ever seen (along with Roosevelt), and hopefully time will continue to foster this impression on the American people.

On to Conclusion Pt. 1!

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