Monday, September 20, 2010

Harry S. Truman, An American President

I've been reading a biography of Harry S. Truman by Robert Dallek this past half week. It's part of The American Presidents Series that Arthur Schlesinger had a hand in assembling. All of the books I've read thus far from this series are quite insightful, and not overburdened with the anecdotal tedium that can sometimes get in the way of a good read.

Truman was our 33rd president, and the first to deal with many of the issues the rest of our post-WW2 presidents have wrestled with, chief of these being what to do with the nuclear power and how far to go when faced with being policeman of the world.

Truman is marked as the first, and only, president to authorize the use of an atomic bomb upon innocent civilians. And during the Korean conflict and early stages of the Cold War he considered doing it yet again. What was interesting was to read that when he became president, upon FDR's passing, he had no idea that the atomic bomb existed. He had only met the privately with FDR twice during those several years he was Vice President.

Harry Truman not only faced difficult issues abroad, he had to deal with rancorous issues on the home front as well, not the least of which was the rise of McCarthyism. Reading about this part of Truman's presidency especially strikes a chord with contemporary political rhetoric. McCarthy gained power in part by his manipulating the media, and ultimately the masses, playing on their fears of a Red scourge. Being a president with sinking popularity made it difficult to get the job done at times, a situation exacerbated by his firing of General McArthur who was perceived as a great hero in the public's eyes. Upon his return from overseas McArthur was received by a half million people in San Francisco and on the receiving end of a ticker tape parade in New York that threw tons of ticker tape over the entourage of the conquering hero. Ultimately, chiefly due to his ego, he fell prey to the power manipulators and was "used" to stain Truman as being "soft on communism." In reality, had McArthur had his way, we would have likely been in yet another World War, only this time directly with China and the Soviet Union.

Congressional hearings were held with the aim of potentially getting Truman impeached, but in the end it was his adversaries who were discredited.

What makes the book especially interesting is the insertion of Truman's private diary observations on all these events. He could see what was happening, and did more than his share of anguished wrestling, striving not to be swept away by the unsavory commotion being generated by the press.

For example, while McArthur was making recommendations about going to war with China and using the A-bomb on North Korea, Truman was making serious attempts at trying to understand how communism was gaining a foothold in so many places. He saw that men like Chiang Kai-Shek, themselves tyrants and despots, were often the reason that the message of communists gained a hearing, and men like Mao were able bring down the house.

The communists in Asia said that capitalism was self-indulgent. Truman considered this equation. Indeed capitalism brought us wealth and power, but is it's ultimate aim only to give us the freedom to be self-indulgent?

What's clear is that it's hard to be level-headed in Washington. Yet the weight of the world is on the shoulders of one man at the top, even if he really has very little power to effect change without a public behind him. Harry Truman gave it his best go, and put up with a lot of guff along the way. I recommend the book. It strikes me as an honest portrait, and offers many insights with regard to our current presidents, who are themselves mere mortals but expected to be gods.

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