At the time he left office in January 1953, so toxic that most of his party had shunned him, no one could imagine that Harry S. Truman, common-man heir to a great wartime president, would one day be claimed by both major parties, each of them longing to be just like him. For years, Republicans dreamed of the next Ronald Reagan and Democrats of the next John F. Kennedy. But now their idol is the man who can't match these figures for hair, teeth, and swagger, but who wrote the plan that vanquished the Soviet Union. George W. Bush thinks he is the new Harry, as do a cluster of Bush-friendly pundits. This brings on dementia in liberal hawks, who loudly insist they are Harry, and react to this outbreak of ancestor-poaching with all the ire of folks who come home to the family mansion to find strangers ensconced at the table, making free with their china and silver.
Despising George Bush, and enraged by the left, which is trying to purge them, the liberal hawks are making their stand with and through Harry, to prove they are manly without being macho and nuanced and caring without being wimps. Harry, they claim, was strong, but so gentle; a leader, but always deferring to others; moral and mighty yet multilateral, just as they are in their fantasies. Peter Beinart claims in his book "The Good Fight" that only liberal hawks such as Harry can bring national greatness, a view warmly endorsed by Joe Klein in a New York Times review that flogs it with vigor. "With All Our Might" (the words fight and might figure large in these titles), a volume edited by Will Marshall of the Progressive Policy Institute, policy arm of the beleaguered New Democrats, pits the Third Way of Harry against Bush the Cowboy on one side and the far left on the other. Harry, to them, is like Goldilocks' porridge — neither too hard nor too soft; neither too hot nor too cold. The problem is that the Harry they cite is a fantasy, airbrushed and softened beyond recognition, and the narrative that they tell is studded with errors, filled with omissions, and marred by peculiar distortions of facts. Let us count the myths they are making.
Myth number one might be called the Liberal Fallacy — the belief that Harry Truman, and Franklin Roosevelt before him, were not just liberals who made good foreign policy, but that they made good foreign policy because they were liberals, and that thus only liberals can make good foreign policy judgments. Roosevelt and Truman most surely were liberals, as were most of those who served in their cabinets. And many conservatives opposed Truman's world order, most prominently Senator Robert A. Taft. But these conservatives were not the sole voice of their party, and there were scores of others who, if they agreed more with Taft than with Truman on domestic issues, still lined up with Harry on foreign policy and helped push his rock up the hill.
History records many, among them Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, who in 1943 committed a Republican caucus to Roosevelt's plan for the United Nations; in 1944 put a plank to this end in the Republican platform; in 1945 attended the conference in San Francisco at which the U.N. was founded; in 1947 was the first to pledge his support to the Truman Doctrine, suggested to Truman the bipartisan commission that helped the Marshall Plan gain its wide public acceptance, and in 1948, when the North Atlantic Treaty was believed to be in some trouble, lent his name to the bill that helped it go through. ("Without Vandenberg in the Senate, the history of the postwar period might have been very different," wrote Acheson. "Vandenberg stands for the emergence of the United States into world power and leadership, as Clay typified the growth of the country, [and] Webster and Calhoun the great debate of the antebellum days.")
"The right predictably opposed prodigious overseas development projects because they cost so much," Joe Klein informs us, and "opposed the Marshall Plan because it gave the money away without strings." But the enormous bills for the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and the Point Four program that followed passed by wide margins in the Republican Congress, and were endorsed by Harold Stassen and Thomas E. Dewey, leading candidates for the GOP nomination in 1948. And then there was Ike, Harry's partner in virtue, co-architect of the Cold War world order, who lent Truman his vast stores of political capital, backed the U.N., the Truman Doctrine, and the Marshall Plan from the very beginning, and legitimized NATO by agreeing to lead its forces in Europe, much as George Washington had legitimized the Constitutional Convention, the Constitution, and then the American government. Eisenhower ran for president in 1952 to keep Taft from gaining ground within his own party, continued Truman's policies of restraint and engagement with Europe, and endorsed the Cold War containment policy elaborated in Truman's NSC-68 plan of 1950, which would guide U.S. presidents for the next 40 years.
All this is somehow neglected by liberals, who keep imagining that a long-term commitment to global endeavors requires a parallel commitment to spending, and meddling, at home. But it was Ike, the fiscal conservative (and private critic of the New Deal and its programs) who in 1947 would write in his diary, "I personally believe that the best thing we could do now would be to post 5 billion to the credit of the Secretary of State and tell him to use it to support democratic movements. . . . We must restore these broken economies and give freedom a chance to live."
Truman could not have put it better — and indeed, he did not: Conservatives then (and now) had no trouble distinguishing between overspending at home and the need to respond to a vast human crisis abroad. "National security relies on economic security," Beinart informs us. "Generosity at home is the foundation for generosity overseas." But today it is the Third Way states of Old Europe, ever too generous with welfare and benefits, who are stagnant and turned inward, while vigor and growth reside in the Anglo sphere, reformed in the '80s by Reagan and Thatcher; in India (where Bush's relations are excellent) and the newly freed parts of the Soviet empire, who are now well to the right of Old Europe and have few illusions about state benevolence. Perhaps not so oddly, it is sluggish Old Europe that is the most unnerved by Bush's democracy projects, while the Anglosphere and New Europe have been his best friends.
Wars have been won, and freedom expanded, by Roosevelt and Truman, who extended the welfare state, Reagan and Thatcher, who cut back its excesses, and Ike and John Kennedy, somewhere in between. In the Marshall Plan years, Ike, Harry, and young Congressman Kennedy, a fairly hard-line and conservative Democrat, were on the same page on most major issues, and though they later fell out and sniped at each other in the course of campaigning, they maintained the same overall foreign policy outlook. In the same way, a hard line on Iraq is held by George W. Bush, John McCain, and Joe Lieberman, whose domestic ideas differ greatly. There's no reason at all why liberals can't be hawks; they just haven't been doing it recently. And judging by the state of the debate, they're not about to start doing it soon.
Myth number two is the modesty gambit, the belief that the Cold War world order was built by the meek, organized around the idea that American power was too big and too brutal to unleash on a small, gentle world. Truman, according to Klein, placed "the need for American restraint and humility" at the center of all his designs. With this in mind, quoth Beinart, Truman "encased" the United States in a web of treaties that vastly curtailed its power. Thus was Washington able to convince its allies to agree to be protected by America's bombs and its armies, and to accept billions of dollars in aid. This is the lesson, so they inform us, that has been totally lost on Bush. "In Iraq, by contrast," Beinart instructs us, "Bush utterly failed to convince not merely the U.N. Security Council but most of America's democratic NATO allies that the war would really make the world safer." Not mentioned in this account is that it is easier to win friends when you are offering them protection and money (as Truman was doing in the late 1940s) than when you ask them for effort and sacrifice (as Bush did in 2002).