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).
Not mentioned either is the small matter that the U.N.'s favored approach to Iraq, the Oil-for-Food program, was no jewel of multilateralism but a sink of corruption, useful mainly for shoveling money to the family of the sanctimonious and Bush-bashing secretary general, and that some of the "democratic NATO allies" who refused Bush's entreaties had been taking money for decades from Saddam Hussein. How might Harry have dealt with a France being bought off by the Soviet Union? With restraint and humility? "Rather than wield its enormous power alone, the United States would share it with other countries," Beinart claims. "NATO was the expression of this idea." Not quite. The idea behind NATO was to bring the weak, war-battered countries of Europe safely behind the shield of American power, to keep them from being picked off one by one by the Soviet Union, as the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia had been picked off by Hitler in the years before World War II. As for the mesh of Cold War treaties undertaken by Truman and his successors, these had three major purposes: to convince the Soviet Union that the commitment was solid and lasting; to make it clear to the small nations that we would not desert them; and to make it difficult, perhaps impossible, for an isolationist president, should one be elected, to pull his country out of the world.
Humility was not a factor in these calculations, nor was the theory that American power was less than legitimate when used unilaterally. Dean Acheson, Truman's secretary of state, had little use for the United Nations, which had already been rendered impotent by the split in the Security Council, and Truman shared his opinion, being prepared to go into Korea without its consent. He did get its consent, only because the Soviet Union blundered by boycotting the Council. But as Max Boot reminds us, "Truman had already committed air and naval forces to combat before the vote," later writing to Acheson that without the U.N., "We would have had to go into Korea alone."
At the time, of course, the liberal hawks did not impress their observers as deferential to others. Truman was seen (rather like Bush) as being headstrong and cocky, Acheson as imperious and arrogant. Neither did Roosevelt or Kennedy strike people as being obsessed with his own or his country's shortcomings. Humility, deference, and multilateralism did not take pride of place in the Democratic lexicon until well after the party's mid-century triumphs, more or less at the same time it began losing elections. Based on the selection of these themes as talking points, it is not about to start winning them soon.
Myth number three is the Frankenbush Monster, otherwise known as the Sum of All Fears. In reaction and in contrast to the softened and idealized version of Truman, liberals have created a hardened and demonized version of Bush, the soulmate of all their bogeymen: Robert A. Taft, John Foster Dulles, Barry Goldwater (who lost 44 states to Lyndon B. Johnson), Richard Nixon at his most demagogic, and, of course, Tail Gunner Joe McCarthy. It is from these sources, liberals claim, that modern conservatives derive their deepest instincts: their militarism, their belligerence, their insularity, their disdain for allies and treaties, and their menacing penchant to seek "moral clarity," which led to blacklists, and worse, in the past.
As the seminal force behind the Bush worldview, Beinart tends to obsess on James Burnham, a proponent of preventive war who wrote for National Review in its earliest days, despite the fact that Burnham was hardly a household name in his heyday and there is no evidence that Bush has any familiarity with him. Nonetheless, Beinart conjures up a "tradition that runs from James Burnham to George W. Bush and Dick Cheney" that will prevent victory in the war on terror because its adherents "don't understand Reinhold Niebuhr's insight that unless America recognizes that it can do harm in the world, it cannot do any good." Oh? When exactly did Bush ever express the opinion that America couldn't do harm?
Of course, he didn't, just as he never said any of a number of things the liberal hawks have chalked up to his name: that he has "denied America's capacity for evil," described "free elections as a finish line that nations cross and then live happily ever after," or said that democracy was "America's gift to the world." What he did say is that free elections are a first step in a long, complex process and that freedom is God's gift to humanity. But why bother reporting what Bush really said when you can make up something that sounds clueless, and might make him look bad to the world?
And how do you trace internationalists with a passion for spreading global democracy back to a handful of crabbed isolationists in the mid-1950s who wished to entrench themselves within their own borders, and held a dark view of the world? None too convincingly — especially when this exercise involves trying to ignore their true antecedents, who are a rather more plausible lot. One of these was Ronald Reagan, an original Truman Democrat and New Dealer who, when he became a conservative, did not shed his Trumanesque foreign policy skin. As his biographer Lou Cannon tells us, "Reagan's loathing of government stopped at the water's edge of national defense, a view he held as an interventionist New Dealer . . . and which he carried with him largely unchanged into conservative politics. . . . 'National defense is not a threat to peace; it is the guarantee of peace with freedom,' Reagan often said." This is the true voice of Truman, and it is no mistake that Reagan, in his fight against communism in Central America, invoked Truman while making his case. Reagan's May 9, 1984, speech calling for support of Nicaragua's contras "was organically related to the Truman Doctrine in its rationale and rhetoric," Cannon says, noting that Reagan included a quote from Truman's speech of March 12, 1947: "The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter . . . we may endanger the peace of the world."
Modern foreign policy conservatism does not begin in the mid-1950s. It begins in 1980, when Ronald Reagan brought the Truman DNA into the Republican party, along with a cadre of Scoop Jackson Democrats, marking a break not only with the isolationist impulse, but with President Nixon's accomodationist détente with the Soviet Union. It was this campaign, and this program, not intellectual theorists of 30 years before, that ignited the interest of George W. Bush.
Myth number four is the Perfection Illusion, the fantasy that once all was well. "Remarkably, on their very first try," or so Klein informs us, "Harry Truman's liberal anti-Communists developed a global leadership strategy that was strong, sophisticated, optimistic, and humane." Well, perhaps, if you omit the word "global." In Europe, the Truman Doctrine was a roaring success that stopped communism at its World War II borders, held the line (after more than a few dicey moments), and allowed Western Europe to recover from war comfortable (perhaps a little too comfortable) behind the American shield. In Asia, however, it was a disaster. Mao triumphed in China; war and then a bloody stalemate dragged on for years in Korea; and Vietnam became a catastrophe. There was nothing strong or sophisticated in any of this, or, from the point of view of these countries' unfortunate citizens, anything in the outcome that was remotely humane. The Wise Men who devised the formula that saved most of Europe — supplying regimes under pressure from Communists — ran out of answers when it turned out the regimes under pressure were too inept, too corrupt, or too unpopular to use aid effectively; and the United States was faced with the choice of letting them go (as in China) or taking the war over, as in Vietnam. Neither choice was in any way popular, and each ended badly. North Korea and China are still causing problems. Truman didn't "lose" China — it wasn't his to begin with — but the Wise Men, it seems, were not quite all-knowing. Do not expect the subject of Asia to come up all that often in these hymns to the liberal hawks.
Above all, do not expect Korea to be brought up at all. Korea, in fact, is Iraq on steroids, a compendium of every complaint that the liberals bring against Bush and his administration: a war of choice that began with an error, that became in effect the mother of quagmires, that cost billions of dollars, killed tens of thousands, and dragged on years longer than anyone looked for, to an inconclusive and troublesome end. It began with a mistake — Acheson's omission of South Korea from a list of countries within the American sphere of protection, which may have led the North to believe it could invade without consequence. It was a war of choice, in that it was an invasion of a country to which the United States was not bound by treaty, but felt obliged to defend as a matter of principle. (The elder George Bush would make a similar decision in 1990, when Saddam Hussein seized Kuwait and its oil fields.)
Complaints began at once that Truman invaded without enough preparation, that he erred when he crossed the border into North Korea without a clue as to what he planned to do when he got there, and that he erred even more in having no inkling that his move would draw in the Chinese, which it did. At once, the war, and the risk, grew exponentially. As Michael Barone would write later, "The United States suddenly found itself at war with an utterly alien foe, led by men of whom it knew nothing, and with whom it was in no communication, and backed by virtually unlimited reserves of manpower. . . . The decision to go north of the 38th parallel, coupled with the decision not to cross the Yalu . . . put the U.S. forces in peril and raised the possibility of broader and even nuclear war." The war that Truman expected to have been clean and quick stretched into a long, hard slog with no exit plan visible. The public turned on the war, and on Truman, whose approval ratings bottomed out at 23 percent near the end of his tenure. His presidency was widely assumed to have been a debacle. In 1952, he was shunned by his chosen successor. His country was eager to show him the door.
What, one wonders, would today's liberal hawks have made of him and Korea, given their penchant for neat, well-planned wars that end quickly, and their standard of zero mistakes? Would they have screamed for the scalp of Acheson? Ripped Truman to shreds for having gone in too rashly? Flayed him alive for undoubted misjudgments? Said (as did John Kerry and some "pro-war" Democrats) that while they supported the invasion in theory, they had never expected Harry Truman "to f— it up as badly as he did"? If they quail at the expense of Iraq, what would they have said to the expense of Korea? If they quail at casualties of under 3,000, what would they have said to the more than 37,000 dead? Would they have been among the 23 percent who stayed loyal to Harry? Or would there have been second thoughts, mea culpas, and abject, not to say groveling, apologies to the antiwar left?
Some sense of what they might have done came in a radio address by James Webb, the Marine Corps veteran, former Reagan secretary of the Navy, and now antiwar Democrat running against George Allen in the Senate race in Virginia. As part of a strained analogy, in which he and the Democrats would play the part of Eisenhower in 1953, Webb called Truman's conduct of the Korean war "an appalling failure." Liberal hawks hail Harry now that he has been cleared by the verdict of history, but what would they have said in those dark days of trial? Would they have been loyal, in real time, to the man they now look to? Or would they have bailed out on Korea and Harry, as they have now bailed out on Bush and Iraq?
Democrats are right to look back to their mid-century heroes, larger than themselves in every dimension, trying to find their appeal and their secrets. But when they try to be like them, something odd happens: Instead of making themselves tougher to be more like their models, they rewrite history to make their idols seem softer, cutting their antecedents down to their own small size. The process resembles the fiasco of the FDR memorial on the Washington Mall, dedicated by President Bill Clinton in 1997. The liberal lion of the 1940s was strained through the modern sensibility of Clinton's party, and came out worse for wear. FDR, a flamboyant figure who could swagger while sitting, was downsized. The exhibit centers disproportionately on his domestic achievements, though it is unquestionably his role as a war leader that earns him his standing among the Big Three. His cigarette holder is taken away; his wife is made to forgo her fur tippet; and the disability he overcame (and concealed from the public) is now emphasized. The stress throughout is on being a victim: Americans as victims of the Depression and poverty, Roosevelt as a victim of polio; everyone as a victim of circumstance. The sculptures themselves reveal most of the story: forlorn looking figures slouch in a line, waiting for help from a government agency; World War II is pushed out of the picture. No one is shown storming a beach, wading ashore, or raising a flag on a reconquered island. And no one, certainly, is toiling at Los Alamos, hard at work on the atomic bomb.
The bomb was dropped twice, of course, by Harry S. Truman, a critical detail that goes unremarked in the recent wave of Truman worship. Truman was the first Cold War president, but he also is the man who ended the hot war before it, and steered it to its shattering close. If the Truman of Korea is not mentioned much by today's liberal warriors, the Truman of Japan is not mentioned at all: a relentless war leader who used power to crushing and awesome effect. In the last months of the war, to avoid an invasion of the Japanese islands, America's two greatest liberal presidents planned, executed, and blessed a campaign so completely hair-raising that the horror remains to this day. "From March to July 1945, against virtually no resistance, the B29s dropped 100,000 tons of incendiaries on sixty-six Japanese towns and cities, wiping out 170,000 square miles of closely populated streets," Paul Johnson relates in Modern Times.
On the night of March 9-10, 300 B29s, helped by a strong north wind, turned the old swamp plain of Musashi, on which Tokyo is built, into an inferno, destroying fifteen square miles of the city, killing 83,000 and injuring 102,000. . . . Even before the dropping of the A-bombs, Japanese figures show that raids on sixty-nine areas had destroyed 2,250,000 buildings, made 9 million homeless, killed 260,000 and injured 410,000. . . . Nuclear weapons were merely a new upward notch in a steadily increasing continuum of destructive power. . . . On August 1, 820 B29s unloaded 6,600 tons of explosives on five towns.
Five days later, the first atom bomb hit Hiroshima, followed three days later by the bomb on Nagasaki. Two more bombs were ready for dropping, in case there had been further resistance. Truman never regretted his decision to drop them, and said he had never lost one minute's sleep.
What Truman showed here is the relentlessness he shared with Lincoln and Roosevelt; the will to do what one must to save one's people, in the knowledge that sometimes men who do not like to kill are forced and obliged to kill in great numbers, to make sure that cruel and evil regimes do not flourish and that those who like killing do not rule the earth. It is the Democrats' problem — and therefore the country's — that their last president to understand this on a visceral level left the White House in 1963 in a coffin, and that none of their leaders have quite known this since. Their evocations of these people feel and sound hollow — they may like the idea of FDR, JFK, and Harry, but one feels the real men would unnerve them. They are right to look to Truman for a way out of their malaise and their quandary, but the Truman they create is part of the problem: soft-power Harry, Humility Harry, with none of the iron that he had in real life. They don't like the real Harry — the one of Japan and Korea — and they don't like his real traits, when they see them in others, like George W. Bush. This is their flaw, and their evasions won't help them. When they own and admit the genuine Harry, people will trust them with power again.
By Noemie Emery