The Magazine

Understanding Harry and Ike

The uneasy friendship of Truman and Eisenhower

Apr 1, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 28 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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Throughout their public careers, both Truman and Eisenhower were regarded as ordinary middle-class Americans, regular guys with no dazzling intellectual powers or sophisticated experience. But in fact they were both highly intelligent and as adults read widely even as they gained experience in military and political life. Still, before the outbreak of World War II, they were little known. Truman was about as obscure as a senator could be, and Eisenhower was a lieutenant colonel with little prospect for promotion. No one suspected that they would be the presidents leading America through the sixteen years after the war.

Both were put on the path to the presidency by Franklin D. Roosevelt. In December 1943 FDR named Eisenhower the commander of the cross-Channel invasion, and in July 1944 he (in typically devious fashion) made Truman the Democratic nominee for vice president--in effect, the next president. Truman was still little known, however, when he became president in April 1945; Eisenhower was a popular hero. At the Potsdam conference in July 1945, Truman fawned over Eisenhower. "General, there is nothing that you may want that I won't try to help you get," Eisenhower recalled him saying there (Truman later denied it, unconvincingly). "That definitely and specifically includes the presidency in 1948." Truman said this even though Eisenhower disagreed with him on major policy decisions--he opposed asking the Soviets to enter the war against Japan and, alone among major military leaders, opposed using the atomic bomb.

From their first meeting we see the contrast in their character. Truman, the professional politician, was disarmingly frank and astonishingly open, making no attempt to conceal his admiration and awe for the world-famous general. Eisenhower, the professional soldier, was tight-lipped and circumspect, concealing any ambition he may have had and keeping his options open. You can see the same contrast in their card-playing habits. Truman's game was poker, at which he seemed to be a good but not great player; he played not to win money, but to enjoy the conviviality of a night out. Eisenhower's game, as Murry Kempton noted in a brilliant article in 1967, was bridge, which in the years before World War II he played well enough to provide a substantial supplement to his military salary.

The same contrast was apparent in how they handled their memoirs. Truman helped Eisenhower accumulate a small fortune by making sure the IRS ruled that Eisenhower's sale of his book "Crusade in Europe" would be classified as a capital gain, not ordinary income. This enabled him to earn $476,000 after taxes, $300,000 more than he would have if the payment were classed as ordinary income. But Truman acquiesced in the 1950 repeal of the tax provision used by Eisenhower and earned only $37,000 on his memoirs.

Through most of Truman's presidency the two worked closely together and agreed on major issues. As Army chief of staff, Eisenhower supported Truman on unification of the military services and on the commitment of American power to stop communism in Europe and elsewhere. Truman continued to press his 1945 offer to make Eisenhower president. As late as the fall of 1947, Truman asked Army Secretary Kenneth Royall to offer Eisenhower the 1948 Democratic nomination for president and, astonishingly, offered to be his vice presidential candidate. Only after Eisenhower declined did Truman decide to run for a full term himself. Eisenhower loyally maintained his refusal to run. In January 1948 he demanded that his name be removed from the New Hampshire primary ballot, and in July 1948 he squelched a Draft Eisenhower movement led by three of FDR's sons to nominate him at the Democratic National Convention.

But Eisenhower was not entirely open with Truman. In 1947 and 1948 he asked a number of people whether anyone could be nominated by both parties. Despite his warm letters praising Truman's policies, he voted for Thomas Dewey in 1948. In light of his later actions, the reasons for Eisenhower's course are fairly clear. On domestic issues he supported the Republican party; he did not want to be elected as a Democrat. He did believe in Truman's commitment of American power to the defense of Western Europe. But Dewey agreed with that policy, and Eisenhower could be confident it would be continued, as a bipartisan foreign policy, if Dewey were elected.