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Polls and Presidents

What Truman and Bush have in common.

11:00 PM, Mar 29, 2006 • By ALAN DOWD
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To read the sweeping pronouncements of Truman and Bush--their pledges of freedom and security, calls to sacrifice and leadership, warnings about terror and tyranny--is to watch America come to grips with its place and purpose in the world.

Truman's initial plan was simply to bring the troops home, but then he promised to rebuild postwar Europe and Japan, then to protect them, then to defend free peoples all around the world. He ultimately wanted the entire world "to adopt the American system" of free markets and free government.

Somewhere along the way from the Potsdam Conference to the Berlin Airlift, he transformed U.S. foreign policy with a doctrine that committed the American people to support any nation "resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." To carry out that doctrine, he poured unheard-of sums into a standing peacetime army and oversaw the creation of the Department of Defense, National Security Council, and Joint Chiefs of Staff to wage a new kind of war. He signed on to permanent defense treaties in Western Europe and the Pacific, opened the door to scores of other entangling alliances, authorized global covert operations, repackaged war as police action, and justified it all because of the nature of the enemy and the omnipresent threat it posed. "If we falter in our leadership," he warned, "we may endanger the peace of the world--and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation."

In the same way, Bush's post-9/11 vision has widened from simple self-defense to preventive war to the end of tyranny itself. "The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," he intoned in 2005. "America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one."

CONTRARY TO WHAT most history books tell us, Truman's doctrine wasn't a postwar panacea or readymade roadmap for waging the Cold War. Instead, as Derek Leebaert explains in The Fifty-Year Wound, the Cold War's first four years--which coincided with Truman's first four years as president--"were filled with starts and stops rather than any considered policy or long-range goals."

Nor did Americans immediately rally around Truman's battle plan. As historian Walter LaFeber recalls, Truman's critics "tore apart" his doctrine and policies. They warned that Truman would weaken the Constitution, over-inflate the presidency, militarize U.S. foreign policy. and destroy the United Nations. (Sound familiar?)

When Truman left the White House, he was generally considered neither particularly successful nor popular. His decision not to seek a third term (even though he was the last president permitted to do so) was evidence of his waning political strength. Yet today, he is ranked among America's greatest presidents.

This is not to say that Bush is destined for a Trumanesque legacy, of course; but neither is he doomed to failure. Tomorrow's historians--not today's polls or pundits--will render the final verdict.

Alan Dowd is a senior fellow at Sagamore Institute for Policy Research.