The Magazine

The Inconvenient Truth About Truman

His heirs are Republicans now.

Jul 17, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 41 • By NOEMIE EMERY
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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's 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.")