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Mild about Harry: how Truman ushered in the end of liberal idealism.

How Truman ushered in the end of liberal idealism

David McCullough's highly readable new biography(*1) pays proper respect to Harry Truman's greatest achievements, beginning with the Truman Committee, where, as a senator, he proved it possible for Congress to effectively monitor government programs, and continuing through the high points of his presidency: the Marshall Plan, Point Four, the Berlin airlift, desegregation of the armed forces, recognition of Israel, resistance to aggression in South Korea, and the firing of MacArthur. Of these, the two that have been most underappreciated are the Truman Committee and the Berlin airlift.

The Truman Committee demonstrated through its constructive criticism of wartime defense spending that Congress can oversee other branches of government. Today, sadly, that kind of oversight is almost a lost art. Truman's wise decision to supply Soviet-blockaded Berlin through the air, instead of confronting strong Soviet ground forces, ranks along with Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a landmark example of how to be resolute without going to war.

McCullough also acknowledges Truman's negatives, but he does so--and this is his book's main defect--with little explanation of their significance, either at the time or in the broader context of history.

While Truman was a lovable man who will forever stand out among our presidents for his humanity and courage, he made many mistakes, some of them whoppers. By excluding South Korea from a defense perimeter he announced in 1949, his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, may have signaled the North Koreans that they could invade South Korea. Truman's administration also misjudged China's threats that it would enter the Korean War if the United States crossed the 38th parallel and approached the Yalu River.

On the domestic scene, Truman, although not by any means a Joe McCarthy, instituted unduly restrictive classification and loyalty programs in the federal government. He also nominated two justices to the Supreme Court, Fred Vinson and Tom Clark, who became part of the majority that upheld in the Dennis case the imprisonment of American Communist Party leaders simply for teaching and advocating Marxist doctrine--a decision that, for me, marks the low point in the history of the First Amendment. These actions were crucial in creating the climate of conformity that dominated the fifties, and they did permanent damage to the civil and foreign services by greatly heightening the customary caution of the bureaucrat.

Truman's administration was also characterized by cronyism (Harry Vaughan and Donald Dawson were unhappy examples), by terrible judgment in the appointment of such cabinet members as Louis Johnson as secretary of defense and J. Howard McGrath as attorney general, and by a too-easy tolerance of corruption that probably was the result of Truman's adjustment to his role in the Pendergast machine in Kansas City early in his political life. (He managed to survive as personally incorruptible by winking at the shenanigans of others.) He was also guilty of a shoot-from-the-lip carelessness, as when he declared during the Korean War that he thought the use of the atomic bomb could be left to the discretion of the military commanders in the field.

But my most severe indictment of Truman is that he inflicted the first wound in the slow death of liberal idealism in America that began in 1945. For the first 45 years of this century, idealism was a vibrant force, and for 28 of those 45 years, we had inspiring leaders--Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR. In the 45 years since, we've had only the period between 1961 and 1965, when the New Frontier and the Great Society briefly revived a spirit of generosity and hope before that spirit was crushed by Vietnam and Watergate.

Harry monster

The truth is that Truman was generally not a crusader for liberal causes. With respect to civil rights, for example, he sought a plank for his platform that was "mild and ambiguous enough to mollify" segregationists. In private, he called blacks "niggers" and referred to civil rights advocate Hubert Humphrey as "a crackpot." Liberals, as a result, deserted him and tried in the spring of 1948 to persuade Dwight Eisenhower to run as a Democrat that year. When that effort failed, many then supported the third-party candidacy of Henry Wallace.

It was only during the final month of the 1948 campaign that Truman's message was passionately liberal and he really captured the hearts of the non-communist left. Ordinarily critical columnists, like The New Republic's TRB and The New Yorker's Richard Rovere, said kind things about him. And I can still remember how excited I, who had been prepared to vote for Wallace earlier in the campaign, became during October and how intensely I was rooting for Truman to win on election night when the pundits were predicting a Dewey victory.

The most telling test of Truman's liberalism was what he did with his triumph. As 1949 began, he was no longer handcuffed by a Republican Congress. He had Democratic majorities in both houses. So did he seize the moment and move with bold resolution to get liberal programs enacted?

The answer provided by McCullough, who is unaware of the negative implication of what he is saying: "The first six months of the new term were a breather for Truman."

Instead of twisting arms on Capitol Hill, in March he flew off to Key West for another "working vacation," which was truly Reaganesque since he had already rested in the Keys just after the fall election --and doesn't seem to have returned to the White House until May. Here's McCollough's again uncritical description of how the days were spent:

He basked in the sun with members of his staff,

listened to music on the phonograph, took an afternoon

nap, played poker on the porch every

night, and started off each day with a shot of

bourbon before his walk. The staff all enjoyed

themselves, as did the 30-odd reporters who

usually made the trips and had little to do but

enjoy themselves.

It could be argued that, because there were quite a few Dixiecrats in Truman's congressional majority, he would have had difficulty getting a legislative program passed. But he should have tried. Not trying proved that his campaign rhetoric had been cynical, a liberalism adopted not out of conviction but out of the desire to be reelected. Indeed, liberalism had been proposed as a 1948 campaign strategy by the famous Clifford memorandum (now revealed to have originally been drafted by Jim Rowe). It recommended special appeals to groups such as farmers, labor unions, blacks, Catholics, Italians, and Jews. It may have been the intellectual godfather of the interest-group liberalism that was to be the curse of the Democratic Party for the next several decades.

Truman's cynicism was not the only factor in his failure to inspire. He often seemed embarrassing. This was part his fault, part the people's.

Truman considered himself "a plain man," which was the way most Americans thought of themselves in 1945. But developments were underway that would cause many of them to identify with the upper classes and to begin to see their president as the father whose social lapses are excruciating to his adolescent children, who aspire to higher society.

One of the truly transforming changes in American history began the year Truman became president. In the fall of 1945, veterans swarmed to the nation's universities to take advantage of the GI Bill. Millions who would otherwise have been unable to afford to do so acquired college degrees. This radically elevated the educational level of the American people and it provided a passport into the middle of the middle class for many who otherwise would have been doomed to the lower rungs. Yet mass access to college also subtly devalued the bachelor's degree, and cultural taste began to replace that degree as a way of proving class. In the late forties, the popularity of The New Yorker, which taught lessons in taste, soared, as did the appeal of similarly enriching trips through Europe.

My favorite example of this change is the contrast between the popularity of two Broadway productions. In the 1945-46 theater season, a splendid revival of Pygmalion survived only a few months, despite great performances by Gertrude Lawrence as Eliza and Melville Cooper as Doolittle, while a decade later My Fair Lady reigned as the smash hit of the era. The music of Lerner and Loewe was certainly part of the explanation. But another factor that contributed to the popularity of My Fair Lady was that its underlying message--that style could be acquired--was enthusiastically embraced by a public that was now eager to hear it.

Harry Truman indisputably lacked style. In fact, he seemed to scorn it. Perhaps the most infamous illustration of this indifference was his letter to The Washington Post's music critic, Paul Hume, after Hume wrote an unflattering review of a recital at Constitution Hall by Truman's daughter, Margaret, who was then attempting a career on the concert stage:

Mr. Hume: I've just read your lousy review

of Margaret's concert. I've come to the conclusion

that you are an 'eight ulcer man on four ulcer


It seems to me you are a frustrated old man [Hume was 34 who wishes he could have been successful. When you write such poppycock as was in the back section of the paper you work for, it shows conclusively that you're off the beam and at least four of your ulcers are at work.

Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens you'll need a new nose, a lot

of beef-steak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!

[Westbrook Pegler, a gutter snipe, is a gentleman beside you. I hope you'll accept that statement as a worse insult than a reflection on your ancestry.

The spirit poured into this letter represents precisely what made Truman lovable, and considered in that light, some of the language is forgivable. But, taken as a whole, the letter is so sadly distant from the language of a Churchill or a DeGaulle or a Roosevelt that one can understand how it troubled even those indifferent to social status.

Plain truth

If there is a lesson to be learned from the leadership of Harry Truman, it is that there is nothing wrong with having a plain man as president. Indeed, after watching the taste-makes-class game reach its ultimate absurdity in the vanities of the eighties, even the snobs have to admit that there is much that is attractive about the prospect of a plain-man president. But we also need for him to be someone who refuses to appeal to our selfishness, who instead summons the best that is within us with words that touch our souls. However admirable Harry Truman was in many ways, this is a test that he failed. It is a test Abraham Lincoln passed.

(*1) The Seven Fat Years and How To Do It Again. Robert L. Bartley. Free Press, $22.95.
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Author:Peters, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1992
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