Harry, We Hardly Knew Ye
This week, several hundred of the sort of people Harry Truman would likely have cursed as “bloodsuckers” on one of his intemperate days will pay upwards of $1,000 per ticket to attend a black-tie fundraiser for the Truman Library at the National Building Museum in Washington. The dinner is just one of a series of events commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Truman’s ascension to the presidency in April 1945. The anniversary committee is chaired by all the living presidents, and President and Mrs. Clinton will be the guests of honor at the fundraiser.
These anniversary celebrations cap a spectacular posthumous rehabilitation of the 31st president. President Clinton has lavished praise on David McCullough’s loving biography of Truman, which was recently converted into a hagiographic film on HBO. When challenged on his decision to admit uncloseted homosexuals into the military, Clinton cited Truman’s equally controversial desegregation of the armed forces. The president — like all trailing incumbents — apparently is taking the desperate, come-from-behind 1948 campaign as a model for his own reelection.
Nor is it merely partisan Democrats who honor Truman. Ronald Reagan and his neoconservative allies also claimed to have been inspired by Truman, humble populist and steely anti-communist. Who remembers now that Truman left office in near-disgrace? A country victorious in the Cold War salutes the author of the Truman Doctrine and the champion of the Marshall Plan. A country weary of deceit in high places treasures the memory of Truman’s bluntness, his strength of purpose, his confidence in himself and the rightness of America’s cause.
Our Truman is the Truman McCullough lionizes: “He stood for common sense, common decency. He spoke the common tongue. As much as any president since Lincoln, he brought to the highest office the language and values of the common American people. He held to the old guidelines: Work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear. Yet he was not and had never been a simple, ordinary man…. He was the kind of president the founding fathers had in mind for the country.”
And all of this is true. But so is this: Truman spent a week visiting Yale in 1958. At a meeting with a small group of faculty and graduate students, the ex-president was asked how a Southerner like himself had come to support civil rights. Truman “replied eloquently that all Americans had fundamental rights. Then he added, ‘But personally I don’t care to associate with niggers.’”
That story comes from Alonzo L. Hamby’s new biography, Man of the People (Oxford University Press, 760 pages, $35), an astringent corrective to the saccharin now served by Truman’s uncritical admirers. It’s a book that should be read by everyone who prefers history to myth-making. Hamby believes that Truman was a great president, as indeed he was. But he also reminds us that a great president is not always a great man. Hamby observes that Truman “often felt suspicious of those around him, as capable of considerable vindictiveness, seethed with unfocused hostility, and, above all, dealt poorly with stress.” Truman’s cronyism, his violent temper, his self-pity, his vacillation, his pettiness often justified the doubts of his contemporaries about his fitness for high office.
Truman’s iconographers have lauded George Marshall’s assessment of the “integrity of the man.” McCullough describes Truman out of office. He “was not for sale. He would take no fees for commercial endorsements or for lobbying or writing letters or making phone calls. He would accept no ‘consulting fees,’ nor any gifts that might appear as a product endorsement on his part.” There is no entry for “corruption” in McCullough’s index.
Yet corruption was one of the trio of issues that sank the Democrats in 1952 (the others being Korea and communism). Between Teapot Dome and Watergate, no administration was as severely buffeted as Truman’s by allegations of influence-peddling, most of them true: Government loans were directed to prominent Democrats and their friends, administration officials accepted gifts large and small, and old war buddies of Truman’s accumulated tidy fortunes as “five-per-centers.” For the sake of his party, Truman was prepared to make all sorts of ethical compromises. In 1948, he fired the liberal head of the Civil Aeronautics Board, James M. Landis, under circumstances that lead Hamby to believe that Truman was motivated by the desire for campaign contributions from the aviation industry. Truman may have been an underdog in 1948, but he still raised considerably more money than his rival, Thomas Dewey: $2.7 million vs. $2.1 million. Nor, unlike, say, Ulysses S. Grant, was Truman invariably personally scrupulous. As a senator, he put his wife on his office payroll at a salary higher than any other of his employees — a practice condemned even by the loose ethical norms of the day.
Of course, if the only flaws marring Truman’s reputation were his personal weaknesses or his administration’s improprieties, recalling them now would be ridiculously beside the point. What president or presidency has gone unscathed by those? Nobody should begrudge the president who saved Western Europe from starvation and communism and imposed democratic institutions on Germany and Japan a few bouts of irascibility. Unfortunately, though, history’s ledger records some far more significant debits in the ledger of Truman’s achievements.
Alongside Truman’s magnificent successes in foreign affairs, there lies an ominous record at home. All of us, on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific, owe him thanks for the peaceful, secure, post-communist world we live in. But whenever a contemporary president hails Truman as a model for our own time, we should keep in mind that if conservative Congresses had not shot Truman’s domestic program to pieces, our peaceful, secure, post-communist world would be a dramatically poorer one.
No American president ever proposed worse economic policies than Harry Truman. The great postwar economic boom that began in 1945 appalled and disgusted him, and he exerted all his political power in an attempt to shut it down. Truman wanted to impose a permanent war economy on the United States: a comprehensive system of wage, price, and credit controls; state allocation of investment capital; and confiscatory taxation — all supervised by a bureaucracy left almost entirely to its own discretion. It could even be argued that Truman’s most important personal contribution to the nation’s future prosperity was his unpopularity: Dislike of him helped elect the conservative postwar Congresses that rejected statism at precisely the moment of its maximum prestige. It’s more than a little frightening to imagine what the country might look like now if Harry Truman’s program had won the backing of a beloved figure like General Eisenhower.
America returned to peace in 1945 in an anxious mood. The country was wracked by inflation and strikes. Unsurprisingly so. Since 1940, the Federal Reserve had let the printing presses rip, creating enough money to keep the interest rate on federal debt hovering at a little above 1 percent. To prevent all that new currency from having its natural inflationary effect, the Roosevelt administration had established an elaborate system of price controls. Wartime enthusiasm eased the enforcement of the controls; it also helped that workers were pressured to invest their money in war bonds, locking up in savings accounts money that might otherwise have bid up the prices of goods.
The Truman administration had planned to finance postwar reconstruction the same way that the Roosevelt administration had financed the war — by continuing to print money, borrowing at very low rates and suppressing price increases. It didn’t work. With the war over, people stopped buying war bonds and started cashing them instead, in hopes of buying a few peacetime luxuries: new tires, beefsteaks, civilian clothes. Goods vanished from stores; prices shot upwards. In August 1945, Truman decontrolled wages, and the major unions immediately demanded huge raises, 30 percent and more. When balked, union leaders (some of them communist-inspired) began exploiting the awesome powers conferred on them by New Deal labor legislation and yanking their followers out on strikes that threatened to shut the country down: rail strikes and steel strikes, auto strikes and coal strikes.
These strikes enraged Truman, and he took stern action to end them. In the case of the rail strike, he threatened to draft the strikers and subject them to military discipline unless they returned to work. But the only solution to the inflation and shortages problem that Truman could imagine was to redouble the policies that had created the problem in the first place: easy money and price controls. The president’s authority to impose price controls expired in June 1946. In August, Congress restored price controls, but in a much weaker form. Truman never ceased demanding his wartime economic powers back.
Hamby grimly describes Truman’s determination to institutionalize a command economy. In September 1946, Truman presented Congress with his first comprehensive postwar economic program: more controls on prices, a higher minimum wage, a law committing the Federal Reserve to easy money, a huge federal housing program, subsidies to small business, veterans’ benefits, more generous Social Security payments, and a British-style national health insurance program. As he would do throughout his presidency, Truman proposed raising tax rates — already at wartime highs — as an anti-inflationary device. At the same time, recognizing that excessive taxation depressed economic production, he began punching loopholes in the tax code to stimulate favored industries.
Truman’s September program probably contributed as much as anything to the Republican landslide in November 1946. The reputation of that 80th Congress has been unjustly blackened by partisan historians. It was a Republican majority that enacted the Truman foreign policy. Republicans provided the aid to embattled Greece and Turkey demanded by the Truman Doctrine, and Republicans voted the funds for the Marshall Plan.
Those same Republicans, though, rebelled against Truman’s vision of a permanently militarized economy. Even before they arrived in Washington, Truman unhappily abandoned most price controls to assuage them. The new Congress scrapped the rest. Congress made short work too of most of Truman’s spending program, and twice sent him an unwanted tax cut, which he vetoed. Congress’s repeal of price controls prompted the Federal Reserve to attack inflation by tightening money. As always, that worked. And the passage of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, curbing the wilder provisions of the 1935 Wagner Act, helped achieve labor peace.
But Truman’s attachment to economic hokum did not waver. In November 1947, he proposed another Clement Atlee-style economic plan: controls on prices and consumer credit, federal allocations of capital to industry, and rationing of consumer goods. Happily, the 80th Congress ignored him.
Eight months later, Truman tried again. Everyone has heard of the famous “special session” of Congress convened by Truman in July 1948. He sent up bill after obnoxious bill, knowing that each would be rejected, justifying his claim that the 80th was a “do-nothing” Congress. Now take a look at the content of his bills: price controls again, a huge expansion of the federal housing program already transforming poor neighborhoods into nightmarish slums, national health insurance, federal support for and regulation of local school boards, and a renewed commitment to federal water projects to produce subsidized electricity. It was the Lyndon Johnson program, 15 years early. And if we believe that Johnson’s huge expansion of the federal government between 1965 and 1973 shut down the postwar expansion of the American economy, we ought to wonder: Would there have been a postwar economic expansion in the first place if Harry Truman’s legislative program had succeeded?
Nor should the left-wing program of July 1948 be interpreted, as McCullough interprets it, as a mere tactic to split reasonable Dewey Republicans from the Taft mossbacks. Truman sincerely believed in it. After his re-election, he sent virtually the same set of policies up Capitol Hill again: repeal of Taft-Hartley, higher taxes, centrally planned hydroelectric authorities on the model of the Tennessee Valley Authority, national health insurance, the inevitable price controls, and on and on. He opposed the decontrol of the price of natural gas, a reckless move that would have accelerated the 1973 energy crisis had he not been forced to change his mind to win the support of a key Oklahoma senator. And again his program was largely disregarded.
Then came a great opportunity: another war. Within three months of the North Korean attack on the South, Truman extracted a Defense Production Act from Congress, at last permitting him to re-impose the economic controls he had been demanding for five years. Embittered liberals damned the results of the elections of November 1950 — a Democratic loss of five seats in the Senate, and 28 in the House — as a victory for McCarthyism. Perhaps so. But it was Truman’s determination to use Korea to re-impose central economic planning that gave McCarthy his opportunity.
Actually, the connection between Truman and McCarthyism is even more direct than that. Senator McCarthy delivered his notorious Wheeling, West Virginia, speech — inaugurating his career as America’s premier anticommunist — in January 1950. Previously, most Republican leaders had eschewed McCarthyite demagoguery. Dewey had passionately opposed the outlawing of the Communist party in 1948: “It is an attempt to beat down ideas with a club. It is a surrender of everything we believe in.” Two years later, however, the courtly Robert Taft was prepared to make use of McCarthy; in 1952, Eisenhower — who despised the Wisconsin senator — paid him compliments while campaigning in Milwaukee. What changed their minds?
Perhaps one should ask, Who changed their minds? The nostalgic memory of the “Give ‘em hell Harry” whistlestop campaign of 1948 has softened our recollection of the extraordinary savagery of Truman’s campaign rhetoric. McCullough averts his eyes from the spectacle, inserting only a few rough remarks into his honeyglazed account of Truman’s speeches. (“He expressed love of home, love of the land, the virtues and old verities of small-town America, his America…. He was friendly, cheerful. And full of fight. ‘You are the government,’ he said time after time. ‘I think the government belongs to you and me as private citizens,’” etc.) Even the more realistic Hamby fails to convey the full flavor of it.
In Iowa, Truman accused the Republicans of promoting a “Wall Street economic dictatorship.” The Congress, he said, “had stuck a pitchfork in the farmer’s back.” “That’s how they love the farmers?” he roared in Missouri. “They want to bust them just like they did in 1932.” In Detroit, he told a rally that Dewey’s election would “totally enslave the working man.” Under a Republican administration, not only would wages fall “our democratic institutions of free labor and free enterprise” would be endangered.
A Nevada speech condemned the Republicans as “silent and cunning men, who have developed a dangerous lust for power and privilege.” In Texas he charged that Republicans opposed government construction of hydroelectric dams “because it means that the big power monopolies cannot get their rake-off at the expense of the public.”
In Indiana, the president swung wildly, shouting: “If anybody in this country is friendly to the Communists, it is the Republicans.” Again in Oklahoma, Truman tested this proto-McCarthyite theme: “Just why are the Communists backing the third party [Henry Wallace’s Progressives]? They are backing the third party because they want a Republican victory in November.”
Incessantly, Truman warned that Dewey’s election would bring back the Depression. H.L. Mencken, covering his last national campaign, quipped, “If he did not come out for spiritualism, chiropractic, psychotherapy, and extra sensory perception, it was only because no one demanded that he do so. If there had been any formidable body of cannibals in the country, he would have promised to provide them with free missionaries fattened at the taxpayers’ expense.”
None of Truman’s railway-car orations, however, quite matched in viciousness the speech he gave to a huge crowd and nationwide radio audience in Chicago on October 25, vilifying Dewey’s campaign themes of national unity and administrative efficiency.
Dewey’s biographer, Richard Norton Smith, offers this description: “Now he went further, charging that Dewey’s party paid only ‘lip service” to democracy itself. ‘In our time we have seen the tragedy of the Italian and German peoples, who lost their freedom to men who made promises of unity and efficiency and sincerity … and it could happen here.’ Pointing a finger at ‘powerful reactionary forces which are silently undermining our democratic institutions,’ Truman accused Dewey of being a ‘front man’ for the same cliques that had backed Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, and Tojo in Japan.”
Dewey never responded in kind. It’s not hard to understand why the Republicans who had lost the 1948 election to a Truman who accused them of fronting for fascism succumbed in 1950 to the temptation to retaliate by representing the Democrats as fronting for communism. What is hard to understand is why McCarthy’s lies are regarded as the ultimate in political baseness, while Truman’s are laughed off as the amusing excesses of a lovable old cuss.
Since his unlamented departure from office in 1953 — by which time he had sunk so low in public esteem that Adlai Stevenson avoided appearing in public with him — Harry Truman’s reputation has been puffed by a series of promoters, all of them in the service of an agenda.
First to set the Truman boom in motion was Merle Miller, a journalist who had interviewed Truman at length in the early 1960s, and then reproduced extracts from those interviews in a 1974 book, Plain Speaking.
In a country weary of the deceit of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, Plain Speaking inspired nostalgia for the days when it had been governed by a simple, direct man who minced no words. (Ironically enough, the best stories in it are completely untrue.)
As the post-Vietnam Democratic party abandoned its commitment to containment, Truman took on talismanic meaning for the dwindling handful of Democrats who kept faith with liberal anti-communism. What better symbol of their politics could the party’s history offer than a president who faced down Moscow abroad while veering further left on domestic issues than any important Democrat of the 1970s would dare?
For Republicans who wanted to reach out to hawkish Democrats who felt abandoned by their ancestral party, Truman likewise became a potent symbol. And everyone, Democrat or Republican, who retained some elemental faith in the country’s conduct of the great struggles of the century felt obliged to vindicate Truman against the revisionists who blamed him for dropping an unnecessary atomic bomb on an allegedly helpless Japan and forcing confrontation on an allegedly peace-loving Soviet Union.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, however, Truman’s legacy has become available for more sinister exploitation by politicians who want to incite the poor against the successful, who want to revitalize discredited schemes of statism, who want the press corps to chuckle indulgently as they violently defame their opponents. No wonder Bill Clinton has become so interested in him.