Is Bush a Truman?

Print edition : February 14, 2003

Another Such Victory: President Truman and the Cold War 1945-1953 by Arnold A. Offner, Stanford University Press; pages 626, $37.95

Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesman and Leadership in Wartime by Elliot A. Cohen; The Free Press; pages 288, $25

"IS George W. Bush another Harry S. Truman? He and we should surely hope so,'' Thomas E. Manu wrote in The New York Times last October and proceeded to recite a list of Truman's achievements. Both, Truman and Bush, became Presidents by accident. "Each faced doubts about his capacity to lead. Both were inclined towards plain-speaking and relished making big decisions" (italics mine, throughout).

As a matter of fact, when Truman left the White House in 1953, his Gallup Poll approval rating was 31 per cent, the lowest of any departing president, since Roosevelt. It reflected the assessment that he was "a failed President".

Two decades later, a new "Trumania" developed. "Every one's wild about Harry," Newsweek noted (March 24, 1975). He seemed a contrast to Tricky Dick (Nixon), the myth grew. In the 1992 presidential election President George Bush shamelessly drafted himself in the mantle of Truman. A protege of the corrupt party boss, Pendergast, in Kansas City, Missouri, Truman made many a sordid compromise there. As Senator during Second World War, he put his wife, Bess, on his Senate pay roll. She was paid $4,500 a year, the highest salary paid to a Senate Office Clerk. As he assured her, she had "just to drop in" and do no work. "It helps all concerned." In his definitive work, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb (1995), Gar Alperovitz proves that on his decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, "Truman lied - directly, repeatedly and without apparent hesitation - about some of the most important aspects."

Far from being a mature statesman, as Thomas Mann imagined, Truman was impulsive, bigoted and intolerant of dissent. Like George W. Bush he had a narrow worldview. Archival disclosures in Moscow, in Washington D.C. and other capitals show him in poor light and vindicate a contemporary Walter Lippmann's judgment. Ronald Steel wrote in his splendid work Walter Lippmann and the American Century: "To Lippmann's mind, Truman was an insecure man given to hasty decisions and false bravado to cover his anxieties. `I never thought that his way of shooting from the hip was the way the presidency should be conducted,' he later said on television. He was particularly critical of the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan." While the decision itself reflected criminal folly, Truman's jubilation at its execution revealed a dangerous mindset shared by not a few around him.

Prof. Arnold A. Offner of Lafayette College has produced a work of stupendous research, which demolishes the Truman myth completely. In doing so, he demolishes also some myths about the origins of the Cold War but without raising myths of his own as some revisionists are prone to do. In the last decade since the opening of the archives in Moscow, we have had a stream of works of high scholarship by Russian scholars; for example, Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov's Inside the Kremlin's Cold War - and remarkable Russo-American studies in collaboration on the origins of the Cold War and on episodes like the Cuban missile crisis.

Useful as is Offner's detailed resume of events between 1945 and 1953, with a 100 pages of endnotes, the conclusions he draws on the course of the Cold War and his assessment of Truman's limitations and outlook are of contemporary relevance and not in the U.S. alone either. Aspiring Trumans should take heed. Offner holds: "No one leader or nation caused the Cold War. The Second World War generated inevitable Soviet-American conflict as the world's two most powerful nations, with antithetical political-economic systems, confronted each other on two devastated, war-torn continents. The Americans, who emerged from the war with their nation unscathed, their economy burgeoning, and having suffered relatively few war deaths (about 400,000) would seek to fashion a world order friendly to their liberal politics, capitalist economy, and global strategic interests. They would also seek to achieve maximal national security by preventing any nation from severing U.S. ties to its traditional allies and vital areas of trade and resources, and to avoid 1930s style `appeasement'.

"So too would the Soviets seek to shape a world order friendly to their Communist regime. They sought to establish maximal national security by restoring their historic 1917 borders, maintaining oversight of the governments and foreign policies of nations along their European borders, and exacting recompense from Germany and its former Axis allies for staggering wartime damages. These included the deaths of more than 20 million Russian soldiers and civilians, and destruction of tens of thousands of cities and towns and the better part of the nation's industrial and agricultural capacity. To be sure, Stalin was a brutal dictator who directed a murderous regime. But there is no evidence that he intended to march his Red Army westward beyond its agreed-upon European occupation zones, and he put Soviet state interests ahead of desire to spread Communist ideology. He was also prepared to deal practically with the U.S., whose military and economic power he respected."

U.S. President George W. Bush.-KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

Offner does not withhold praise where it is due. Truman was courageous and truly committed to the United Nations. In the early phase, his distrust of Britain was scarcely less than that of the Soviet Union. For a few months he believed that he could work with Stalin. Unknown to him and to most Americans a parallel process was at work. Americans loathed spheres of influence - except their own in Latin America under the Monroe Doctrine. Roosevelt's Secretary of State Cordell Hull rejected scornfully "the idea of balance of power or spheres of influence as a means of keeping the peace."

However, on October 9, 1944, at the "Tolstoy Conference" in the Kremlin, Churchill concluded with Stalin a deal demarcating spheres of influence in Europe. It was 10 p.m. "The moment was apt for business," Churchill recalled in Volume 6 of his memoirs Triumph and Tragedy (page 194). "Let us settle our affairs in the Balkans." He defined the terms and "wrote them out on a half-sheet of paper". Russia would have "ninety per cent predominance in Rumania". While "Britain would have ninety per cent of the say in Greece." They would go 50-50 in Yugoslavia and Hungary. Russia would have a 75 per cent "say" in Bulgaria. "I pushed this across to Stalin who had by then heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his blue pencil and made a large tick upon it, and passed it back to us. It was also settled in no more time than it takes to set down." Thus was the fate of five nations settled. "After this there was a long silence. The pencilled paper lay in the centre of the table. At length I said, `might it not be thought rather cynical if it seemed we had disposed of these issues as fateful to millions of people, in such an off-hand manner? Let us burn the paper.' `No you keep it,' said Stalin."

The U.S. Ambassador Averell Harriman learnt of the deal the next day. In talks with British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden that day Foreign Minister Molotov demanded a 75 per cent role in Hungary and 60 in Yugoslavia. Churchill acknowledged in a letter he wrote, but did not send to Stalin under American pressure, that the decisions "would be considered crude and even callous if they were exposed to the scrutiny of the Foreign Office and diplomats all over the world". They were but "a guide for the conduct of our affairs" in order to "prevent several civil wars... our broad principles should be to let every country have the form of government which its people desire."

This was not a proviso Stalin would understand or accept. Offner records that earlier in talks with Eden in December 1941, Stalin had dismissed the Atlantic Charter, which emphasised national self-determination, as "algebra". He preferred "practical arithmetic" in a firm treaty. He sought restoration of territory, which Russia lost in 1917. Stalin made a significant remark. Hitler was very able but did not know where to stop. But "I do know".

Therein lay the seeds of a tragic and fateful misperception on both sides. Churchill admitted more than once that Stalin kept his word on Greece. He merrily sacrificed Greek Communists in the Soviet interest. But he consolidated what he considered to be his sphere of influence by methods so brutal as to arouse fears of Soviet expansionism as President Vladimir Putin recently acknowledged. In a television interview on December 26, 2000, he said: "In the Soviet days, we scared the world so much that this led to the emergence of huge military and political blocs. Did we really stand to gain from this? Of course, not." (The Hindu, December 27, 2000). Stalin feared a Western attack in Europe. The West feared a Soviet invasion of Western Europe. The Korean war confirmed its fears.

Not to all minds. Thoughtful Americans like George F. Kennan, Lippmann and Hans J. Morgenthau understood the situation correctly. Morgenthau cited James Reston's report, in The New York Times of March 13, 1950, datelined Washington. "United States Officials" told him of a Soviet proposal "to divide the world", assigning Yugoslavia and China to Russia. This was absurd. Was it, however, confined to Eastern Europe? Morgenthau did not urge its acceptance; only its exploration. Assured of non-interference, would Stalin have allowed those countries internal freedom? Perhaps, perhaps not. The proposal was not explored.

It was a complex situation, Truman was too ignorant to understand it. "He lacked insight into the history unfolding around him. He often could not see beyond his immediate decision or visualise alternatives, and he seemed oblivious to the implications of his words or action. More often than not he narrowed rather than broadened the options that he presented to the American citizenry, the environment of American politics, and the channels through which Cold War politics flowed. Throughout his presidency, Truman remained a parochial nationalist who lacked the leadership to move the U.S. away from conflict and toward detente. Instead, he promoted an ideology and politics of Cold War confrontation that became the modus operandi of successive administrations and the U.S. for the next two generations."

Harry S. Truman.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Truman significantly exacerbated the Cold War spurning Churchill's suggestions for parleys with the Kremlin. "Truman's insecurity with regard to diplomacy and world politics led him to seek to give the appearance of acting decisively, and reinforced his penchant to view conflict in black-and-white terms and to divide nations into free or totalitarian societies. He shied from weighing the complexities of historic national conflicts and local or regional politics. Instead, he attributed nearly every diplomatic crisis or civil war - in Germany, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Czechoslovakia, China, and Korea - to Soviet machination and insisted that the Soviets had broken every agreement and were bent on `world conquest'. To determine his response, he was quick to reach for an analogy, usually the failure of Western powers to resist Germany and Japan in the 1930s, and to conclude that henceforth he would speak to the Russians in the only language he thought they understood: `divisions'. This style of leadership and diplomacy closed off both advocates and prospects for more patiently negotiated and more nuanced or creative courses of action.

"At the same time, Truman's presumptions about the political-economic-military-moral superiority of the U.S. led him to believe that he could order the world on America's terms, and he ascribed only dark motives to nations or leaders who resisted its will. Monopoly control of the atomic bomb heightened this sense of righteous power." He readily accepted as genuine an old forgery, Last Will of Peter the Great, which his aide Clark Clifford provided as a guide to Stalin's policies. The fateful Truman Doctrine was based on this perception.

Not once does Offner mitigate, let alone defend Stalin's excesses. His point is that diplomacy was discarded in favour of militarism. Each episode in the Cold War is meticulously analysed in support of the charge. Offner does not grudge Truman credit where it is rightly due; for instance, for the Marshall Plan.

TRUMAN'S worldview was shaped by parochial heritage. He distrusted "hyphenate" Americans. To his daughter, Margaret, he wrote: "The attempt of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, et al, to fool the world and the American Crackpots Association, represented by Joseph Davies, Henry Wallace, and Claude Pepper, and all the actors and artists in immoral Greenwich Village, is just like Hitler's and Mussolini's so-called socialist states". If there was a prize for political illiteracy, this passage would have won it for Truman. Is George W. Bush, better informed or more understanding? Truman and Bush disdain diplomacy. Every Cold War exacts a domestic prize, including the ones we have waged. Soon after launching the Truman Doctrine on March 12, 1947, the President signed an Executive Order establishing the federal civilian Employee Loyalty Program.

Truman's reaction to the Hiroshima crime revealed him in his true colours. "This is the greatest thing in history," he exclaimed and raced about the ship Augusta in glee to spread the news. He later said he "had never been happier about any announcement he had ever made". He said, "we have won the gamble". The atomic launch was not dropped on Hiroshima in order to shorten the war by securing Japan's surrender. It was dropped for political reasons. Japan had already begun to sue for peace. "Assured that the bomb worked, Truman and (Secretary of State James F.) Byrnes were now determined to use it not only to subdue Japan but to advance their political objectives." Gar Alperovitz exposes thoroughly the lies retailed by Truman and subsequently by American leaders and scholars, including George F. Kennan.

Truman saw to it that the President retained control of "the nuclear button". His dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur firmly established the principle of civilian supremacy over the armed forces, the subject of Eliot A. Cohen's book. It is a case-study of Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben-Gurion. But the subject has acquired greater and more dangerous complexities in our age. The author holds that civilian leaders must involve themselves in all aspects of war, including the tactical level of command.

"The soldier's ultimate purposes are altogether hazier; they are, Clausewitz and other insist, the achievement of political ends designated by statesmen. But because political objectives are just that - political - they are often ambiguous, contradictory, and uncertain. It is one of the greatest sources of frustration for soldiers that their political masters find it difficult (or what is worse from their point of view, merely inconvenient) to fully elaborate in advance the purposes for which they have invoked military action, or the conditions under which they intend to limit or terminate it. The `professional' concept of military activity, moreover, depicts political purpose in war as purely a matter of foreign policy; and yet in practice the `high' politics of war is suffused as well with a `low' of domestic politics. President Lincoln wants a victory at Atlanta in the summer of 1864 in order to crush the Confederacy - but also to boost his own chances of re-election, which in turn is necessary for the ultimate victory of the Union. President Roosevelt dismisses professional military advice and orders an invasion of North Africa in 1942 rather than a landing in France in 1943 - this, he explains, in order to engage American public opinion in the fight in the European theatre, rather than in hopes of achieving an early end to the war. President Johnson limits air attacks on Hanoi and Haiphong in 1965-1968 in part to preserve his ability to launch the Great Society, but also to limit the chances that China will enter the war."

We have witnessed the use of the armed forces ostensibly to meet an external threat but in reality to boost the image of the government. Once "national security" is invoked, dissent is silenced. No questions are asked. "The traditional conception of military professionalism assumes that it is possible to segregate an autonomous area of military science from political purpose. In many ways one can. Frequently, however, a seemingly sharp separation crumbles when it encounters the real problems of war."

All the more necessary, then, that those at the summit of power should combine resolution with reflection. Sadly Truman's foreign policy leadership "intensified Soviet-American conflict, hastened division of Europe, and brought tragic intervention in Asian civil wars and a generation of Sino-American enmity. In short, Truman lacked the qualities of the creative or great leader who, as James MacGregor Burns has written, must broaden the environment in which he and his citizenry operate and widen the channels in which choices are made and events flow. Truman, to the contrary, narrowed Americans' perception of the world political environment and the channels for policy choices, and created a rigid framework in which the United States waged long-term, extremely costly global Cold War. Indeed, before we celebrate America's victory in this contest, we might recall that after King Pyrrhus' Greek forces defeated the Romans at the Battle of Asculum in 290 B.C., he reflected that `another such victory and we are undone'."

It is doubtful whether the historian would be kinder to George W. Bush. More likely than not, he will exclaim with Talleyrand: "Nations would have been horrified if they knew what petty people rule them."

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