Jack wrote this in September, 2005:
Harry Truman campaign slogan, “The buck stops here.” The Square Deal.
A middling good president who was never intended to be president. Not a pro-politician, but a haberdasher from Missouri. One of those pivotal presidents, keys in the chain of events that got us where we are, but a man mostly forgotten.
Truman presided over the end of WWII after Roosevelt died. He had a tricky job and he wasn’t up to the task, but it’s impossible to know anything about Harry Truman without becoming convinced he did the best he could. Whatever his failings, he was an honest, honorable man.
The decision to drop the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was his. It’s difficult to imagine any president making any other, under the circumstances. Japan had to be invaded, or bombed. Probably dropping the bomb saved the lives of a million men lost if we’d had to invade.
The last ten days of the war Joseph Stalin declared war on Japan and sent Soviet troops across Manchuria. Truman agreed, after the surrender, to allow the USSR to have Sakhalin, the North island of Japan. A costly decision over the decades, including the Soviet shooting down of Flight 007 during the 80s, with maybe a couple of hundred passengers aboard.
Truman also continued the agreement to give Eastern Europe to the Soviets. He adopted the Marshall Plan, which was the means by which American taxpayers rebuilt Germany, Japan and Italy, and the industries there. The consequences were that those nations had newer, better industries than the US, and eventually bankrupted our core industries.
During the Truman Administration the Communists ended the long civil war in China by winning, beginning the Domino Theory, which got us into Vietnam. The theory assumed Communists forsook nationalism, in favor of Communism, and that they’d work together to Communize the world without attempting to further national interests. In retrospect, it’s difficult to believe any president, any US population would believe such a thing, but mostly we all did.
Fortunately, the Communists didn’t.
The protracted, undeclared war in Korea belonged to Truman. North Koreans pushed Americans into the Pusan Perimeter, a tiny piece of land on the lower end of the penensula. Then MacArthur did a sea landing at Inchon. US troops fought North Koreans all the way to the Yalu River, then watched as legions of Chinese came across and drove them back to the 38th parallel, where the war stalled, eventually sort of ended with neither side happy. US troops still guard the DMZ there.
Truman stood up to his prima-donna general MacArthur, who wanted to lay a 1000 mile wide belt of radioactivity around Manchuria to take care of the problem, wanted to use the Atomic bomb on whomever. Wanted it REALLY badly, with the enthusiastic support of a lot of hero-worshiping Americans who were afraid of Communism, frustrated by the duration of the war, and who loved war hero MacArthur for his pipe-smoking press conferences island hopping during WWII. His promise to the Phillipinos that he’d return, and his grandstand newsy announcement, “I have returned.” when US forces took Manila. A man, MacArthur, who’d have liked to be prez.
Truman fired him. Good on him.
Truman presided in the beginning of a time in history when the best thing a poor nation could do was go to war with the US and lose. The beginning of the period when the US began giving away the abundance they’d won with fire and blood to anyone with a sad story. A time when Americans could afford to be generous, short term, at the cost of the future.
But the most tragic thing about Harry Truman involved the Atomic bomb. He was the first man in the history of humanity who held the power to say to the world, after the surrender of Japan,
“We have the Atomic bomb. No other country has one. We’ve proved our willingness to use it on a human population.
“Beginning August, 1945, the world is going to experience something called ‘peace’, and something else called ‘disarmament’.
“Start gathering your weaponry, all you armed to the teeth nations, everything larger than squad-level weapons. Pile it in designated central locations. You are going to disarm, and you are going to go to peace with your neighbors, or you will face the consequences, the wrath of the United States in a way that will leave you a molten layer of green glass.”
But, of course, he didn’t. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked, anyway.
But Truman was generally a good man, a not-so-good prez at a time when few could have done it better, though we might wish otherwise.
It surely might have been nice not to have had the Marshall Plan, the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, and it’s difficult not to feel a bit miffed at Harry Truman for being the father of it all, after Roosevelt.