Tru­man may have been the proto-Trump

The Mercury News Weekend - - OTHER VIEWS - By Vic­tor Dav­isHan­son Vic­tor Davis Han­son is a clas­si­cist and his­to­rian at the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion, Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity, and the au­thor of the soon-to-be re­leased “The Sec­ond World Wars: How the First Global Con­flict Was Fought and Won,” to ap­pear in Oc­tob

When Pres­i­dent Harry S. Tru­man left of­fice in Jan­uary 1953, most Amer­i­cans were glad to see him go. Since the in­tro­duc­tion of pres­i­den­tial ap­proval rat­ings, Tru­man’s 32 per­cent rating was the low­est for any depart­ing pres­i­dent ex­cept for that of Richard Nixon, who 21 years later re­signed amid the Water­gate scandal.

Amer­i­cans were tired of five con­sec­u­tive Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial terms. The De­pres­sion and World War II both were over, and peo­ple wanted a dif­fer­ent sort of lead­er­ship that could jump-start the econ­omy.

The out­sider Tru­man had been an ac­ci­den­tal pres­i­dent to be­gin with. When an ail­ing Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt ran for an un­prece­dented fourth term in 1944, wor­ried Demo­crat in­sid­ers pan­icked. They feared that far-left-wing Vice Pres­i­dent Henry Wal­lace might end up pres­i­dent if Roo­sevelt died in of­fice.

Party pros re­placed Wal­lace with the ob­scure Tru­man, a Mis­souri sen­a­tor. They as­sumed that if worse came to worse, the nonen­tity Tru­man would be a to­ken care­taker pres­i­dent.

Ear­lier, Tru­man had been im­mersed in scandal, ow­ing to his ties to cor­rupt Kansas City po­lit­i­cal boss Tom Pen­der­gast.

When Tru­man took of­fice af­ter Roo­sevelt’s death in April 1945, he knew rel­a­tively noth­ing about the grand strat­egy of World War II. No one had told him any­thing about the on­go­ing atomic bomb pro­ject.

But for the next sev­en­plus years, Tru­man shocked the coun­try.

Over the ob­jec­tions of many in his Cabi­net, he or­dered the drop­ping of two atomic bombs on Ja­pan.

Over the ob­jec­tions of most of the State Depart­ment, he rec­og­nized the new state of Is­rael.

Over the ob­jec­tions of the Roo­sevelt holdovers, he broke with war­time ally the Soviet Union and crafted the foun­da­tions of Cold War com­mu­nist con- tain­ment.

Over the ob­jec­tions of many in the Pen­tagon, he in­te­grated the armed forces.

Over the ob­jec­tions of some of his ad­vis­ers, he sent troops to the Korean Penin­sula to save South Korea fromNorth Korean in­va­sion.

Over the ob­jec­tions of civil lib­er­tar­i­ans, he cre­ated the CIA.

Over the ob­jec­tions of most Amer­i­cans, he relieved con­tro­ver­sial fives­tar gen­eral and Amer­i­can hero Dou­glas MacArthur of his du­ties.

Nat­u­rally, there were wide­spread calls in the press for Tru­man to re­sign and spare the coun­try any more hu­mil­i­a­tion.

Tru­man swore. He had nightly drinks and played poker with cronies. And he shocked aides and the pub­lic with his vul­gar­ity and crass at­tacks on po­lit­i­cal en­e­mies. Tru­man mocked the widely re­spected Sen. Wil­liam Ful­bright as “Half-bright.”

In the pre-Twit­ter age, Tru­man could not keep his mouth shut. When a re­viewer for The Wash­ing­ton Post trashed Tru­man’s daugh­ter’s con­cert per­for­mance, Tru­man phys­i­cally threat­ened him.

“It seems to me that you are a frus­trated old man who wishes he could have been suc­cess­ful,” Tru­man wrote in a let­ter to critic Paul Hume. “Some­day I hope to meet you. When that hap­pens, you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beef­steak for black eyes, and per­haps a sup­porter below!”

Tru­man liked to trash na­tional icons — in­clud­ing the mil­i­tary that had just won World War II. He re­port­edly said of MacArthur’s fir­ing: “I didn’t fire him­be­cause he was a dumb son of a bitch al­though he was, but that’s not against the law for gen­er­als. If it was, half to three- quar­ters of them would be in jail.”

Tru­man was sup­posed to be slaugh­tered in the 1948 elec­tion. Roo­sevelt’s holdover New Deal­ers made fun of his Mid­west­ern parochial­ism. Democrats had blown up the party dur­ing the 1948 nom­i­nat­ing con­ven­tion. Left-wingers, who could not stom­ach Tru­man, broke off and sup­ported the pro­gres­sive Henry Wal­lace as a third-party can­di­date. Demo­cratic seg­re­ga­tion­ists, who hated Tru­man’s mil­i­tary in­te­gra­tion or­der, ran Sen. Strom Thur­mond as a fourth­party Dix­ie­crat al­ter­na­tive. Thur­mond promised to keep the South racially seg­re­gated.

In the gen­eral elec­tion, polls pre­dicted an easy win for Repub­li­can chal­lenger Thomas Dewey. In­stead, Tru­man won by a com­fort­able mar­gin.

With Tru­man’s sec­ond term due to ex­pire, Democrats for­got his “the buck stops here” prag­ma­tism. In­stead, they re­turned to elite pro­gres­sivism and nom­i­nated Ad­lai Steven­son, a lib­eral’s lib­eral.

Steven­son lost both the 1952 and 1956 elec­tions to Gen. Dwight Eisen­hower, a na­tional icon. For all his crit­i­cism of Tru­man, Ike gov­erned more or less as Tru­man did.

It took a half- cen­tury for his­to­ri­ans to con­cede that the feisty Tru­man had solid ac­com­plish­ments, es­pe­cially in for­eign af­fairs. Even his vul­gar­ity was even­tu­ally ap­pre­ci­ated as in­te­gral to the im­age of “Give ’Em Hell” Harry. But if he’d had ac­cess to Twit­ter, or had a Robert Mueller to hound him, the loose- cannon Tru­man likely would have self- de­struc­ted in a flurry of ad hominem tweets.

An ob­sessed spe­cial pros­e­cu­tor would have fol­lowed Tru­man’s check­ered pre-pres­i­den­tial ca­reer all the way back to Kansas City to un­cover likely un­eth­i­cal be­hav­ior.

Yet in the end, Tru­man proved suc­cess­ful be­cause of what he did — and in spite of what he said.

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