Harry Truman is the highest ranking Democrat in my president series. He was thrust into office when his boss FDR died, and rose to the occasion in the admirable ways of many vice presidents who assumed command this way: John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur, and Calvin Coolidge. It strikes me that unexpected presidents ended up doing astonishingly well. (The two Johnsons, Andrew and Lyndon, are exceptions.) Harry Truman put his ex-boss to shame. Where FDR went to considerable lengths to damage America, Truman got things back on track and then some.
There is however an escalating trend of Truman haters these days, particularly among the regressive left and hard-core libertarians. My assessment of Truman is largely a response to these crowds. It’s time to stop the “hating on Harry” campaign. He was one of America’s best chief executives.
1. Peace (Foreign Policy)
There’s much to discuss here: Truman’s actions (a) against Japan, (b) for Israel, (c) in Greece and Turkey, and (d) in Korea. The first will require a detailed look at the final weeks of imperial Japan.
(A) Japan: the “unnecessary use” of the atomic bomb
The myth gets dragged out every August, even by professional historians: that Truman dropped the bomb on an already-defeated enemy. He knew that the Japanese were trying to surrender through the Soviet Union, and used the bomb primarily to intimidate the Soviets with a monstrous display of power. The problem with this little myth is that the Japanese were not trying to surrender. They were trying to persuade the Soviets to broker a negotiated peace (not a surrender), and on preposterous terms which no American president would have found acceptable.
I am going to detail the events between May, 1945 and the Japanese surrender in August, because for reasons that escape me, the myth of the “Japanese intent to surrender” keeps gaining ground, and the leftists who promote it only get angry when they’re told how wrong they are.
— The Japanese War Council and the Soviet Union: The events between May and July 17
From late May onward, the Japanese Supreme War Council consisted of the following six members, known as the Big Six:
- Kantaro Suzuki (Prime Minister)
- Shigenori Togo (Foreign Minister)
- General Korechika Anami (War Minister)
- Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai (Naval Minister)
- General Yoshijirō Umezu (Chief of the Army General Staff)
- Admiral Soemu Toyoda (Chief of the Naval General Staff)
The Big Six — two representatives of the army, navy, and civilian government each — were the men who effectively ruled Japan during the war, not the emperor, who was divine but ultimately a figurehead. Four of these men (Suzuki, Togo, Anami, and Yonai) were also part of the cabinet, the executive branch of the government consisting of 19 members total. The only member of the war council with a brain in his head was Foreign Minister Togo. The most powerful member by far was General Anami, who represented the army. The army had run the government for a long time, and it was law that the cabinet could not exist without an army minister. This meant that the army minister could veto any decision made by the cabinet by simply resigning.
In late May 1945, the Big Six began peace initiatives with Russia, at the urging of Foreign Minister Togo. This was an attempt to broker a peace, not to surrender. (General Anami and General Umezu were against even these peace initiatives, but outvoted.) The council wanted Russia to mediate with the U.S. for an end to the war that would leave Japan’s prewar empire intact, and allow Japan to be allowed to continue its military adventures in China. Obviously, this was a rich fantasy, showing how deluded and out-of-touch the Big Six were.
These peace initiatives were conducted through Ambassador Naotake Sato, who was caught between The Big Six, who refused to see things realistically, and the Soviets, who were basically toying with Japan at this point. Japan and Russia had signed a non-aggression pact in 1941, in which they had promised to stay neutral towards each other as they participated elsewhere in the war. The pact was due to expire in April ’46. But only a month ago (on April 5, 1945), the Soviets had denounced the pact, clearly wanting the treaty to go out of effect immediately rather than wait another year. When Sato pressed them on this point, the Soviets backpedaled and evasively allowed that the treaty would remain in force until April ’46. (The Soviets would of course break the pact in less than three months, on August 8, in between the American bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) So while Japan and the Soviets were still neutral toward each other, Sato was realistic about the handwriting on the wall, unlike his bosses in Tokyo who (aside from Togo) kept on in their blissful fantasy.
That fantasy gelled into a horrific mandate on June 8, when the Japanese Army pushed the War Council into approving a document called The Fundamental Policy To Be Followed Henceforth in the Conduct of the War. This document made it Japan’s official policy to “prosecute the war to the bitter end”. It listed preparations for homeland defense, the formation of a national volunteer army, and called for national suicide — the “honorable death of the hundred million”. Foreign Minister Togo was aghast, but the resolution passed over his objections, and was then forwarded to the emperor for approval. The emperor’s advisor (Koichi Kido) was as appalled as Togo was, and on June 9 he plead with the emperor, saying that Japan had to get the US to end the war before Japan destroyed itself.
Thus, far from intending any kind of surrender, the council had ruled to carry the war to the bitter end. Truman heard these reports from Tokyo, and he had no reason to believe that this proclamation meant anything other than what it said. An American invasion of Japan would not look anything like the invasion of Germany (where Nazi armies were crushed between a three-way advance of American, British, and Soviet troops). An invasion of Japan would have meant a prolonged war costing hundreds of thousands of lives.
On June 22, the emperor summoned the Big Six to his side. He didn’t like the idea of national suicide, and suggested to keep pushing more strongly with the Soviets for the peace settlement (again, not surrender), that is, for some way to end the war. Togo, the realistic member of the council, warned everyone that Japan would have to make a lot of concessions to make a peace initiative work. At the start of July, the Big Six made overtures to Russia for renewed negotiations. Weeks passed with no reply, and Ambassador Sato twiddled his thumbs in Moscow, frustrated as usual with his Tokyo bosses. In one of his cables he made plain to Togo that the Soviets could not possibly profit from an early end to the war. Sato was more realistic than even Togo; he knew the peace initiatives were in complete vain, no matter how many concessions Japan was willing to grant.
On July 12, Togo cabled Sato, telling him that the War Council was sending an advisor from the Emperor (Fumimaro Konoye) to compel the Soviets to negotiate. By now Japan had learned about the Potsdam Conference, scheduled to take place near Berlin in about a week, between Stalin, Churchill, and Truman. On July 17 (the day the Potsdam Conference was beginning), Togo cabled Sato yet again — and this is the famous telegram which revisionists love to cite — saying:
“The Emperor himself has deigned to express his determination and we have therefore made this request of the Russians. Please bear particularly in mind, however that we are not seeking the Russians’ mediation for anything like unconditional surrender.”
What could be clearer than that? Surrender was no more an option now than it was before. For that matter (as testified by Prime Minister Suzuki and Admiral Toyoda after the war), there was no agreement among the war council members on the terms of the peace initiative. On July 14, for example, they had all had a heated confrontation in which General Anami said that he would never accept any document which concluded a peace on terms of Japan’s defeat. Togo’s cable to Sato, far from establishing that the Japanese government was seeking surrender, says the exact opposite; they were struggling for a peace, at the urging of the emperor, that would keep their prewar empire intact, and couldn’t even agree among themselves as to what conditions would be acceptable. Surrender — in Togo’s plain words — was out of the question.
On July 19 Sato again cabled Tokyo. He said that the Soviets had challenged the purpose of the emperor’s envoy (Fumimaro Konoye), and warned his bosses that it was hard for him to deny Soviet insults that Japanese authorities were completely out of touch with reality. Sato advised that instead of these vain peace initiatives, the council should consider surrender. On July 21 Togo replied to Sato:
“With regard to unconditional surrender we are unable to consent to it under any circumstances whatever. Even if the war drags on and it becomes that it will take much more than bloodshed, the whole country as one man will pit itself against the enemy in accordance with the Imperial Will so long as the enemy demands unconditional surrender. It is in order to avoid such a state of affairs that we are seeking a peace, which is not so-called unconditional surrender, through the good offices of Russia.”
Again, what could possibly be clearer? Togo is actually spelling out the distinction between a peace and a surrender — a distinction that today’s leftist revisionists are wholly unable to grasp. Togo was no doubt pained to write that cable (given that he was the only member of the Big Six with any sense), but he was bound by the council he was a part of, and he followed the collective will.
U.S. authorities, including Truman, read all of these cables (they had been intercepting Japan’s secret messages for a while now). They knew that Japan would never surrender on terms acceptable to the U.S.
— The events between the Potsdam Declaration and August 15
The Potsdam Conference took place near Berlin from July 17-August 2, and in the middle of that stretch, on July 26, the leaders (The Big Three: Stalin, Churchill, Truman) issued a declaration demanding unconditional surrender from Japan. They had privately agreed to let Japan retain its emperor, but kept that little tidbit to themselves.
Now, a corollary to the revisionist propaganda is that the Japanese would have accepted unconditional surrender if the United States had been open on this point, and guaranteed that Japan could keep its emperor. But that wasn’t true at this point. In the cable sent to Sato (above), Togo had made it clear: unconditional surrender, under any circumstances — even with the imperial throne guaranteed — was unacceptable. Regardless of individual positions among the Big Six, the war council was united by vote in holding out for terms.
The Potsdam Declaration was broadcast from San Francisco, demanding the unconditional surrender, and promising Japan that the alternative would be “prompt and utter destruction”. It was picked up by the overseas radio bureau in Tokyo, and the Big Six convened with the Cabinet (of which four of them were members, recall: Suzuki, Togo, Anami, and Yonai). After heated arguments the 21 men all agreed to release an edited version of the Declaration to the Japanese people and to wait things out. General Anami tried insisting on a strong statement of public protest as well, but Prime Minister Suzuki agreed with Togo not to fan flames, and that’s what was voted on.
Unfortunately, Suzuki’s public speech turned out to be just as inflammatory as anything General Anami would have said. On July 28 he held a press conference, saying that the Japanese government would mokusatsu (“ignore”) the Declaration — which could be interpreted as meaning to “remain in wise inactivity”, but also just as easily to “kill the document with contemptuous silence”. Suzuki’s statement was published on July 30 and picked up by newspapers all over the world. Japan, in the eyes of the entire world, had just given the Allies the middle finger.
Togo was livid at Suzuki, and desperately tried renewing negotiations with Russia, for some alternative to surrender. From Moscow, Ambassador Sato cabled Togo back, saying “there was no chance whatever” of persuading Russia to help the Japanese. In vain, Togo told Sato to keep trying. Days passed with the Big Six and Cabinet members not doing much beyond passing gas.
On August 6 came Truman’s reply: Hiroshima. Incredibly, after the devastation, little action was taken for the next two days. Finally on August 8, Togo tried convening the war council, but (again, rather incredibly) one of the six members was detained by “more pressing business elsewhere” (the records don’t say who). At the same time, Ambassador Sato was told in Moscow that Russia was now at war with Japan. The Soviets wasted no time invading Manchuria — violating their neutrality pact that was set to expire in April ’46 — and proceeded to butcher Japan’s once invincible army.
Now, one would think — after an atomic bomb was dropped by one nation, and an invasion begun by another — that surrender would surely follow. Everyone knew at this point that the only alternative to surrender was mass destruction. Yet an “honorable” mass destruction was evidently what the Japanese army wanted. On August 9, as Nagasaki was being bombed, the Big Six convened to discuss options. This was the breakdown of opinion:
The three “doves” — Foreign Minister Togo, Prime Minister Suzuki, and Admiral Yonai — advised accepting the Potsdam Declaration, with the sole provision that Japan’s emperor be retained. Historians call them “doves”, but Togo was the only true dove. Suzuki was a 77-year old gasbag who could be pacifist one day and a warmonger the next. And Yonai was a hawk like other naval officers, though he was ready to face the music by now.
The three “hawks” — General Anami, General Umezu, and Admiral Toyoda — were dead set against the Declaration, unless the U.S. would agree to four provisions:
- Japan’s emperor would be retained (on this point the doves agreed)
- Japan’s military would be retained, and not disbanded by the Allies
- Japanese war crimes would be judged in Japanese courts and by Japanese laws
- Japan would not be occupied save by a token presence
Conditions 2-4 were obviously preposterous, as no American president could have possibly accepted such a “peace” settlement that would have meant abandoning the United States’ most basic war aims. So in effect, Anami, Umezu, and Toyoda were rejecting the Declaration outright.
Then the cabinet convened to vote. (The cabinet had constitutional authority to approve the nation’s surrender.) Four of the war council members were on the cabinet (three “doves” Togo, Shizuku, and Yonai; and one “hawk” Anami), and they all repeated their earlier arguments. The cabinet vote was a three-way stalemate, with some agreeing to accept the Potsdam Declaration (with the sole provision that the emperor be retained), others insisting on the four provisions demanded by General Anami; and still others advocating for more than one provision but less than four.
With a stalemate on both the War Council and the Cabinet, Prime Minister Suzuki took a step that was unprecedented in Japanese history. He appealed to the emperor to break the tie. Though the emperor, as the Son of Heaven, was the supreme authority, he had always stayed out of politics and faction-siding. For the first time now, he stepped in as requested, on August 10, and gave his approval for unconditional surrender.
(On August 15, General Anami slit his own belly, unable to live with the national shame.)
The whole idea that the Japanese were trying to surrender through the Soviets, and that Truman used the atomic bomb to show the Russians a display of power, is without foundation. Showing off to the Russians what American could do may have turned out to be a nice side benefit, but there is no evidence suggesting that was Truman’s primary motive. The Japanese intended to fight to the bitter end. The evidence is as clear as day.
Some revisionists get so desperate to claim that the bombing of Japan was motivated by racism. Otherwise (these stupid revisionists ask) why was nuclear devastation reserved for the Japanese but not the Germans? The obvious answer is that it was a moot point for Germany. The first atomic bomb test took place in July, two months after the Nazi surrender in May. There is no evidence suggesting that Japan was singled out for the atomic bomb for any other reason than it was still fighting. The claim that Truman or his advisors were motivated by racism can be dismissed out of hand.
If the historical record is so clear, then why does the myth of Japan’s “intent to surrender” get dragged out every August? I suspect because today’s leftists are intellectually challenged and show an increased unwillingness to deal in facts when facts become a nuisance. However, it also doesn’t help that someone like Dwight Eisenhower (one of the best presidents of the 20th century, in my view) was one of the earliest purveyors of this myth. In his later years, he told people that he had protested vehemently against using the bomb: that “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing”. Either Ike’s memory had become distorted by the passage of time, or he was deliberately lying. I suspect that Eisenhower’s personal revulsion for warfare (commendable in itself) later caused him to engage in revisionism.
In sum: Truman’s decision to use the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki counts positively toward his peace score, not against. He knew the Japanese had no intentions of surrendering. He brought an end to a world war that had gone on for years, and he saved the lives of many — at least 250,000 American soldiers and over one million Japanese soldiers and citizens from an invasion of Japan. (About 200,000 Japanese were killed by the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.)
And just imagine if Truman had not used the bomb. Today’s revisionists would be even more shrill in their indictments. World War II would have ended sometime in 1946 instead of 1945, with massive bloodshed and casualties on both sides. Truman would have eventually revealed that he had been afraid to use the bomb, because he thought it was too awful a weapon — even after a global war in which hundreds of thousands of Americans had been killed and wounded in two separate theaters, and even though he knew there was no possibility the Japanese would willingly surrender. Today we would be reading about why Harry Truman should have been impeached for his gross dereliction of duty.
(B) “Big Bad” Israel
Leftists also resent Truman for supporting the State of Israel. The issue isn’t so straightforward. I believe the creation of Israel was a disastrous mistake, not because Israel is the Big Bad in the Mid-East, but because the two-state solution made a battleground of Palestine. However, I don’t think Truman can be blamed for supporting Israel, for two reasons. One is that a homeland had to be created somewhere for the Jews, which they deserved; Truman’s heart was in the right place. Two is that the decision of where to settle the Jews wasn’t Truman’s alone, and he could have doubtfully persuaded the Allies or the UN of any other location than Palestine. In its report in May of 1946, the Anglo-American Committee stated that there was no reasonable sanctuary for the Jewish survivors except in Palestine.
That wasn’t true though. The Allies could have carved out a section of Germany for the Jewish people. The nation responsible for the Holocaust should have paid the appropriate price. But Palestine was chosen, and in the fall of 1946, Truman supported the partitioning plan. In the fall of 1947, the partition was approved by the UN. And on May 14, 1948, the State of Israel was established. Palestine has been a jihad sandbox ever since.
In supporting a State of Israel, Truman went directly against the advice of his State Department, who knew that (a) the Arabs would never accept a partition, (b) they would wage a non-stop holy war to take it back, and (c) such a conflict would allow the Soviets to come to the Arabs’ aid and give communism a foothold in the Middle-East. Truman’s advisors were absolutely correct about all of this.
Truman’s navy secretary also warned that supporting a Jewish state could compromise America’s access to Arab oil, which turned out to be a less valid objection, and to which Truman replied that neither oil nor the other concerns would deter him from doing “what is right”. But what is right from a humanitarian point of view isn’t necessarily right from a presidential point of view. The right thing to do would have been to settle the Jews somewhere in Europe — anywhere except Palestine. With Israel established, the seeds of bloodshed were planted, and there’s still no end in sight after 80 years.
Normally in my scoring system, when a president’s policy produces calamitous results, his rating takes a huge hit. But because it was absolutely right to give the Jews a homeland, and because Truman could have doubtfully persuaded the Allies or UN to settle the Jewish people anywhere other than Palestine, it’s a wash. Endorsing the State of Israel counts neither for nor against Truman’s peace score.
(C) Greece and Turkey: the Cold War begins
It was a pivotal moment in July 1947, when Truman sent aid to Greece and Turkey in the conflict against communist insurgents. By doing this he was making a serious change in U.S. foreign policy — by intervening in European affairs during peacetime. He justified his policy by the Truman Doctrine (formulated months before in March), whose purpose was to counter the geopolitical expansion of communist powers. Truman argued that threats against any free people in the world posed a threat to international peace and thus to U.S. security.
Libertarians despise Truman for this and charge him with (a) departing from the vision of the founding fathers, (b) spitting on the Monroe Doctrine, and (c) turning America into an imperial nation. According to David D’Amato, Truman represents nothing less than the fulfillment of Woodrow Wilson’s agenda:
“The Truman Doctrine’s unabashed imperialism, erected upon the foundation of the postwar United States’ new stature on the world stage, represents in many ways the culmination of the Wilsonian dream. Wilson had envisioned a world in which American military intervention would ‘make the world safe for democracy.’ Really, as a practical matter, the Truman Doctrine gave the United States a blank check to intervene militarily around the world, planting its military bases in every corner of the globe.”
That’s a serious charge. Wilson, I agree, was an atrocious president, in fact the worst of all time. But to cast Harry Truman as Wilson’s second coming is perverted in the extreme.
Ivan Eland is another libertarian, who ranks Truman as the second-worst president of all time (the worst being Wilson), largely because Truman “began the informal U.S. empire of armed interventions, alliances, and foreign aid, and military bases” as an overreaction to the Soviet menace — a menace overstated, because “the Soviet economy was never more than half that of the Unites States and was burdened with complete state ownership embedded in a nonviable communist system” (Recarving Rushmore, p 268). I agree that the Soviet menace was blown out of proportion from the start (Eisenhower was the true prophet on this point, knowing the Soviet Union was bound to implode), but the question of expanded overseas involvement hinges on more than just communism per se.
Libertarians also trash Truman for creating security agencies like the CIA and NSA. D’Amato again:
“The executive branch was aggrandized in general during the Truman presidency. Truman, more than any other President, is responsible for creating the nation’s national security apparatus. In the place of a civilian government of citizens, the United States was now governed by a permanent class of professional bureaucrats and military and intelligence officers, to whom no real restraints apply. During Truman’s presidency, the National Security Act of 1947 became law, establishing the CIA and unifying the military under the Secretary of Defense. The National Security Council and the National Security Agency, too, began during his administration. Truman played an instrumental role in the creation of the CIA from the several existing intelligence programs at the time.”
And for this he was the worst of the worst? Imagine what the U.S. would be today without its intelligence agencies. Even if Truman’s reasons weren’t the best, a superpower like America couldn’t afford to be Switzerland in the post WWII era. A national security apparatus empowered the U.S. to evolve as it needed to.
For that matter, Truman constructed security agencies within the right framework — of a republic whose founders rejected imperial and military traditions. He built the bureaucracy without militarizing the country, and without setting up a gestapo police. He got a defense secretary. He decided that the heads of the agencies (the National Security Council, the CIA, the NSA) would never report to a military superior. They had no policy-making authority; they couldn’t preempt FBI activities with their investigations, nor could they police domestic organizations or people under suspicion of being spies.
It’s true that Truman exaggerated the communist menace. But the idea that he was Woodrow II is preposterous. Wilson would have dragged out WWII as long as he could have; Truman ended it with a necessary blow. Wilson was a virulent racist; Truman crusaded for the blacks and civil rights. Wilson was interventionist for interventionism sake; Truman was realistic about the way American had to function in a world of increased communication and networks. The only truly Wilsonian thing that Truman did was…
(D) The Korean War
No question, with the Korean War of 1950-1953, Truman put America on a path to commit resources in backwater areas of the globe — foolish nation-building strategies. Korea set a precedent for worse interventions like Vietnam and Iraq. On top of that Truman didn’t get Congressional approval for the war, and most shocking of all was Congress’s abdication of power by allowing Truman to act on his own war-initiating authority. And thus began the tradition — followed by George H.W. Bush in Desert Shield and Bill Clinton in Haiti — of getting UN approval for a war, and presenting it to Congress afterwards fait accompli. Korea was the worst thing Truman did while in office.
2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)
Responding to popular demand (and using good sense), Truman scaled back the government that had ballooned under FDR, and swiftly demobilized the armed forces. Government spending as a portion of GDP dropped dramatically, and for the next eight years there were unprecedented rises in income, standards of living, and levels of education. People hadn’t prospered like this since the days of Harding and Coolidge.
The Fair Deal
After his reelection, Truman proposed the Fair Deal (1949), based in some ways on FDR’s over-ambitious New Deal though more reasonable. It provided for a more equitable tax structure, a higher minimum wage, an expanded farm program, increased public power projects, repeal of the Taft-Hartley Labor Law, larger social security payments, national medical insurance, federal aid to education, additional public housing programs, and yet more civil rights programs.
Most of the Fair Deal was voted down by Congress, and in some cases with good reason. There were important gains nonetheless. On Truman’s watch the rise in income, housing, education, and living standards were unparalleled in American history. By the time Truman left office in 1953, 62 million Americans had jobs (a gain of 11 million in seven years), and there was virtually no unemployment to speak of. Both farm income and corporate income were at all-time highs. Bank failures had become a memory. The minimum wage had reasonably increased, as had Social Security benefits. Millions of veterans had attended college, thanks to the G.I. Bill. Poverty had fallen from 33% in ’49 to 28% in ’53.
Some criticize Truman for riding roughshod over John Lewis, the president of the United Mine Workers Union, but even as a former union president, I am not one of them. Lewis had the favorable opinion of only 13% of Americans polled, and rightly so. He was a true blowhard, bully, and asshole who acted in all the ways that unfortunately give unions a bad name. Many Americans at this time sympathized with unions, but they also hated strikes, and between 1945-46, coal and rail strikes were way out of control.
Truman, showing balls, seized the coal mines and railroads and had the government run operate them. He told strikers to go back to work, threatened to use the army to break the strike — and even threatened to draft strikers into the military. That last was inexcusable, and Truman’s attorney general warned him that he was way overstepping his constitutional authority. Truman brazenly replied, “We’ll draft them and think about the law later.” Indeed, he requested from Congress the authority to draft strikers, but thankfully the legislation was killed.
His attempt to draft strikers was out of line, but in facing down John Lewis and other strikers, Truman did head off a serious blow to the economy (it also didn’t hurt that it boost his popular rating: after going against Lewis, Truman’s rating shot up from 35% to 48%).
On whole Truman actually favored labor and supported unions. He vetoed the Taft-Hartley Acts of 1947, which sharply curtailed union rights. Truman was urged by all but two of his cabinet members to sign the act, but he thought it was bad for labor and management alike. In a radio address, he said, “We do not want legislation which will take fundamental rights away from our working people.” His veto of the act was overridden, but Truman is to be given immense credit for supporting unions while also standing up to them when they went to far.
Truman has a strong liberty record. He crusaded for African Americans, and to hell with his Southern constituency if they didn’t like it.
In December 1946 he established a Committee on Civil Rights that would outline means of eliminating racial discrimination. On June 30, 1947 he gave a famously thundering speech at a rally at the Lincoln Memorial, saying that “the extension of civil rights today means not just protection of the people against the government, but protection of the people by the government.” And in October of that year, the committee issued a firm call for equal treatment of blacks under the law. Truman was torn between liberal and southern factions in his party, but he came down on the side of what he believed to be morally right and in the best national interest.
The Democratic party leaders told him his stand on civil rights was political suicide, but he didn’t care. In this, he was doing as John Tyler had done in vetoing the Third National Bank, as Chester Arthur had done in reforming the Civil Service, and as Jimmy Carter would later do in putting the Federal Reserve on a tight leash. All these men put the good of the American people over the interests of their party.
(The difference is that Truman — unlike Tyler, Arthur, and Carter — was reelected for a second term. If Southerners hated Truman’s support for blacks, they adored him for his hard line against communists.)
On February 2, 1948, Truman asked Congress to enact comprehensive civil rights legislation: an anti-lynching law; expanded protection for the right to vote, and elimination of poll taxes that denied blacks access to the polls in seven southern states; a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission; and end to discrimination on interstate transport facilities; the end of unequal opportunity in the military. The navy in particular, at this time, resembled a southern plantation predating the Civil War: African American swabbed the decks, shined shoes, cooked and washed, and served the food.
Once again, the South blasted Truman for his advocacy, and said that the legislation he was promoting (in the words of the Mississippi House Speaker) was “damnable, communistic, unconstitutional, anti-American, and anti-Southern legislation”. Truman became increasingly enraged at Southern local authorities turning a blind eye to mob violence, lynchings, and the maiming of black veterans.
The impact of all of this was momentous. For the next 20 years, many of the recommendations of the Committee on Civil Rights became policy. Truman deserves loads of credit on his liberty record.
Truman also asked Congress to satisfy the claims of Japanese Americans who treated horribly by FDR during WWII. (Being imprisoned in camps because of their ethnicity.) Years later, Truman’s proposal was finally adopted.
Truman however didn’t always stand up to his opposition. As early as 1946 the Red Scare had everyone paranoid about communism. Instead of telling Republicans to get lost, Truman issued an executive order requiring a loyalty program for government employees. A program like this had been in place during WWII, but this was the first time such a program was required during peacetime. Truman later admitted he made a mistake implementing this program, that it was political and served no security purpose whatsoever.
Here’s Truman’s report card:
Peace. For doing what needed to be done to bring World War II to a close, Truman scores. If Japan had intended to surrender, then his use of the atomic bomb would have been grossly reprehensible, but that wasn’t the case. For supporting the State of Israel, he is neither awarded nor penalized. It laid the seeds for a constant Islamic holy war, but Truman was right to advocate for a Jewish homeland, and it was doubtful he could have persuaded the Allies to settle for a region other than Palestine. For building a national security apparatus, and making it independent of the military, he deserves credit. But for exaggerating the communist menace, and for some of his unnecessary meddling overseas during peacetime, I dock him 3 points. Korea alone costs him 4 points. It wasn’t as drastic as later wars, like Vietnam and Iraq, but it set the precedent for them.
Prosperity. For making America great again, after sixteen whole years of economic depression, Truman gets gold stars, downgraded only slightly for some Fair Deal ideas.
Liberty. For implementing the absurd loyalty tests (which Truman later admitted were a mistake), he loses 2 points. For threatening strikers with a military draft he loses another point. (Had he succeeded in getting the draft through Congress he would have lost another 4 points.) In every other way he shines.
Peace — 13/20
Prosperity — 18/20
Liberty — 17/20
TOTAL SCORE = 48/60 = Very Good
Bottom line: Harry Truman was not the demon of leftist or libertarian myth. Enough with the hating and give the man his due.