Politics & Policy

George W. Truman

Unpopular presidents fighting unpopular wars.

The sight is a pathetic one.  An embattled president moves into a second term that quickly turns into an uninterrupted downhill slide: poll approval sinking to the low 30s; his own party members distancing themselves at every opportunity; his political capital now consumed by a once-popular war that became a hopeless quagmire with no end in sight; a war in which he persists, determined to stay the course despite the political cost, refusing to abandon the valiant allies who took his commitment seriously.

George W. Bush?  Oh yeah, him too.  But we were discussing Harry Truman, weren’t we?

Differences?  Of course.  Truman’s poll numbers were not just because of the war.  They also reflected disgust with corruption scandals, concerns about the economy, and other problems.  But then as now, an unpopular war was the wellspring of public disapproval of the administration.

Actually, the most obvious difference is that we know the outcome of Truman’s quagmire, the war the appeasers and realists thought we shouldn’t fight for the allies that were too weak or corrupt or dictatorial to be worth defending. 

And the nay-sayers of both wings, appeasers of the left and isolationists of the right (and rightist appeasers and leftist isolationists, though fewer of each than we see nowadays)–all of these were there from the start, knowing in advance the futility of a land war in Asia, the hopelessness of trying to impose Western-style democracy on a people who had never known freedom and who didn’t have the culture for it.

But they were wrong and he was right.  In retrospect, we can see that Harry’s war preserved a chance for the Korean people (half of them, at least) to pursue freedom and democracy from an imperfect beginning.  It gave us history’s clearest side-by-side controlled experiment comparing the effects of totalitarianism and free democracy.  Same people, same history, language, and culture.  The only difference is that one of the petri dishes was protected by the United States Army, while the other by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

Harry’s quagmire turned into the Cold War’s first critical stand for freedom, and the first reverse (even though only a partial one) for tyranny.  Thirty-three thousand American soldiers paid the ultimate price for it.  Harry Truman paid only a political price–the price of near-universal disfavor, with job approval numbers dipping to 23 percent.  And he was willing to pay it.

Then, a funny thing happened. A few years after he had returned home and stored his grips in the attic, Truman was “reconsidered.”  As South Korea got the hang of democracy and gradually grew more stable and prosperous, and the North degenerated into a nightmarish hellhole bad enough to embarrass dictators everywhere, history took another look at Harry.

His stubbornness and determination no longer seemed so rude and close-minded. They began to look like strength of character.  His loyalty to his subordinates could now be seen for what it really was: a reflection of his loyalty to his commitments.

Viewed down the dusty halls of history, Truman’s solitude at the end became the measure of the man.  Plummeting poll numbers bothered him, but they never made him doubt his core beliefs or retreat from his commitments.

Some presidents are better politicians than others, and some are politicians first, last, and always.  Those of the latter sort approach all decisions, even the most serious, with an eye on the polls. Those who don’t are still likely to be called political hacks by their opponents. The conventional wisdom rarely makes the distinction.

But sometimes history gives it a re-think, and somehow sorts it all out.  

Despite the endless shelves of books devoted to professional hatred of George W. Bush, the ultimate history books are yet to be written.  You never know what they might say.  History gets the last laugh.

–Hans Moleman is a National Education Association employee and lifelong Democrat who prefers to remain anonymous. He has no relation to the Simpsons character by the same name. Any similarities are purely coincidental.


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