How Truman ushered in the end of liberal idealism
David McCullough's highly readable new biography(*1) pays proper respect to Harry Truman's greatest achievements, beginning with the Truman Committee, where, as a senator, he proved it possible for Congress to effectively monitor government programs, and continuing through the high points of his presidency: the Marshall Plan, Point Four, the Berlin airlift, desegregation of the armed forces, recognition of Israel, resistance to aggression in South Korea, and the firing of MacArthur. Of these, the two that have been most underappreciated are the Truman Committee and the Berlin airlift.
The Truman Committee demonstrated through its constructive criticism of wartime defense spending that Congress can oversee other branches of government. Today, sadly, that kind of oversight is almost a lost art. Truman's wise decision to supply Soviet-blockaded Berlin through the air, instead of confronting strong Soviet ground forces, ranks along with Kennedy's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis as a landmark example of how to be resolute without going to war.
McCullough also acknowledges Truman's negatives, but he does so--and this is his book's main defect--with little explanation of their significance, either at the time or in the broader context of history.
While Truman was a lovable man who will forever stand out among our presidents for his humanity and courage, he made many mistakes, some of them whoppers. By excluding South Korea from a defense perimeter he announced in 1949, his secretary of state, Dean Acheson, may have signaled the North Koreans that they could invade South Korea. Truman's administration also misjudged China's threats that it would enter the Korean War if the United States crossed the 38th parallel and approached the Yalu River.
On the domestic scene, Truman, although not by any means a Joe McCarthy, instituted unduly restrictive classification and loyalty programs in the federal government. He also nominated two justices to the Supreme Court, Fred Vinson and Tom Clark, who became part of the majority that upheld in the Dennis case the imprisonment of American Communist Party leaders simply for teaching and advocating Marxist doctrine--a decision that, for me, marks the low point in the history of the First Amendment. These actions were crucial in creating the climate of conformity that dominated the fifties, and they did permanent damage to the civil and foreign services by greatly heightening the customary caution of the bureaucrat.
Truman's administration was also characterized by cronyism (Harry Vaughan and Donald Dawson were unhappy examples), by terrible judgment in the appointment of such cabinet members as Louis Johnson as secretary of defense and J. Howard McGrath as attorney general, and by a too-easy tolerance of corruption that probably was the result of Truman's adjustment to his role in the Pendergast machine in Kansas City early in his political life. (He managed to survive as personally incorruptible by winking at the shenanigans of others.) He was also guilty of a shoot-from-the-lip carelessness, as when he declared during the Korean War that he thought the use of the atomic bomb could be left to the discretion of the military commanders in the field.
But my most severe indictment of Truman is that he inflicted the first wound in the slow death of liberal idealism in America that began in 1945. For the first 45 years of this century, idealism was a vibrant force, and for 28 of those 45 years, we had inspiring leaders--Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR. In the 45 years since, we've had only the period between 1961 and 1965, when the New Frontier and the Great Society briefly revived a spirit of generosity and hope before that spirit was crushed by Vietnam and Watergate.
The truth is that Truman was generally not a …