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. …