Sanctioning Foreign Policy: The Rhetorical Use of President Harry Truman

By Edwards, Jason A. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Sanctioning Foreign Policy: The Rhetorical Use of President Harry Truman


Edwards, Jason A., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Throughout his presidency, George W. Bush actively drew connections between the war on terror and World War II and/or the Cold War (see Chernus 2006; Ivie 2005; Noon 2004; Smith 2007). At the same time, Bush also drew parallels between his presidency and that of his predecessors. For example, in a speech before the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Bush made comparisons between his administration and that of Harry Truman. He stated,

As we advance the cause of freedom in Iraq, our Nation can proceed with confidence that we have done this kind of work before. After World War II, President Harry Truman believed that the way to help bring peace and prosperity to Asia was to plant the seeds of freedom and democracy in Japan. Like today, there were many skeptics and pessimists who said that the Japanese were not ready for democracy. Fortunately, Harry Truman stuck to his guns. He believed, as I do, in freedom's power to transform an adversary into an ally. And because he stayed true to his convictions, today Japan is one of the world's freest and most prosperous nations, and one of America's closest allies in keeping the peace. The spread of freedom to Iraq and the Middle East requires the same confidence and persistence, and it will lead to the same results. (Bush 2005)

Here, Bush analogized the circumstances in postwar Japan to that of Iraq in the midst of the war on terror. For President Bush, the parallels between Truman's presidency and his own were undeniable and served as tacit evidence to justify his activities in Iraq. You could read Bush's message to the nation as this: Harry Truman was right about Japan, and my ability to lead the United States in Iraq is the same as his. Thus, my efforts will be conducted with the "same confidence and persistence" and will "lead to the same results."

Certainly, President Bush's use of the past is not an isolated example. Historical events and persons are often called upon in all aspects of society to celebrate some political purpose or appropriated in some way to meet the needs of the present day. For example, in American popular culture, the 1990s saw a resurgence of World War II nostalgia. Texts such as Saving Private Ryan and Tom Brokaw's best-selling book The Greatest Generation celebrated the contributions of the World War II generation, but more importantly, they offered up a "civics lesson" to the American people on the virtues of sacrifice and its own exceptionalist nature (Biesecker 2002). In the realm of politics, our discourse, particularly presidential rhetoric, is rife with references to past events and the great presidents of the past, such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. When presidents invoke their predecessors, they are calling upon what Philip Abbott (1990) termed the "exemplar presidents." Donald Rice (1992) referred to this kind of invocation as the rhetoric of the "authorizing figure." Whatever terminology is used, appropriating the memory of historical heroes for present-day purposes is a form of collective memory that performs important political and symbolic work in American politics, in particular presidential foreign policy rhetoric, and is the subject of this inquiry.

Specifically, I focus on the presidential foreign policy rhetoric of three contemporary presidents--Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush--and consider how they invoked the memory of Harry Truman. I chose these three presidents because enough time had passed between their presidencies and Truman's to allow for reflection on a number of events that occurred during the Cold War, which may have influenced their foreign policy worldviews. Moreover, these three presidents are the only contemporary ones who served two full terms that were not interrupted by death (JFK) or scandal (Nixon). That is not to say that one-term presidents such as Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush did not call upon the Truman legacy. …

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