Recently on several weblogs there have been speculations about the greatest U.S. Presidents. I guess this was prompted by the so-called death recently of R. Reagan. I don't know why that should be, because surely R. Reagan doesn't merit a place on such a list. This is a man who, in the words of someone long ago, "nearly bankrupted the country preparing for nuclear war" -- a double-barrelled shot that hardly supports the idea of greatness.
To my amazement my choice, Harry S. Truman, barely got any mentions.
Actually I had forgotten Lincoln, who should always be first on my list because of his Emancipation Proclamation, though some say that he didn't actually free the slaves, and that instead he just set them loose. But Lincoln was too far out of my time, and I was just thinking of those that I personally remembered, and they started with FDR, though I was born during Hoover's term.
Roosevelt was fine, but he left the scene and involuntarily dropped into Truman's lap a matter whose fatefulness during WW2 was equalled only by Hitler's decision to invade the U.S.S.R.
Actually, just as I don't excuse the Vietnam policies of another of our otherwise greatest Presidents, LBJ, I question Truman's dropping of the atom bombs on two of Japan's cities (both of which I visited 14 years later) without first having demonstrated the incredible destructiveness of those never-before-seen weapons, for instance on some island near Tokyo. But Truman had only been in office for a short while, and it was a tremendously difficult decision for him to have to face right at the start. The pressures were overwhelming, and he decided, and that was that.
The atom bombings were just two of a unusually large number of highly dramatic and momentous events that happened on Truman's watch -- more, in fact, than during any other Presidency, I am bold enough to say, and half a century later we are still dealing with the issues raised by a number of them, for better or for worse. I don't think it has been posterity's verdict so far that he was to blame for their quantity or that he dealt with them badly. Most popped up as a result of the enormous amount of shakeout following history's greatest conflagration, World War 2.
The high drama started with the death in 1945 of Roosevelt, which thrust Truman willynilly into the highest U.S. office just as the War was reaching its climax. The other events included his implementation of the Marshall Plan, his dealing with the Russian blockade of Berlin and carrying out the airlift, and his vigorous "Give'em hell, Harry!" campaign in 1948, which seemed to end nevertheless with his defeat, but he turned out to have won, and in such a manner as to deeply embarrass all those who had publicly declared him to be a goner. And meanwhile the world's most populous country was "lost," survivors of the Holocaust arrived in the Holy Land, and the North Koreans invaded South Korea, forcing Truman to enter another terrible fracas.
Prior to Korea, in 1947, Truman had already greatly improved the American soul by racially integrating the U.S. military. That is less than significant to most, but for me it was all-important, especially when I entered the Air Force just five years later. As Steve Bates recently pointed out in his "Yellow Doggerel Democrat," that integration led directly to the Civil Rights advances in education, voting, and other respects a few years later -- another absolutely crucial consideration for me.
During the Korean War Truman continued to leave his mark by reaffirming the supremacy of the civilian over the military authority, when he fired the very popular but go-his-own-way General Douglas MacArthur. I believe that that principle goes farther toward preserving our political stability than does anything else, including our system of checks and balances.
Finally Truman did one seemingly insignificant little thing -- some might even say it was low class and tasteless -- that, on the contrary, in my eyes put the clincher on placing him above any other President of my time, and even any time.
Early in December of 1950, his daughter Margaret, a woman who to my observation took her status as only child\princess far too seriously, gave a solo singing performance. The music critic for the Washington Post, Paul Hume, panned her work -- and probably rightly so. But Harry S. Truman's love for his daughter was such that he became absolutely infuriated.
In that year the little guy from Missouri was without doubt the most powerful man in the world. He commanded the strongest and most farflung military machine that history had ever seen. He had the enormous influence that would be at the disposal of a President who had emerged victoriously from a great war with his nation firmly in the position of being the world's most prosperous country.
But in defense of his daughter's honor, Harry S. Truman didn't pick up a phone and order out troops to arrest Paul Hume and flog him to within an inch of his life. He didn't even call the Washington Post publisher and editors and request that they fire Paul Hume or at least ask him how he would like to grab a brush and clean out a few toilets.
Harry S. Truman didn't order or ask anybody to do anything, because by God he was going to take care of this business himself! (He was known to keep a little placard on his desk that read "The buck stops here.") Instead this most powerful man in the world simply sat down and wrote a simple little note to Paul Hume and mailed it off. Truman didn't do this as any sort of political move. I don't think that, short of his secretary, anyone knew about it till Hume himself showed the letter around.
In some era, to tell someone that he is an "eight ulcer man on four ulcer pay" must've been among the very worst of insults. As to which era that was, I'm unable to say. But Hume couldn't have missed the low opinion of his musical judgment or the meaning of the supporter he was going to need, should Truman ever catch up with him in person. And if you'll allow me to use the probably by now totally passe language of the block boys, Truman wasn't just a-shucking and a-jiving. He MEANT that sh-t! (Click the title of this post.)
I don't know of any other act by any U.S. President that so wonderfully demonstrated the American ideal of democracy, and the notion that no man, not even a U.S. President, is set so high above his fellow citizens.
It's a principle that ought to be remembered in the present era, when at least two Presidents, both of them Republicans, one living and the other dead, have been placed on a pantheon sitting just to the right of the elbow of any god that can be imagined.