Saturday, September 28, 2013

Presidential Character: Week Thirty-Three, Serving Crow Since 1948

A statesman is a politician who's been dead for ten years. - Harry S. Truman

To flashback to earlier Presidential Character reviews, I've often lamented the failings of how the party candidates screw up their selecting Vice Presidents to balance out an election ticket.  Ever since the ticket system was designed - 1800 election with Jefferson / Burr - it's been more headache than solution.

Part of the problem has been - remains - the need to literally balance the ticket between the winning Presidential candidate representing the party with someone who represents one of the losing factions that needed placating.  As a result you'd get a Veep who would not only be philosophically opposed to the President but most likely psychologically opposed as well.  You'd start off with an administration behaving in one way following the President's Active/Passive - Positive/Negative habits... and then if something bad happened to that President you'd get an administration suddenly following different traits, sometimes for the worse.

More often than not - Harrison to Tyler, Taylor to Fillmore, Lincoln to Johnson, Harding to Coolidge - you'd get a radical shift of personalities that ruined the political dynamics of the era.  There's been a few transitions where the incoming Vice President - Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt - proved to be a boon rather than a bust, but when it comes down to it the parties ought to do a better job of selecting their Vice President candidates with an eye towards a risky future.

The first time - in some respects the only time - a serious effort to line up a candidate for the Vice Presidency was in 1944 for Franklin D. Roosevelt's fourth campaign.  It was pretty much a given that FDR was going to win: the nation was full into World War II, things were going well on the home front and the front lines, and FDR had remained popular with voters.  There was no need to "change horse in midstream," the standard argument against voting out an incumbent during wartime.

However, everyone within FDR's circle knew Roosevelt was dying (himself included).  In 1940 Roosevelt had campaigned with an extreme liberal Henry Wallace to shore up the far left faction of the Democrats on the eve of World War II, but Wallace's soft stance on Communism (the Soviet kind) made the party worry by 1944: while the Allies had teamed up with Josef Stalin and the Soviet Union to defeat the common enemy of Hitler's Axis, Stalin was still a devil and having someone like Wallace eagerly dealing with him as President was a horrifying thought.

The party leadership - the backroom dealers and FDR's inner circle - began searching for a suitable replacement.  One name kept coming up: Harry S. Truman, Senator out of Missouri.

Truman wasn't the first choice, though: James Byrnes out of South Carolina was.  Byrnes had served in a variety of state and federal offices, and was one of FDR's closest advisors.  But where Wallace was too liberal, Byrnes was too conservative, and Truman quickly became the kind of compromise candidate a party chooses for the top half of the ticket.

It wasn't hard to see why Truman's name raced to the top of the list.  He'd been a solid and loyal party member since before World War I, someone who may have come from a corrupt political machine but was himself honest and incorruptible, and a major Senatorial player supporting the New Deal from the get-go.  Truman served in the first world war, earning the rank of captain and showing his stripes as a battlefield leader.  Really making his reputation was his stellar work on an oversight committee during the first years of the War Effort that clamped down on waste and war profiteering (on a budget of $360,000 Truman saved the nation around $15 billion from waste and fraud).

But there had to have been another factor at play here, and James David Barber makes note of it during his review of Truman's style:

Truman's style in decision making had two large elements. One was the close attention to detail, the studious homework he drew out of his early reading, his experience in detailed jobs, and his successful canteen management and personal reconnaissance in the Army.  Truman as President could and did study hard... The other element was the decisiveness - the habit of nearly impulsive assertion of definite answers - that was the bring him such difficulties as he "shot from the hip"...  In a world of uncertain people, Harry's style of deciding - yes or no, on the spot, right now - could be impressive, could bring him a reputation for leadership. (p.313)

Barber had Truman in the Active-Positive category, partly because of that decision-making (pure Active) but also because Truman was a hard political campaigner: working in the rough world of state-level politics - especially southern politics with its racial issues and populist anger - taught Truman to fight hard for the offices he campaigned for.  While not a practiced or well-known orator, Truman was a font of quips and one-liners, a Deadpan Snarker who disdained puffery and went after what he saw was the truth (and because of that attention to detail Barber noted, it was truth based on researched fact).  A-Ps in Barber's evaluation were tireless campaigners, enjoying not so much the fight but the chance to get in front of the issues, make a case, confront a problem.

Roosevelt himself was an Active-Positive, and one thing A-Ps love are fellow A-Ps (the other Roosevelt thought he found a fellow Active-Positive in Taft which was why Taft got tabbed as his successor... when Taft proved Passive-Positive Teddy came to regret that move).  Roosevelt saw in Truman a dedicated New Dealer, someone who would carry the banner of the cause on his own terms but still one that FDR would recognize; a tireless worker whose fraud-busting efforts showed a commitment to honest government.

Ironically, Truman didn't want the Vice Presidency - he was convinced Byrnes would be the choice, and even kept a nominating speech for Byrnes with him during the early stages of the convention - and had to be pressed into taking the nomination during a staged phone call between FDR and a room full of party leaders.  Truman knew to some extent of FDR's frail health, but wasn't entirely in the know, and so in most respects he was genuinely stunned when 82 days into the fourth term FDR died and Truman became President.

While Truman didn't want the job, the A-P trait of being Self-Confident became the defining trait of his administration.  Truman's Presidency desk famously displayed a message: The Buck Stops Here.  And Truman meant it: when he made a decision he followed through, owned up to it, made his arguments, did his best to accept the criticisms of his allies and did even better shooting down the criticisms of his enemies.

The clearest example of Truman's decision-making was his earliest decision: making the call on using atomic weapons on key Japanese targets.  Having only been told of the Manhattan Project right after ascending to the Oval Office, and facing in mid-summer the sobering possibility of a massive invasion of a fortified Japan.  Confronted with the projected losses following the fierce and bloody Battle of Okinawa - both military and civilian lives lost on the Japanese mainland into the hundreds of thousands - and also confronted with weapons that could fell a single city with a single bomb, Truman made the decision to use the bombs our nation had to press Japan into surrender before a mass invasion was needed.

The decision has been debated since the moment it was made.  Proponents siding with Truman noting that Japan's martial culture would have guaranteed a massive and bloody defense against any landings; opponents arguing that the use of such weapons - more lethal to civilians than military targets - were tantamount to war crimes.  In hindsight an argument could have been made that diplomacy could have worked: but it would have taken months or years with no guarantee of peaceful resolution, and the Japanese Army was adamantly against any surrender.

If the estimated casualties of Operation Downfall were correct even at the most conservative - about 23,000 during the first 90 days - it would have been bloody but far less than the total death count of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (150,000).  If the larger calculations throwing in a civilian uprising were right, it would have gotten into 1.7 million American casualties and 5 million Japanese, and those death tolls for the atomic bombs would have been a more acceptable - but still painful - alternative.

Truman owned up to the decision of dropping the bombs - he insisted on military targets only - but wasn't aware at the time of how destructive such a weapon could be.  When it came out how the devastation wiped out civilians as much as military bases, Truman had to have learned from that... because the next time the use of atomic weapons came up - the Korean War, and China's intervention into it - he flat-out opposed it.

Past that, Truman's Active-Positive traits carried him through his first term.  He carried on the War Effort towards victory in Europe and in Japan.  He presided over the formation of a United Nations, an attempt to improve on the failed League of Nations, this time with an active United States backing it up.  Remembering his own experiences of post-war economic downturn after World War I, Truman did what he could to keep the post-war economy churning through price controls.  When unions struck, Truman used the power of the office to "draft" the unions and nationalize the affected industries to keep them working.

When Stalin openly reneged on his promises and seized control of Soviet-held nations in 1947, Truman issued his Doctrine of supporting "all free peoples who are resisting subjugation."  This went towards keeping Greece and Turkey from falling under Soviet domination (albeit at the cost of rather messy civil wars).  This was followed up with the Marshall Plan, an ambitious foreign aid program to rebuild war-torn Western Europe before the Stalin-backed Communist factions could use the economic malaise to their advantage.  And part of all this was the Berlin Airlift, Truman's solution to a Soviet blockade of West Berlin (Germany and Berlin had been divided up into allied-controlled sections, with West Berlin a sore point in Stalin's control of East Germany).  Rather than press a military confrontation on the ground, Truman coordinated flights into West Berlin daring Stalin to shoot down the planes performing publicly recognized humanitarian supply efforts.  Pretty much the best display of Truman's Adaptive skill, it worked: Stalin wouldn't cross that line and the blockade was lifted.

All of these were actions an Active-Positive President would preside over: the use of government power not for the personal gain but for the gains of others.  He didn't display the A-P trait of Adaptive, but instead showed the willingness to be Confident in the use of executive power to get done what needed doing.  But wait, there's more.

Harry S. Truman was the first President since Reconstruction to make serious gains in ensuring civil rights for Blacks.  He had followed the struggles of Black soldiers during efforts at integration during World War II and had been sickened by the reports of lynchings that occurred during and after the war.  By 1948 he issued an executive order desegregating the armed forces, the first major blow for civil rights since the 15th Amendment.

Truman also became the first global leader in 1948 to recognize Israel's right to exist as a nation.  Warned it would upset Arab nations and cut off American access to much-needed oil, Truman couldn't ignore the fact that the Nazis had just attempted a Final Solution to wipe out Jews altogether, and that the Jewish people required a homeland to ensure their survival.

In these, Truman was using the A-P initiative of getting ahead on civil rights issues and sticking to it.  He pursued these points even in the face of political opposition, especially as 1948 was an election year.

By 1948 Truman and the Democratic Party was facing long odds indeed.  Despite the successful conclusion to the war, there was the struggle to rebuild Europe and Asia and the home front, there had come a kind of political fatigue to the whole thing.  Democrats had been in charge of things since 1933, a full decade had passed and then some, and the strain of a prolonged rule was showing.  The failures of the Republicans leading up to the Great Depression had almost been forgotten.  Truman's popularity wasn't all that great, and the Democratic Party had developed serious internal factions during FDR's prolonged tenure.

Henry Wallace was pretty bitter about getting booted out of the Veep spot for being too liberal, and like all wingnuts (leftist and rightist both) was truly convinced of his liberal platform.  He broke off and formed his own Progressive campaign.  When the Democratic platform at the convention came out with a strong civil rights policy that Truman publicly adopted, the Southern Democrats (Dixiecrats) walked out of the convention.  And when Truman signed that executive order desegregating the armed forces two weeks later, South Carolina's (yeah, them again) governor Strom Thurmond announced his own campaign for the Presidency on a racist "States Rights" platform.  The Democratic Party had basically disintegrated into three parts, where the Electoral system favored two parties (Democrat and Republican).  The Republican Party - nominee Thomas Dewey as their candidate - could pretty much lean back and coast to victory.

Except for the fact that the Republicans and Dixiecrats and Progressives were all up against Active-Positive Harry S. Truman.  A-Ps love the fight not for the sake of the fight but for getting something accomplished.  And Truman was up for this.

Truman's campaign was aggressive from the start.  He went after the Republicans in Congress for their conservative attempts at culling back the New Deal and at the gains workers - and an increasing middle class - had made.  Calling them "Do-Nothing", Truman made a show of calling for a special session of Congress to pass economic legislation.  Considering it a trap of sorts, the Republicans showed up but did little, inadvertently playing into Truman's accusations.  Truman effectively ignored both Wallace and Thurmond, since they were both in effect single-issue candidates lacking genuine broad appeal.  And Truman went on a whirlwind railroad tour of the nation, derisively called "whistle-stops" by Republican-backing newspapers but in fact hosting turnouts in the hundreds of thousands of supporters.

The national media didn't even seem to notice.  Mostly owned by conservatives or following "conventional wisdom", the newspapers failed to keep up with any polling past September and failed to notice Truman's public support.  It had become "conventional wisdom" that Truman was unliked and that it was due time for Republicans to return to the White House.  Assurances of Dewey's victory in November were rampant.  Right up until Election Night itself.

From the National Archives.  There's a reason Truman is smiling, and it involves being a badass.
That photo is arguably one of the most famous in American history.  One of the great reminders that "it ain't over until it's over," and that Truman had the political skill of the Active-Positive driving him to success (also it was another reminder that the geniuses inside the Beltway aren't as smart or as informed as they think they are).

The second term of office proved much tougher (history proves us that, regardless of the success or skill of any President): above all, Stalin encouraged his North Korean allies to invade South Korea, setting off the Korean War and the first major test of Truman's containment policy.

It was Truman's Confident trait that caused half the problems he faced going into this fight: he pursued an international coalition through the newly formed UN as both an effort to boost the UN's prestige and to avoid getting a declaration of war out of Congress that he felt wasn't necessary.  Both moves hurt him stateside.

The other half of the problem was dealing with Douglas MacArthur.  One of the most quixotic generals in American history, MacArthur could be a strategic genius and a tactical moron.  At the same time.  Having blundered through the first half of the Second World War and then regaining prestige and popularity towards the end of it, MacArthur was the general placed in charge of the Korean War efforts.  Pulling off one of the best military maneuvers in history at Inchon - making an amphibious assault under harsh conditions - MacArthur proceeded to overplay the UN's agenda by pursuing the North Korean forces right up to China's borders well enough for China to worry about invasion.  Despite Truman's warnings not to provoke the Chinese, MacArthur did so... and drew the Chinese 2 million strong into what was supposed to be a small-scale police action.

When the tide of fighting turned to stalemate, MacArthur pressed for the use of nuclear weapons, and worked under the belief that he had control of the arsenal - and ultimately the Army - and not Truman.  This was a critical moment in American history.  While there had been differences between Presidents and Generals before, tradition had developed that the civilian leadership controlled the military, that the President was Commander-in-Chief and that it kept the military in check.  MacArthur believed in Total Victory regardless of the objectives: Truman believed in containing Communism but avoiding perpetual warfare. Worse, MacArthur was privately and publicly undercutting Truman's authority as President.

Truman fired the son-of-a-bitch.

One other thing to note about Active-Positive Presidents: they do not do things because they are popular.  They do things because they are hard, and worth doing.  Firing MacArthur was political suicide in 1951: calls for impeachment were rampant and MacArthur returned a hero.  As the months passed and as Congress investigated Truman's decision, a lot of MacArthur's bullheaded actions were made public, and the decision Truman made became reasonable.  But the damage was done.  And Truman took the heat for it.

By 1952 the Korean War was a stalemated mess.  America got hit with a recession, and Truman's popularity was right around 22 percent, one of the lowest ratings in the history of polling such data.  When Truman's early forays into primaries for re-election went sour, he saw the writing on the wall and made the decision to not run again (he was exempt from the passage of the 22nd Amendment capping Presidential terms).  Truman did not leave office on the best of terms, but he left them on his terms and took his retirement to heart.

When historians speak of Truman's legacy, the first thing they'll note is that Truman is one of the first Presidents to have his reputation improve dramatically within years of leaving office.  It helped that a lot of what Truman believed in - keeping the New Deal agenda strong, avoiding full war in Korea/China, avoiding further use of nuclear weapons - turned out to have been the right calls.  Whenever a President drops significantly in the polls nowadays, they'll point straight to Truman and use him as an example of being unpopular but correct (despite how incorrect such a failing President might be).  Truman tends to appear in the Top Ten of any Presidential list ever since such lists were made, and if he's not he's usually slipped to Number 11.

Can't end this Truman fest without posting one of his best known quips: My choice early in life was either to be a piano-player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth there's hardly any difference.

I motherfucking love this guy (except for the whole "Nuking Japan" thing, and even then I'll grant that was a tough call to make).  I'm glad I share a birthday with him.

Next Up: Everybody Likes Ike... Despite His Traits

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