Truman's Trials Resonate for Bush

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He led the United States into war and saw his popularity plummet, yet some 60 years later his reputation has never been higher: It's small wonder Harry S. Truman seems to hold a special fascination for President Bush these days.

That interest came into focus recently after Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) went public with an account of a meeting last Friday in which he said the president seemed to be comparing his situation to that of Truman in the late 1940s. According to Durbin's account and another source familiar with the meeting, Bush told the gathering of congressional leaders that Truman's approach to dealing with the Cold War was not initially popular but that he was vindicated by history -- the implication being that Bush would be vindicated about Iraq as well.

White House aides later disputed this reading of Bush's comments, but the episode may offer a glimpse into the psychology of a president who, like Truman in his second term, seems beset by trouble and pressures on all sides and who is ready to look to history for some comfort and guidance.

"Everyone loves a winner, and history reflects Harry Truman was a winner," said Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), whose father was a longtime friend of the late president and who met Truman as a young man. "It is all familiar front-yard psychology -- associate yourself with a winner."

By many accounts, Bush is fascinated by history and biography -- he reads extensively and meets periodically with presidential scholars -- and Truman has certainly seemed to be on his mind in recent months. In his commencement address this year at West Point, Bush discussed Truman at some length, lauding his early role in structuring U.S. forces and institutions for the Cold War....

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Arnold A Offner - 12/16/2006

Bush's belief that he is in any way comparable to Harry Truman is laughable. Most obviously, Truman was a mainstream Democrat who cared deeply about working class Americans and he would have been appalled by Bush's domestic politics.

Regarding foreign policy, Truman reacted bravely in ordering that North Korea's attack on South Korea, a UN-recognized state, be repulsed. But he also tried "regime change" by sending MacArthur's forces north of the 38th parallel to destroy the North Korean state, and he failed to take PRC security claims seriously.

However, once the PRC intervened, Truman quickly recognized what he called "overreach," and he and his advisers decided within a week to "get out [of the war] with honor."
And when MacArthur sought to thwart the effort for a cease fire in 1951, Truman fired his larger-than-life general despite knowing this would be terribly costly politically. The pity was Truman's failure to bring a quick end to the Korean conflict because he refused to follow the 1949 Geneva Convention protocol on "all for all" exchange of POWs, and instead insisted on volutary repatriation to try to embarrass the PRC and North Korean. Hence it fell to the Eisenhower administration to end the war in 1953.

Regardless, Bush shows no ability to recognize his "overreach"; he could not fire the incompetent Rumsfeld until the electorate demanded it in the November 2006 elections; and he shows no ability to exit Iraq, but rather will posture, probably try to send more troops yet, and then leave the frightful tragedy to his successor. In short, the Iraq war will have proved the worst foreign policy venture--equalled, I guess, only by Vietnam--in U.S. history.

But any resemblance between Truman and Bush is purely an invention of Bush and his handlers.