Historians disagree on whether Bush is another Truman

Historians in the News

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....

"I know that President Bush admires Harry Truman -- we have talked about that," [David] McCullough said, though he was cautious about offering any snap assessments of the Bush presidency. "About 50 years has to go by before you can appraise a presidency -- the dust has to settle."

He did say he sees similarities between Truman and Bush, especially in their capacity to endure "merciless criticism and personal abuse" that he doubts "many of us could take."...

Historians are divided about this kind of assessment from the administration. Fred I. Greenstein, a Princeton scholar regarded as a preeminent authority on the presidency, alluded to one major difference between Bush and Truman, often cited by Democrats. "The Marshall Plan was part of a broad-based diplomatic effort, and it was enacted by Truman's bipartisan leadership of a Republican Congress," he said in an e-mail. "Bush's efforts have been heavily unilateral internationally and divisive internally, except those just after 9/11."

James G. Hershberg, a Cold War historian at George Washington University, said he doubts that history will judge Bush as kindly as it has Truman, saying Truman's roles in fostering European recovery and building the NATO alliance were seen as solid accomplishments at the time. "Bush, by contrast, lacks any successes of comparable magnitude to compensate for his mismanagement of the Iraq war and will be hard-pressed to produce any in his last two years," he said.

But Greenstein said he has been struck by parallels between the two presidents, including their feistiness, the fact that neither seemed up to the job in their early months in office, that both had responses to crises that made them seem more presidential and that both saw their approval levels drop after stalemated wars. "As one who remembers the Truman presidency," he said, "I often have a sense of deja vu."

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Arnold A Offner - 12/20/2006

I agree that it is nonsense to compare Truman and Bush. Truman did have the capacity to rethink and to reassess, e.g., in the case of his own assessment of "overreach," regarding North Korea, he agreed within a week of PRC intervention to look to get out of the war with honor. He also fired MacArthur--at great political cost--when the general opposed seeking a cease fire in April 1951. Alas, Truman got caught up on the POW issue (ignored the Geneva Convention!) and it took until Ike and 1953 to end the war. But it was still done in three years--and after 3 and half years Bush remains in a state of denial while his White House hawks call for more troops and maybe attacks on Iran. And of course, Bush has NO foreign policy achievements to speak of, whereas HST had the Marshall Plan and NATO--and on the domestic front he was a million years ahead of Bush, including calls for expanded Social Security, minimum wage increases, and in 1949, National Health Insurance. Please save us from any future comparisons--not even David McCullough will be able to "hagiograp-hy" Bush, who will ultimately rank where he should--at the bottom of the presidential list.

Keith Robert Schmitz - 12/20/2006

There is no comparison based on motive and their careers leading up to the Presidency.

Truman saw government as service, Bush sees it as self enrichment.

Truman had a record of accomplishment as a chief judge in Jackson county and in his role in the Truman Committee, Bush was a total business failure and served as governor in a state where they have set up a weak governors ship.

The whole notion of comparison is nonsense.