Give’em Hell, George: The Bush-Truman Analogy


Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

As we move to the end of the Bush presidency, there is considerable speculation as to the legacy of the nation’s forty-third President. Right-wing pundits, such as Ann Coulter, laud the President for protecting Americans from domestic terrorism by engaging Al-Qaeda in battle on the Iraqi front. On the other hand, historians seem to agree with the American public which has awarded the President record low poll numbers. In fact, most historians in a recent History News Network survey suggested that George W. Bush was the worse President in the nation’s history. And even John McCain becomes agitated when Barack Obama suggests that a McCain presidency would constitute a third Bush term.

Never one readily to admit a mistake or demonstrate serious self-reflection, the President finally seems to acknowledge the low approval ratings among both scholars and the general population, but he takes solace in the example of Harry Truman who left office in 1953 with low approval ratings and an unpopular war in Korea. Yet, Bush insists that Truman is now proclaimed as one of the nation’s greatest Presidents because “history showed he was right.”

This historical analogy expressed by the President is simplistic and misleading on a number of levels. Certainly much of Truman’s retrospective popularity is due to David McCullough’s Pulitzer-prize winning biography, Truman (1992), as well as Truman’s common touch and lack of a formal college education. With his wealthy family, including a U. S. Senator and President, and Yale education, despite a mediocre scholastic record, George W. Bush certainly lacks a populist background. Truman may have lacked a college degree, but in his plain-speaking style the man from Missouri demonstrated an ease with the English language, despite the use of some public expletives, that our contemporary President from Texas would do well to emulate. The Truman legacy also includes a domestic reform agenda lacking in the Bush record, unless one counts the massive tax cuts of the Bush administration which have contributed to growing budget deficits and class inequality. In the Fair Deal, Truman attempted to wrap himself in the reform mantle of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, calling for civil rights legislation, repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, and national health insurance. One may criticize Truman for not pushing hard enough for these legislative goals, but the initiatives proposed by Truman reflect a progressive orientation missing from the Bush legacy.

But is not on the domestic front upon which Bush expresses common cause with Truman. It is, instead, the Cold War policies of President Truman which resonate with Bush. Accordingly, Bush perceives his stance against Islamic fascists, a category in which he lumps Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, as comparable with Truman’s struggle against a totalitarian Soviet menace in the early years of the Cold War. In this scenario, Truman’s firm opposition to Soviet expansionism established a policy of containing communism; eventually culminating in the end of the Cold War and President Ronald Reagan’s free world victory over communism. Thus, Truman, like President Bush in the war on terror, was not an appeaser in the Neville Chamberlain tradition. Unlike those European diplomats at the Munich Conference in 1938 who attempted to appease Hitler’s territorial ambitions in Czechoslovakia, Truman prevented the triumph of totalitarianism by standing up to Stalin just as Bush refuses to abandon the fight against terrorism in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush then embraces Truman by linking Munich to the domino theory of communist expansionism and the contemporary war on terror. Yet, these generalizations tend to obscure more complex historical realities.

The Truman analogy also ignores much that was misguided about about Truman's response to the Soviet Union and Stalin in the immediate post World War II period. For example, Truman employed the Soviet threat to justify the passage of the National Security Act of 1947; establishing the Department of Defense, CIA, and National Security Council. The powers of the federal government and President were enhanced to protect the homeland against perceived enemies both foreign and domestic. On March 22, 1947, Truman issued Executive Order 9835, instigating a review policy to identify “disloyal persons” serving in the government. These loyalty review boards provided ammunition for the assaults of Senator Joseph McCarthy upon individual liberties and freedoms. Similar to the Bush administration’s Patriot Act and expansion of Presidential authority after 9/11, the anticommunist policies of the Truman administration limited dissent and domestic reform in the post World War II world.

Essential to the Truman policy of containing communism was the Truman Doctrine in which the President in a March 12, 1947 address to a joint session of Congress requested $40 million of predominantly military aid to the struggling governments of Greece and Turkey. Seeking to follow the advice of Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg that the President scare the hell out of the American people, Truman asserted that the democratic government of Greece was under assault from totalitarian (Soviet-sponsored) forces, and that the fall of the Greek government would have dire consequences for all of Western Europe. As with President George W. Bush’s case for war in Iraq, Truman exaggerated the facts and threat posed by the Greek situation. In October 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill journeyed to Moscow where he recognized the Soviet Union’s post-war sphere of influence in Rumania in exchange for Stalin’s pledge not to interfere with British goals in Greece. At British insistence, Greek parliamentary elections were held in 1946, but a boycott by the political left resulted in a pro-monarchist government rejected by communists and other leftist elements that had played a significant role in resisting Nazi aggression. The National Liberation Front abandoned electoral politics, attempting to overthrow the Greek government. While neighboring communist regimes in Albania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia supported the insurgency, Stalin adhered to his agreement with Churchill. Limited Soviet aid to the Greek insurgents was only forthcoming after the passage of the Truman Doctrine through Congress. But Stalin’s support was lukewarm, and he abandoned assistance for the Greek rebels by the end of 1948. The Greek Civil War (1944-1949) fails to fit the Soviet-inspired rebellion propagated by Truman, nor was the Greek government the bulwark of democracy suggested by the President. At best, the rhetoric which justified the Truman Doctrine was misleading.

In addition to misrepresenting the politics of the Greek situation, the Truman Doctrine established the policy of American military aid for any government battling communist insurgency. Thus, a repressive regime could label itself anticommunist and receive military assistance from the United States to suppress dissent and popular resistance movements. The Truman Doctrine culminated in the United States becoming identified with anticommunist dictatorships in such diverse nations as Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, the Philippines, Congo, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. American military support to these repressive anticommunist regimes helped prepare the ground for the anti-Americanism and “blowback” of the post Cold War world. The Bush policies of unilateralism and pre-emptive war have only exacerbated the negative perceptions of United States foreign policy fostered by the anticommunism of the Truman Doctrine. The Truman policies did eventually emerge triumphant over the Soviet Union but at a considerable price which we continue to pay today. As Arnold Offner suggests in his study of Truman’s foreign policy, we can hardly afford “another such victory.”

It is possible, thus, to ascertain some similarities between the Cold War and war on terror policies of Presidents Harry Truman and George W. Bush. Despite a certain nostalgia for Truman among the American public and historians, the legacy of the loyalty review boards and Truman Doctrine suggests that the Bush historical legacy, based upon comparable approaches to the war on terror, will likely perpetuate insecurity for future generations and increase the nation’s enemies. The Truman and Bush analogy offers some troubling parallels.

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Lisa Kazmier - 6/30/2008

You seem to reflect upon how this analogy works for Bushie but not on the American people. Truman gave various enemies hell and it was a bit targeted. Bush is more indiscriminate in giving most of America hell, save for those top 5% super rich and his Oil and Defense buddies.