Hijacking Harry Truman

Network News

X Profile
View More Activity
By Peter Beinart
Thursday, June 1, 2006

No matter how polarized Washington becomes, there is still one Democrat Republicans love: Harry Truman. Last December, on this page, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared the Bush administration's democracy promotion efforts "consistent with the proud tradition of American foreign policy, especially such recent presidents as Harry Truman." Last weekend President Bush devoted his West Point commencement address to an extended analogy between himself and the 33rd president, invoking Truman no fewer than 17 times. Conservative commentators are fond of the analogy, too. Indeed, it is a virtual article of faith on the contemporary right that today's conservatives -- not today's liberals -- are the true heirs of the anti-totalitarian tradition with which we associate Truman's name.

The truth is rather different. Bush and Rice are correct that Truman saw tyranny as a threat to world peace and believed in resisting it, by means that included force. At West Point, Bush quoted Truman's famous declaration in his March 1947 speech proposing military aid to the besieged governments of Greece and Turkey: "It must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures."

But there are other Truman classics that Bush conveniently overlooked. For instance: "We all have to recognize, no matter how great our strength, that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please." Truman did not believe merely in promoting democracy and peace; he believed that doing so required powerful international institutions, which could invest American power with the credibility that the Soviets lacked.

In the years immediately after World War II, the United States encased itself in a web of such bodies -- from the United Nations and NATO to the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (now the World Trade Organization). And Truman was frank in recognizing that such institutions gave weaker countries an influence over American actions. As the historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, "It was not that the Americans lacked the capacity to force their allies into line . . . [but] what is surprising is how rarely this happened; how much effort the United States put into persuading -- quite often deferring to -- its NATO partners."

Bush, by contrast, more than any president in recent history, has sought to liberate the United States from international treaties and institutions -- from the Kyoto global warming treaty to the International Criminal Court to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. To be sure, even Bill Clinton sometimes had trouble getting international agreements through Congress. But in the Bush administration, opposing infringements on U.S. sovereignty has become a cardinal foreign policy principle. In Bush's view, American power legitimizes itself -- we don't need to listen to other countries, because sooner or later they will realize that we were right and they were wrong. Had Bush been around in the late 1940s, he might well have accused Truman of seeking a "permission slip" before defending the United States. Indeed, some conservatives said almost exactly that at the time. It is they -- not Truman -- who are Bush's true ideological forefathers.

Truman also believed that spreading democracy required combating economic despair. He allocated between 2.5 and 5 percent of U.S. national income over four years to the Marshall Plan, in the belief that unless Europe's fragile postwar democracies improved their people's lives, they were likely to fail. Then, in his 1949 State of the Union address, he went further and proposed a Marshall Plan for the Third World. In fact, while Truman increased military spending, he and his advisers repeatedly described economic development as more important to the anti-communist cause. In 1947 his defense secretary, James Forrestal, noted that "at the present time we are keeping our military expenditures below the levels which our military leaders must in good conscience estimate as the minimum which would in themselves ensure national security. By so doing we are able to increase our expenditures to assist in the European recovery." Try to imagine Donald Rumsfeld saying that.

Indeed, while the Bush administration has boosted foreign aid over its appallingly low pre-Sept. 11, 2001, levels, such increases have been trivial compared with the massive new allotments for defense. And one of the primary reasons for mounting anti-American sentiment in Afghanistan is America's failure to fulfill our promises to help rebuild that country after we toppled the Taliban. As The Post's Barton Gellman and Dafna Linzer reported in October 2004, "The president and his most influential advisers, many officials said, do not see those [economic] factors -- or U.S. policy overseas -- as primary contributors to the terrorism threat."

Again, there is a Cold War precedent for this view. But it lies in the arguments of conservatives such as Barry Goldwater, who ridiculed claims that Third World poverty aided communism's appeal. Harry Truman, by contrast, believed in fighting totalitarianism fiercely, but with more than just guns, and through international institutions that made U.S. power legitimate in the world. George W. Bush should remember that the next time he takes Truman's name in vain.

Peter Beinart is editor at large of the New Republic and author of "The Good Fight: Why Liberals -- and Only Liberals -- Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again." He will take questions today at 2 p.m. athttp://www.washingtonpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity