How Do Historians Evaluate the Administration of Harry Truman?

History Q & A

Mr. Hamby is Distinguished Professor of History at Ohio University.

Harry Truman remains a controversial president. Revisionist scholars condemn his decision to pursue a Cold War with the Soviet Union and deride his failure to secure passage of most of his wide-ranging Fair Deal social program. Many others, myself among them, believe that containment of the Evil Empire was a necessity, that Truman's incremental domestic achievements were substantial, and that he preserved the liberal-internationalist identity of the Democratic party. Surveys of presidential achievement usually place him well within the top ten and rate him a"near-great." Truman was an intelligent, well-read man, if not much of a speaker nor especially quick on the draw in the question-and-answer formats so prized in today's politics. His achievement was the result of wide and varied experience, a measured decisiveness, an allegiance to his party, a guiding ideology, and a transcendent sense of the public interest.


Before taking up politics as a profession, Truman was a construction crew pay clerk, a farmer, a failed small businessman, and, in World War I, a combat artilleryman. In civilian life, he worked hard for low returns and experienced personally the way in which economic trends beyond one's control could destroy the dreams of small enterprisers up against deep-pocketed corporations. In war, he saw good men killed randomly, hoped that his own artillery barrages had the same effect on the other side, and in later years believed that he would have been killed if the conflict had lasted much longer.

As a semi-independent machine politician and chief executive of Missouri's largest county for eight years, he walked a narrow and difficult line between, on the one hand, the corrupt patronage-jobbing and contract rigging that was a routine part of his political world and, on the other, a record of personal honesty and substantial achievement. A U.S. senator for ten years, he made himself an important figure wise in the ways of Washington. Along the way, he took a lot of hard knocks and won some praise, but above all, he learned a lot about human nature, fate, risk, and the tactics of political survival.


Truman liked to think of himself as a firm decision-maker, and the record of his presidency is filled with monumental decisions that still reverberate throughout our lives: the use of the atomic bomb to end World War II; just four years later, the authorization of a hydrogen bomb project; the containment of Soviet ambitions in Western Europe and the Middle East; the recognition of Israel; the desegregation of the armed forces; the Korean War; the firing of General MacArthur. There is a popular tendency to think of him as a quick-tempered man who arrived at such policies after a few moments of consideration and never looked back. In fact, he made these choices only after wide consultation and, in some cases, long periods of indecision. Angry outbursts on trivial matters such as unfavorable reviews of daughter Margaret's concerts were another matter, erupting impulsively but without significance for the national interest.


Truman was raised as a partisan Democrat. He never discarded an intense attachment to his party affiliation, but over the years he shed the Southern, states rights, racist attitudes that had been part and parcel of that identity in his youth. Inspired by the progressivism of William Jennings Bryan and Woodrow Wilson, he became an"insurgent progressive" Democrat reflexively hostile to big business and finance, while advocating the interests of"working people," whom he defined broadly as farmers, blue-collar workers, and small businessmen. In the 1930s it was natural enough for him to add to that outlook Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The party and its tradition, as he interpreted it, provided a powerful core of support and an effective platform from which he could advocate foreign and domestic policies that possessed persuasive claims to the legacies of Wilson and FDR. Party regulars at least those outside the South responded enthusiastically to his personality and the appeal it embodied.


Truman's partisan commitments did not prevent him from enjoying cordial working relationships with many Republicans at all stages of his career. He realized that the partisan/ideological divide was bridgeable on large issues of public interest. As a county executive, he was the favorite Democratic office holder of the Kansas City Republican business establishment, which supported his efforts at honest, efficient administration. As a U.S. senator, he enjoyed good, mutually supportive relations with many moderate to progressive Republican colleagues. As president, he achieved most of his foreign policy successes with GOP support, most memorably symbolized by Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan. Partisan politics, he liked to say, stopped at the nation's shores.

Among the most partisan of presidents, Truman nonetheless grasped the limitations of partisanship. Among the least charismatic, he embodied the importance of a guiding ideology. Few of his predecessors had sprung from more common roots; perhaps none of them learned more from the unpromising origins they surmounted. Courtesey of TomPaine.com

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