Here and there – A different kind of president
Harry S Truman was substantially raised in a farm in Missouri. His family were simple decent people who shared in the life of their community. His mother would live to see him become President. He was educated at the local school in an undistinguished way, except that very poor eyesight meant that he wore glasses, and the he was taught to play the piano.
Then, when Harry was about seventeen, his father went broke after risky trading. (Young Harry won on a horse at 25 to 1 and did not bet on a horse again for 25 years.) Harry had to go to work to support the family. One job was in construction on the railroad – ten hours a day, six days a week, $30 a month plus board. He learned about all kinds of profanity from altogether a different class of person. ‘A very-down-to earth education.’ He learned how to get on with the men, and they responded in kind. ‘He’s all right from his asshole out in every direction.’ He learned to keep it simple. One night groping in the dark he ran right into a pump. The next day, he painted the pump white.
When the U S got into the Great War, Harry was medically unfit and his family relied on him. He was about to marry. He memorised the sight test and joined up. His troops elected him as an officer. He told Bess she would wait for him to come back to marry in case he did not. Harry put duty above personal interest. Always. This was ‘a job somebody had to do.’
In four months on the Somme, the Germans lost more than both sides in the entire U S civil war. Harry received intense training which he had to pass on. He was terrified when he first had to address his troops. But he was the boss. ‘I didn’t come here to get along with you. You’ve got to get along with me.’ For their first engagement, they arrived in pitch dark at 3 am, the rain pouring down, and men and horses exhausted. Harry lost twenty pounds when learning how to lead and look after men in the horror of war.
When he got back home, Harry went into business selling high end men’s wear, and he became heavily involved with the Masons. That business went broke, and he had to pay off its debts. The local Missouri Democrat machine was run by the Prendergasts – like English lords of the 18th century. With their patronage, Harry went into politics and got into the Senate. His personal loyalty meant that he felt obliged to stand by his patrons even when that did not suit him politically –as when their chief drew heavy jail time. Then Harry felt that his career was over – but he hung on and recovered. Harry had not ducked for cover. (His opponent took a hit when it was learned that his chauffeur was required to give him a military salute.)
Harry made his name in the Senate inquiring into corrupt practices. He attacked Wall Street and the larger danger of money worship. He told Bess: ‘It will probably catalogue me as a radical, but it will be what I think.’ He was repelled by ‘wild greed’ and showed the traditional Missouri suspicion of concentrated power and the East.
How these gentlemen, the highest of the high hats in the legal profession resort to tricks that would make an ambulance chaser in a coroner’s court blush with shame?…..We worship money instead of honour. A billionaire, in our estimation, is much greater in these days in the eyes of the people than the public servant who works for public interest. It makes no difference if the billionaire rode to the wealth on the sweat of little children and the blood of underpaid labour. No one ever considered Carnegie libraries steeped in the blood of the Homestead steel-workers, but they are. We do not remember that the Rockefeller is founded on the dead miners of Colorado Fuel & Iron….People can only stand so much, and one of these days there will be a settlement….
Had the world heard anything like this since Lloyd George in 1909? We hear nothing like it now. Even if you could find someone who had those beliefs, they would be too scared to voice them.
When World War II came to the U S, Harry wanted to volunteer. Marshall told him he was too old. Harry admired Marshall above all others.
Truman hated McCarthy – as did Ike – but he refused to play dirty.
You must not ask the President of the United States to get down in the gutter with a guttersnipe. Nobody, not even the President of the United States, can approach too close to a skunk, in skunk territory, and expect to get anything out of it except a bad smell.
When Roosevelt died, Churchill was saddened, but he soon came to appreciate Truman. ‘He takes no notice of delicate ground, he just plants his foot down firmly upon it.’ He had no trouble dropping the bomb – to save American lives. He surrounded himself with men of the highest calibre – Marshall, Acheson and implementing the Marshall Plan, this veteran of the First World War reversed the two deadliest mistakes of the Allies at the end of the First. He repudiated nationalism, embraced and saved Europe, and helped secure three generations of comparative peace under a rules based order anchored on the stability and integrity of the United States.
By applying immense concentration and diligence, Truman made decisions such as those, and on Israel, Korea and Macarthur that others may have ducked. He did not seek personal praise. David McCullough said that more ‘than once in his presidency, Truman would be remembered saying it was remarkable how much could be accomplished if you didn’t care who received the credit.’
In January 1952, when I was six years of age, Churchill dined with Truman and leading members of his government.
The last time you and I sat across the conference table was at Potsdam, Mr President. I must confess, sir, I held you in very low regard then. I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt. I misjudged you badly. Since that time, you more than any other man have saved Western civilisation.
Well, if you are a bona fide big hitter – and these two plainly were – you are entitled to make statements as large as that one.
Two of the biggest decisions this great man took were the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan and the decision to fire Macarthur. The two may be related. Macarthur had wanted to drop thirty to fifty atomic bombs on Manchuria and the mainland cities of China. If Truman had not prevailed, we might not be here.
But the comparison with the present White House is enough to make a man cry.