Wild About Harry

Remember when Republicans loved Harry Truman? Me neither.

AFP/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

One of the hardy staples of neoconservative rhetoric is to invoke a golden age of foreign policy. This was an era, so we are told, when Democratic presidents were respected by Republicans for pursuing a tough foreign policy that vanished after the Vietnam War transformed them into a bunch of cowering wussbags. Exhibit A is Harry Truman, the Democratic president who first waged the Cold War and oversaw the creation of NATO.

So Mitt Romney was right on script during his Oct. 8 speech at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) when he extolled Truman’s secretary of state, George Marshall, himself a VMI graduate. Romney drew a direct parallel between the upheaval in the Middle East and the early days of the Cold War. According to the Republican presidential nominee, "We have seen this struggle before. It would be familiar to George Marshall. In his time, in the ashes of world war, another critical part of the world was torn between democracy and despotism. Fortunately, we had leaders of courage and vision, both Republicans and Democrats, who knew that America had to support friends who shared our values and prevent today’s crises from becoming tomorrow’s conflicts."

This is nostalgic flapdoodle. Yes, there were some prominent Republicans, such as Michigan Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, who abandoned isolationism and opted for bipartisanship after World War II. At the time, however, most viewed the now-sainted Truman with contempt and loathing. The postwar Republican Party was mostly divided between two camps. The first consisted of recalcitrant isolationists led by Sen. Robert Taft, who complained that America should come home and was doing too much during the Cold War. The second was a spluttering "rollback" wing in the Senate that said the country wasn’t doing nearly enough to stop communism. The wing’s bête noire was containment. It wasn’t enough to contain Moscow, the wing said. Containment was a counsel of despair, defeat, and cowardice. It was for sissies. Instead, America had to take the fight directly to the Reds and roll back communism once and for all.

This latter faction won out. It excoriated the Truman administration as a bunch of appeasers. In reality, Truman’s advisors consisted of realists such as Dean Acheson and George Kennan who believed in military strength but were wary of missionary crusades. No matter. By the 1952 presidential campaign, Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower was decrying the Truman administration’s passivity and endorsing rollback (though he switched gears once he entered the Oval Office). As Douglas Brinkley reports in his biography, Dean Acheson, it was John Foster Dulles who inserted a plank in the 1952 Republican platform announcing that "the government of the United States, under Republican leadership, will repudiate all commitments contained in secret understandings such as those of Yalta which aid Communist enslavement."

Such nonsense is the direct lineal ancestor of the kind of hypertrophied rhetoric emanating from Republicans currently advising Romney. Indeed, the charges that are being lodged against President Barack Obama — that he is a supine and feckless appeaser of China, Russia, and America’s Islamist adversaries — were once advanced against Truman — only he was supposed to be a supine and feckless appeaser only of the first two.

Not only did the right allege that the U.S. government was riddled with communist spies, but it maintained that these hidden Reds prompted Franklin D. Roosevelt to give away the store at Yalta to Joseph Stalin in 1945 and that they were sapping efforts to halt the advance of the commies in Asia. The most extreme attacks, of course, came from Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who accused none other than Marshall of marching "side by side" with Stalin after World War II.

But fulminations about the perfidy of the Truman administration were, of course, hardly confined to McCarthy. On the contrary, an entire senatorial phalanx of Republicans denounced Truman and his advisors, earning those Republicans the sobriquet "the primitives" from Acheson. Truman, as Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas noted in The Wise Men, referred to them privately as "animals." This unsavory cast of characters included Karl Mundt, William Knowland, Kenneth Wherry, William Jenner, and Styles Bridges. They were obsessed with the idea that Truman was trying to sell out China to the communists. Knowland was called the "senator from Formosa" for his passionate defenses of the Nationalists and their corrupt leader, Chiang Kai-shek.

When Acheson told legislators in 1949, for example, that the Chinese Civil War would have to end before the administration could draw up new policies, Wherry, the Republican Senate minority leader, went into paroxysms about what he saw as defeatism, stating that it was "common knowledge" that Acheson had been "considered as one who has gone along with the appeasement policy toward Russia." Bridges said Acheson was destroying "the valiant efforts of the Chinese Nationalists to keep at least a part of China free."

The case of Alger Hiss triggered a fresh wave of indignation, prompting Mundt to declare that Hiss, with his "Harvard accent," had almost single-handedly brought about the "entire subjugation of China by Communist forces directed from Moscow." Meanwhile, then-Senator Richard Nixon decried Acheson’s "cowardly communist college of containment" (though he would end up soliciting Acheson’s advice at the White House during the Vietnam War and embracing détente with the Kremlin). Nixon himself came under siege from the hard right and neocons, who accused him of failing to stand up for human rights in the Soviet Union and of betraying American ideals. Ronald Reagan entered office with a big military buildup but was accused of subverting American security when he signed sweeping arms-control agreements with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Again and again, the right has gone into high dudgeon over the perfidy of America’s elites, and just as often it has been wrong. Far from comity and bipartisanship being the norm, the right has been relentlessly searching for internal subversion and foes abroad.

So the next time you hear Romney waxing nostalgic about the past, ask yourself a simple question: Who is the true heir of Truman? Is it the hysterical neocons and nationalist conservatives clustered around Romney who denounce the idea of containing Iran and want to go mano a mano with China and Russia? Or is it, in fact, Obama, who has embraced cautious, realist policies?

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