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Unexpected Greatness—the presidencies of Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower

Who would have guessed? Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower rated among our greatest presidents? The latest poll among historians has Truman ranked sixth and Eisenhower seventh on the short list of presidential greatness. Surprising? Yes, especially when considering the state of their reputations upon leaving office. Never perceived as being truly “presidential,” Truman’s popularity was a lowly 32 percent, his act as plainspoken everyman having worn thin in the closing days of his administration. While Eisenhower’s was considerably higher, at 60 percent, he was widely perceived as a grandfatherly do-nothing chief executive who spent more time on the golf course than in the Oval Office. Interestingly, both were political moderates, and grew up in the midwest within 150 miles of each other. The following is an overview of their achievements as our 33rd and 34th presidents.

HARRY S. TRUMAN (1945 - 1953) After his party’s blistering defeat in the 1946 mid-term elections, Harry S. Truman decided it was time to stop being Mr. Nice Guy and trying to please everyone. “I think the proper thing to do . . . is to do what I think is right and let them all go to hell,” he said. The result was like being issued a get-out-of-jail pass. Truman was free to be himself—honest, blunt, plainspoken—to give as good as he got in the political arena. More importantly, he was free to pursue a course he thought best for the nation, rather than for his party; free to conduct a presidential campaign that—despite long odds—would see him reelected in a stunning upset, and free to pursue a course that would see him become—despite even longer odds—one of our greatest presidents.

You could say Harry Truman was dealt a bad hand upon taking office as president, after the sudden death of Franklin Roosevelt.

Neither FDR nor the White House staff had prepared Truman for what lay in store—thrust unexpectedly into office as a wartime president. The war in Europe was nearing an end, while the war with Japan continued unabated with no end in sight. Incredibly, Truman was unaware of the atomic bomb. His first 100 days in office were unlike that of any president before or since. He took office in April, saw Germany surrender in May, met with Churchill and Stalin in Pottsdam in July to discuss postwar arrangements, and in August ordered the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The decision to drop nuclear bombs was the most controversial decision of his presidency, and is second-guessed to this day. The decision was based on saving the lives of American soldiers (estimates range from 100,000 to half-a-million lives), and Japanese civilian lives (one million or more), should U.S. ground troops have to invade Japan, which seemed the only alternative to ending the war. The decision to drop the atomic bomb prompted Japan’s immediate and unconditional surrender.

Truman’s second year was nearly as fraughtful. Stalin was not about to give up the territory his army occupied, from Poland south to the Balkans, in what Churchill described as an “Iron Curtain” dividing Europe. It was a bad time for Truman, as his biographer David MaCullough has pointed out. “To the press and an increasing proportion of the country, he seemed bewildered and equivocating, incapable of a clear or positive policy toward the Russians.” In the mid-term elections, the Republicans took back both the House and the Senate. Truman was down but not out. “Nobody but a damn fool would have the job (of president) in the first place,” he lamented. “But I’ve got it damn fool or no and have to do as best I can.” The plaque on his desk said it all: The Buck Stops Here.

Over the next two years, Truman set a course that would define his presidency, and that of the nation for the next half century. To contain the Russians, he created the Truman Doctrine, a policy of supplying aid to countries resisting Soviet advancements. He urged his secretary of state, George Marshall, to outline a plan—later known as the Marshall Plan—to provide the financing necessary to rebuild Western Europe and prevent further Communist influence there. When the Soviets blocked access to West Berlin he ordered an airdrop of vital food and supplies that enabled the beleaguered city to remain democratic and free until the Soviets reopened access to the West. And when the nations of Western Europe began to recognize the need for a military network of mutual support, he backed the formation of NATO. Indeed, World War III seemed to beckon at every turn, but Truman remained cool, and let his Containment Policy keep the Russians in check. The result—cold war instead of hot war.

Truman faced a mountain of difficulties at home as well, with labor unrest (including a national railroad strike), a shortage of consumer goods, inflation at over 14 percent in 1947, and an economy struggling to regain its footing after the slowdown produced by the end of the war. Truman’s approval rating, sky high at 87 percent when he took office, plummeted to 36 percent in 1948, and it was widely believed that he didn’t stand a chance of beating Republican Thomas Dewey in the election that year. Truman complained bitterly, but the truth was he loved a political fight, and relished beating opponents who had repeatedly underestimated him. He embarked on a relentless whistle-stop campaign that took him from one end of the country to the other and resulted in his narrow victory over Dewey. The Democrats also regained both houses of Congress. Vindicated, an exuberant Truman held up an early edition of the Chicago Tribune that proved the pundits wrong. The headline read: “Dewey Beats Truman.”

Truman’s renewed popularity was short-lived. As with nearly all presidents elected to a second term, he would find his job even more difficult (if that were possible) and the political attacks ever more brutal. He began his second term promising a Fair Deal for all Americans, including universal health care, an increase in the minimum wage, increased funding for education, and equal protection under the law for all Americans, regardless of race. Some of this agenda was enacted, taking significant steps to ban racial discrimination in federal hiring, desegregate the military, and raise the minimum wage, but falling short in other goals. When a strike by steelworkers persuaded Truman to take over the companies involved, he was overruled in the courts. It proved to be one of the biggest blunders of his presidency. When Korea erupted in armed conflict, Truman saw the Communist influence in the North as a threat to the entire region. To stem the tide he sent in U.S. ground forces. When the popular General Douglas MacArthur publicly resisted Truman’s order not to pursue the enemy across the 38th Parallel, Truman fired him for disobedience. Later, to his chagrin, he watched as MacArthur was given a hero’s reception in Congress and a ticker-tape parade down Broadway in Lower Manhattan. For a man of Truman’s pride and sense of decency, it surely was a bitter pill to swallow. Truman left Washington as a bitter and quickly forgotten man.

DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER (1953 - 1961) General Eisenhower, who led the allies to victory in Europe, was an incredibly popular man following World War II. Both parties wanted him as their presidential candidate. Eisenhower (who had never voted in a presidential election) chose the party of his parents—the Republican Party. One of his campaign staffers came up with a slogan that captured the mood of American voters: “I Like Ike.” The Cold War and the threat of a nuclear holocaust touched American fears, but with a much-revered and much-loved five-star general in the White House there was hope for a lasting peace. Eisenhower confirmed that hope by bringing a negotiated settlement to the Korean War and by opening a dialogue with the Soviet Union. While most Americans didn’t realize it at the time, he kept American ground troops out of Vietnam when the French were losing their hold on Southeast Asia and seeking U.S. involvement. Ike knew—the jungles of Vietnam were no place for American boys to be fighting.

In 1957, when the Soviets launched Sputnik, Eisenhower authorized the creation of NASA, to beat the Soviet Union in the race to the moon. At the same time, he anticipated the vigorous attempts at nuclear disarmament that would follow his presidency, in part through the Atoms for Peace initiative, which promoted nuclear power for peaceful purposes, while amplifying the need for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. On the domestic front, Eisenhower reduced the federal deficit, in part by slashing the massive military spending. The savings he achieved enabled him to launch the Interstate Highway System, which authorized $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways.

Hanging over the Eisenhower presidency in its first two years was the question of what to do about the red-baiting Senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy, whose quest for publicity and destroying careers knew no limit. Rather than confront him head-on—and risk a war of words and who knew what else—Eisenhower decided to wait him out, believing the unconscionable bully would go too far and destroy all credibility—which is what he did, on camera, with the nation watching.

Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren as Supreme Court chief justice never dreaming Warren would do what he did—make an immediate push for a unanimous decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education. It was too much too soon for the nation to accept, Eisenhower believed. He was wrong, as the polls revealed—51 percent of the public were in favor of Court’s decision. When the High Court urged the nation to go slowly, Eisenhower was relieved. Without question, his feeling towards the civil rights movement was decidedly lukewarm. Nonetheless, he showed presidential leadership by sending federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, to protect nine African American children who were integrating a school there. On his watch, the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 were passed in Congress.

Eisenhower signed off on coups in Iran and Guatemala that were sanctioned by the U.S., one a Pyrrhic victory in Iran, the other intended to topple an elected, legitimate government in Guatemala. Neither action was necessary to “stop Communism” as it turned out, and both led to unforeseen upheavals that at the very least called U.S. foreign policy into question. Eisenhower also authorizing U-2 spy missions over the Soviet Union at a time when talks of a test ban treaty with Khrushchev were in the the planning stages. The downing of a U-2 spy plane scuttled the talks.

Eisenhower felt unfulfilled when he left office, due to the downing of the U-2 spy plane that stopped a possible arms agreement with Russia. After that “he saw nothing worthwhile left for him to do . . . until the end of his presidency.” Unfulfilled or not, his approval rating was a hefty 60 percent when he left office.

Eisenhower’s greatest achievement, perhaps, was keeping the nation out of war. Which brings us to the next installment: Undeclared War and Three Presidents—Kennedy, Johnson, & Nixon.

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