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Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Truman Story

I imagine it seems I'm getting all political on you, despite my earlier claim that I'm really not interested. What can I say? For one thing, it is election season; also, I'm trying to fill in my gaps in modern history so that I can feel (and actually be) a little more competent at work. I confess, I am decidedly unhappy about the lack of literary creativity or stimulation in my life over the last month. I'm still trying to figure out a routine, and while I've worked polyphony back into it, poetry, literature and writing are getting lost in my efforts to find chairs, trashcans and grocery stores. In a fit of desperation I starting researching grad school again yesterday -- it's even more expensive now than when I decided it cost too much two years ago. Go figure. So the only course of action is to continue with my slow but steady reading of The Idiot; I don't think I'm far enough along yet to say anything particularly worth saying, but I'll let you know if any momentous revelations occur.

History, of course, is a little bit like literature, especially when you've got a good historian to read. I spent some time last week becoming better acquainted with Truman's character and administration. As it turns out, he wrote quite a bit himself: "It was his habit, throughout his life, to keep private notes or diaries in which he let off steam and wrote away his frustrations" (Johnson, 796). He also wrote a number of letters to his wife in which, like in his journals, he was quite frank in expressing his opinions of the politicians working around him.

Truman with his daughter, Margaret, and his wife, Bess.

I think he and I would have gotten on pretty well. Besides the noteworthy accomplishments of his administration, such as rescuing post-WWII Europe from starvation and economic collapse, he was a virtuous man who really did fight for the little guy, stayed poor rather than profiting from corrupt political schemes (797: "The most meticulous research has not uncovered any examples of Truman himself profiting from all the easy opportunities open to him"), and helped cement in American foreign policy the notion that powerful nations should contribute to and defend the welfare of weaker nations. I am aware that that last principle has led to some rather controversial events, and that many Americans believe in a more isolationist approach than that which results from such an idea, but I think of it in terms of bad things happening when good men stand idly by. Also, if you see a bad thing happening and it is in your power to stop it or at least attempt to prevent it, and yet you do nothing, you become complicit in the action and share in the guilt of the offender. So yes, I support the Truman Doctrine: "I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressure" (811).

Serious Baby.
Earnest Boy.
Dreaming-of-Visions Man.

 I suppose the most controversial event of his presidency is the bombing of Japan. Like many people, I'm still not sure what I think of that, but Paul Johnson makes a good case that seems to come down in defense of the decision, mostly based on a common argument that dropping the A-bombs actually killed fewer people than would have died if the war had continued as it was going. If you're interested in reading what he has to say in more detail, he has a number of impressive statistics, among other things, that might illuminate your understanding of the situation. Look at pages 800-804.

I must confess, I was especially enamored of him (Yeah, enamored. I said it.) by this passage from his journals, written in the early 1930s: "Some day we'll awake, have a reformation of the heart, teach our kids honor and kill a few sex psychologists, put boys in high schools with men teachers (not cissies), close all the girls' finishing schools, shoot all the efficiency experts and become a nation of God's people once more" (794). Politically correct? Well, not really. Totally kick-ass? Absotively.

If you were left unhappy with the extremism of that last paragraph, comfort yourself with the remembrance that we also credit Truman with finally reversing America's "friendly" stance with Stalin. I know FDR was probably pretty worn out and maybe not thinking clearly by the time the 1940s rolled around, but this is a "slip-up" of his I have a hard time forgiving. "Truman, unlike FDR, had no illusion about Communism or the nature of the Soviet regime. From the start, he had seen both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia as two hideous totalitarian systems. . . . Writing to his wife Bess immediately after American entered the war, he told her that Stalin was 'as untrustworthy as Hitler or Al Capone'" (804).

I hope I've convinced you by now that you should read Paul Johnson. Time for lunch (side-note: I am hungry ALL THE TIME these days. I've also developed a recent and intense appreciation for whole milk and butter.)

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