By Dave Kopel
Boulder County Democrats. May 26, 2004. Longmont, Colorado
Let me begin with the number one priority of everyone in Boulder County, of any political party, the central focus of all our attention: health, exercise, and nutrition. What was President Truman’s nutrition and exercise routine, which helped ensure that even though he was in his sixties when he became President, he never lacked the mental and physical stamina for the job? His exercise routine was to start each day by drinking a shot of bourbon, and then walking two miles, in military time at 15 minutes per mile.
Walking at the military cadence came naturally to Truman.
Unlike George Bush, Harry Truman volunteered for two terms as a member of Missouri National Guard. Not only that, he performed all of his National Guard service during the time when he was supposed to.
Unlike George Bush, as young man, Harry Truman devoured history books. He carefully studied the lives of great Democrat Presidents such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Grover Cleveland. He recalled, "In reading the lives of great men, I found that the first victory they won was over themselves... self-discipline with all of them came first."
When the United States entered World War One in 1917, Harry Truman, age 33, was beyond the age of being eligible for the draft. Yet he volunteered for the U.S. Army. He took command of an artillery company filled with what he called “wild Irishmen.” The company had driven off four previous commanders, and greeted their new captain with a Bronx cheer.
Yet Truman’s combination of firmness, fairness, and friendliness brought them under his control. He led them through the major battles of Saint Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne without a fatality. The men of the artillery company idolized their "Captain Harry" and forever after were his loyal friends and supporters.
After returning from the war, Truman married his high school sweetheart, Bess Wallace, whom he called "my sweetheart" or "the Boss."
He loved Bess, but he never loved the White House, which he called "the Great White Jail." He never loved Washington, D.C., either. He once advised, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." He served as Senator and as President because of his devotion to his country, not because of a personal lust for power.
Truman often said, "Three things can ruin a man -- money, power, and women. I never had any money; I never wanted power; and the only woman in my life is up at the house right now."
Truman had entered politics as a county commissioner. He was supported by the Pendergast machine, which ran the politics in nearby Kansas City. While Truman respected the need for party loyalty and patronage, he refused to support graft, and he ensured that county contracts went to the lowest bidder.
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1934, he became one of the dozen hard-working and forward-looking Senators who set the agenda for the rest of the body. He explained, "I remember when I first came to Washington. For the first six months you wonder how the hell you ever got here. For the next six months you wonder how the hell the rest of them ever got here."
As United States military spending increased, Truman received letters from home about the corruption and waste in the construction of Fort Leonard Wood. In 1941, with no support from the Roosevelt administration, Truman put together a Senate committee to investigate waste, fraud, and abuse in military spending. The Truman Committee saved the American taxpayers over 15 billion dollars—or about 180 billion in today’s money.
In 1944, Truman was elected vice-president, as Franklin Roosevelt won an unprecedented fourth term. On April 12, 1945, Franklin Roosevelt died. Harry Truman told reporters that he felt as if “the moon, the stars, and all the planets” had just fallen on him, and he asked the reporters to pray for him.
President Truman proposed a broad civil rights program in 1948. It was not enacted, but it set the agenda for future progress. When President Truman had the power to act unilaterally to protect civil rights, he did so. In 1948, he ordered the desegregation of the U.S. military. In 1951, he signed an executive order requiring non-discrimination in government contracts.
The Truman administration had no pollsters, because Truman knew that leadership is not the same as popularity. He once remarked "I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he’d taken a poll in Egypt." He accurately said, "A President cannot always be popular."
Another thing that the Truman administration did not have was a credibility gap. Truman said exactly what he meant, and meant what he said. One of his biographies was appropriately titled "Plain Speaking."
As President in the final year of World War Two, and the first years of the Cold War and the Korean War, President Truman shouldered a very heavy burden. He carried the burden well, because he kept his sense of humor, and never took himself too seriously. He said, "My choice early in life was either to be a piano-player in a whorehouse or a politician. And to tell the truth, there's hardly any difference."
The post-war reconstruction of Japan and Germany was one of the greatest all-time triumphs of American foreign policy. While Stalin’s Soviet Union pillaged East Germany and turned it into an oppressed colony with no freedom, Harry Truman’s America appealed to the best instincts of the West Germans, and led them in building a free society. Today, Japan and Germany are members of the democratic community of nations, and never have they threatened the peace of the world. No man deserves more credit for this transformation than Harry Truman.
The Marshall Plan was begun in 1947, providing massive foreign aid for the reconstruction of Europe, which had been devastated by World War II. The Marshall Plan restored hope and helped Western Europe regain its self-sufficiency.
In June 1948, Stalin cut off land access to West Berlin, hoping to starve the free city into submission. President Truman responded with the Berlin Airlift, which for the next sixteen months brought food, coal, and other necessities to the beleaguered people of West Berlin.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in 1949, building an enduring alliance between Western Europe and the United States, and ensuring that Western Europe would stay on the democratic course. It was the Truman policies which prevented another world war in Europe, by deterring Soviet invasion.
In 1950, the North Korean army, under the command of the barbaric tyrant Kim Il-Sung, the father of North Korea’s current tyrant, invaded South Korea, and swiftly occupied nearly the entire country, except for a small area in the southeast. President Truman responded decisively, and it is because of what Truman did in 1950 that South Korea is free today.
From the Truman administration until the demise of the Soviet Union, American foreign policy under Democratic and Republicans Presidents mostly followed the containment policy created by the Truman administration. The Truman policy avoided direct war to eliminate the Soviet regime; containment was based on the correct understanding that if the Soviet empire could not expand, it would eventually collapse from its internal contradictions.
Truman’s tremendous upset re-election victory in 1948 offers two important lessons for modern Democrats:
First, a third party won’t necessarily prevent the Democrat from winning. As the Democratic nominee, Truman faced the double challenge of a walk-out from both extreme wings of the party. South Carolina’s Democratic Governor Strom Thurmond led a Southern white racist walk-out because of the strong civil rights plank in the 1948 Democratic platform.
When a reporter told Thurmond, "President Truman is only following the platform which President Roosevelt advocated," Thurmond answered, "I agree, but Truman really means it."
Former Vice-President Henry Wallace ran his own third-party campaign, appealing to voters who foolishly viewed Josef Stalin as a progressive rather than a genocidal madman.
Thurmond captured 4 southern states with 39 electoral votes. Wallace did not win any states, but he took enough votes away from Truman to give New York’s 47 electoral votes to Republican Thomas Dewey. Wallace also may have given Dewey the 8 electoral votes of Maryland.
Yet despite losing nearly a hundred electoral votes because of third and fourth parties which were designed to hurt the Democrats, Harry Truman won anyway.
Truman also won despite opinion polls which seemed to guarantee that he would lose. The final pre-election Gallup Poll predicted a 5 point Dewey win in the popular vote. In fact, Truman won the popular vote by 5 percent.
Gallup relied on telephone polling, which failed to capture the opinions of the very poor. And Gallup incorrectly predicted that undecided voters would stay home. In fact, the undecideds broke for Truman—contrary to conventional wisdom that undecideds tend to break against the incumbent.
Today, the pollsters will tell you that they’ve corrected the 1948 flaws. But today, at least a third of people who are contacted by pollsters—and sometimes a much larger percentage—refuse to answer. Pollsters almost never disclose this "non-response rate," but modern non-response rates are so enormous that any polling should be taken with many grains of salt.
So remember President Truman’s warning about what he called "sleeping polls." Those sleeping polls, he said, "are bad for the system. They affect the mind and the body. An overdose could be fatal--can so affect your mind that your body will be too lazy to go to the polls on election day." As President Truman said, the only poll that counts is on election day.
From Truman’s retirement in 1953, corporations began offering him high-paying positions to serve on Boards of Directors. We know that Gerald Ford, after leaving the White House, made a fabulous amount of money as a showpiece corporate director. Former President Truman, though, rejected every offer. He said, "You don't want me. You want the office of the president, and that doesn't belong to me. It belongs to the American people, and it is not for sale."
President Truman's reputation languished for a while in retirement, in part because he was overshadowed by the glamour of the Kennedy years.
But after the dishonesty of the Nixon administration tore the country apart, Americans began to remember the virtues of the Man from Independence. During Nixon’s first Presidential run, in 1960, Truman had accurately observed that "Nixon is one of the few in the history of this country to run for high office talking out of both sides of his mouth at the same time and lying out of both sides." He also noted that if Nixon "ever caught himself telling the truth, he'd lie just to keep his hand in."
In 1974, the year that the scurrilous Nixon was finally forced to resign, the pop band Chicago brought out a new hit song, "America needs you, Harry Truman." The song concluded, "Harry is there something we can do to save the land we love?"
Well, yes there is. The thing to do is elect more people like Harry Truman.
As historian Robert H. Ferrell summarized, "His indefatigable energy despite his age, his innate modesty that allowed for judgment without involving personal feelings, and his invincible pride in his country carried him forward despite the confusions of his time."
America will always need great leaders like Harry Truman—honest, courageous, and dedicated to American freedom—a True Man who was America’s greatest leader in foreign policy, and who should forever be remembered as one of the Democratic Party’s greatest gifts to the United States of America.