Truman Nature

Good morning, it’s Thursday, August 10, 2017. Sixty-eight years ago today, President Truman signed the National Security Act Amendments of 1949, the law formally creating the Department of Defense and requiring the military service secretaries to report to an overall chief.

In a minimalist signing statement released by the White House, Truman groused about “new and cumbersome restrictions” imposed by Congress regarding appointments to the National Security Council. The same night, Truman penned a grudging letter of thanks to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower for serving in an interim basis as the first chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Although it was only nine months after his dramatic come-from-behind win against Thomas Dewey, Truman was in a crabby mood. It turned out that winning the presidency in his own right didn’t lessen the weighty demands of the office.

In the run-up to the 1946 midterm elections, Harry Truman was so unpopular that Democratic Party Chairman Robert Hannegan asked the incumbent Democratic president to stay off the campaign trail.

“To err is Truman” went the gleeful Republican pun.

In a sense, he was a fall guy. Truman had been president for only 18 months, but his party had ruled Capitol Hill for 16 years, and voters were restive. The GOP’s strategy was summed up in a succinct two-sentence slogan comprised of only four words: “Had enough? Vote Republican.”

Americans did just that. Election night 1946 was a disaster for Democrats. Republicans picked up 55 seats in the House and a dozen in the Senate, taking control of Congress for the first time since before the Great Depression.

Demoralized, Truman made overtures to Eisenhower to run for president in his stead — as a Democrat. Ike didn’t avail himself of this career path, not in 1948, anyway, and Truman ran himself. Once in the race, though, “Little Harry” was all-in.

Running a spirited and highly partisan campaign, this creature of Capitol Hill went on the warpath against his old institution, denouncing the perfidy and laziness of the “Do-Nothing Congress.”

This characterization was nonsense. As I’ve noted before in this space, the 80th Congress created the Air Force, the CIA, and the Cabinet-level position of secretary of defense; funded every element of the Truman Doctrine, including the Marshall Plan; and enacted Taft-Hartley, which Truman denounced but used readily to curb strikes in the steel industry and other sectors.

The defense structures Congress set up in 1947 proved awkward, however, and the legislation Truman signed into law on this date in 1949 was the corrective. But in his session with reporters the following day, Truman didn’t seem too happy about it, or about having to thank Eisenhower for his help on it.

Truman did seem slightly appreciative of one off-the-wall inquiry from a reporter whose name is lost to posterity. This denizen of the Fourth Estate implied in his question that the president’s heavy-handed approach to the steel strikes in America portended Soviet-style economics in the United States. The brief exchange, which induced chuckles from other reporters, went like this:

Q: “Mr. President, do you think we are on the last mile on the back road to collectivism?”

THE PRESIDENT: “What’s that? Say that again. It sounded funny to me.”

Q: “Do you think that we are on the last mile on the back road to collectivism?”

THE PRESIDENT: “I don’t know what that is, but I don’t think so.”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics

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