It's a bit long but a required history lesson.
At the time he left office in January 1953, so toxic that most of his party had shunned him, no one could imagine that Harry S. Truman, common-man heir to a great wartime president, would one day be claimed by both major parties, each of them longing to be just like him.
Despising George Bush, and enraged by the left, which is trying to purge them, the liberal hawks are making their stand with and through Harry, to prove they are manly without being macho, and nuanced and caring without being wimps. Harry, they claim, was strong, but so gentle; a leader, but always deferring to others; moral and mighty yet multilateral, just as they are in their fantasies. Peter Beinart claims in his book The Good Fight that only liberal hawks such as Harry can bring national greatness, a view warmly endorsed by Joe Klein in a New York Times review that flogs it with vigor.
Emery discusses a number of 'myths' that these liberal hawks and grown around Truman:
Myth number one might be called the Liberal Fallacy--the belief that Harry Truman, and Franklin Roosevelt before him, were not just liberals who made good foreign policy, but that they made good foreign policy because they were liberals, and that thus only liberals can make good foreign policy judgments.
History records many, among them Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, who in 1943 committed a Republican caucus to Roosevelt's plan for the United Nations; in 1944 put a plank to this end in the Republican platform; in 1945 attended the conference in San Francisco at which the U.N. was founded; in 1947 was the first to pledge his support to the Truman Doctrine, suggested to Truman the bipartisan commission that helped the Marshall Plan gain its wide public acceptance, and in 1948, when the North Atlantic Treaty was believed to be in some trouble, lent his name to the bill that helped it go through. "Without Vandenberg in the Senate, the history of the postwar period might have been very different," wrote Acheson.
And then there was Ike, Harry's partner in virtue, co-architect of the Cold War world order, who lent Truman his vast stores of political capital, backed the U.N., the Truman Doctrine, and the Marshall Plan from the very beginning, and legitimized NATO by agreeing to lead its forces in Europe, much as George Washington had legitimized the Constitutional Convention.
Myth number two is the modesty gambit, the belief that the Cold War world order was built by the meek, organized around the idea that American power was too big and too brutal to unleash on a small, gentle world. Truman, according to Klein, placed "the need for American restraint and humility" at the center of all his designs. With this in mind, quoth Beinart, Truman "encased" the United States in a web of treaties that vastly curtailed its power. Thus was Washington able to convince its allies to agree to be protected by America's bombs and its armies, and to accept billions of dollars in aid. This is the lesson, so they inform us, that has been totally lost on Bush. "In Iraq, by contrast," Beinart instructs us, "Bush utterly failed to convince not merely the U.N. Security Council but most of America's democratic NATO allies that the war would really make the world safer." Not mentioned in this account is that it is easier to win friends when you are offering them protection and money (as Truman was doing in the late 1940s) than when you ask them for effort and sacrifice (as Bush did in 2002).
Myth number four is the Perfection Illusion, the fantasy that once all was well. "Remarkably, on their very first try," or so Klein informs us, "Harry Truman's liberal anti-Communists developed a global leadership strategy that was strong, sophisticated, optimistic, and humane." Well, perhaps, if you omit the word global. In Europe, the Truman Doctrine was a roaring success that stopped communism at its World War II borders, held the line (after more than a few dicey moments), and allowed Western Europe to recover from war comfortable (perhaps a little too comfortable) behind the American shield. In Asia, however, it was a disaster. Mao triumphed in China; war and then a bloody stalemate dragged on for years in Korea; and Vietnam became a catastrophe...Do not expect the subject of Asia to come up all that often in these hymns to the liberal hawks.
Above all, do not expect Korea to be brought up at all. Korea, in fact, is Iraq on steroids, a compendium of every complaint that the liberals bring against Bush and his administration: a war of choice that began with an error, that became in effect the mother of quagmires, that cost billions of dollars, killed tens of thousands, and dragged on years longer than anyone looked for, to an inconclusive and troublesome end...It was a war of choice, in that it was an invasion of a country to which the United States was not bound by treaty, but felt obliged to defend as a matter of principle.
The public turned on the war, and on Truman, whose approval ratings bottomed out at 23 percent near the end of his tenure. His presidency was widely assumed to have been a debacle. In 1952, he was shunned by his chosen successor. His country was eager to show him the door.
Liberal hawks hail Harry now that he has been cleared by the verdict of history, but what would they have said in those dark days of trial? Would they have been loyal, in real time, to the man they now look to? Or would they have bailed out on Korea and Harry, as they have now bailed out on Bush and Iraq?
If the Truman of Korea is not mentioned much by today's liberal warriors, the Truman of Japan is not mentioned at all: a relentless war leader who used power to crushing and awesome effect. In the last months of the war, to avoid an invasion of the Japanese islands, America's two greatest liberal presidents planned, executed, and blessed a campaign so completely hair-raising that the horror remains to this day. "From March to July 1945, against virtually no resistance, the B29s dropped 100,000 tons of incendiaries on sixty-six Japanese towns and cities, wiping out 170,000 square miles of closely populated streets," Paul Johnson relates in Modern Times.
[In early August], the first atom bomb hit Hiroshima, followed three days later by the bomb on Nagasaki. Two more bombs were ready for dropping, in case there had been further resistance. Truman never regretted his decision to drop them, and said he had never lost one minute's sleep.
What Truman showed here is the relentlessness he shared with Lincoln and Roosevelt; the will to do what one must to save one's people, in the knowledge that sometimes men who do not like to kill are forced and obliged to kill in great numbers, to make sure that cruel and evil regimes do not flourish and that those who like killing do not rule the earth. It is the Democrats' problem--and therefore the country's--that their last president to understand this on a visceral level left the White House in 1963 in a coffin, and that none of their leaders have quite known this since. Their evocations of these people feel and sound hollow--they may like the idea of FDR, JFK, and Harry, but one feels the real men would unnerve them. They are right to look to Truman for a way out of their malaise and their quandary, but the Truman they create is part of the problem: soft-power Harry, Humility Harry, with none of the iron that he had in real life. They don't like the real Harry--the one of Japan and Korea--and they don't like his real traits, when they see them in others, like George W. Bush. This is their flaw, and their evasions won't help them. When they own and admit the genuine Harry, people will trust them with power again.