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Eight Days With Harry Truman
The elder statesman sets the record straight on JFK, LBJ, Stalin, the bomb, Charles de Gaulle, Douglas MacArthur—and, most of all, the American Presidency
July/August 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 4
Truman was intrigued to discover he was talking to one of the potential casualties. I had been in the U.S. Navy when the bomb exploded, assigned to the amphibious corps and slated to begin training for the invasion in a few weeks. No one aboard the USS Topeka, which would have been what sailors called “kamikaze bait,” had any regrets about Truman’s decision.
I asked if there was anything to the rumors that the bomb had been dropped to intimidate the Russians. Truman dismissed the idea with a contemptuous wave of his hand and launched into a vigorous discussion of his attempts to “get along with Uncle Joe Stalin and his crowd.” Personally he had no problems with Stalin when they met at Potsdam. But he soon learned that the Communists were “simply liars.”
“They broke agreement after agreement,” Truman said. “We had to put a gun to their heads to get them out of northern Iran. Then came the stunt they tried to pull in Berlin, starving us out. That was when I realized we were dealing with enemies, not friends.
“That was when I decided we had to meet the situation. I put some of my best people to work on an assessment of what we were facing. They concluded we were engaged in a struggle that might last decades. It wasn’t easy to change course. There were still millions of Americans who couldn’t or wouldn’t stop believing the Russians were our friends. That’s the hardest part of a President’s job. Making a decision that angers or disappoints a lot of honest people.”
Truman was talking about the evolution of the policy of containment, and the historic programs and decisions that flowed from it—the Marshall Plan, the Korean War, and the revamping of the American government that created the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Department of Defense.
Our discussion of Korea was inevitably shadowed by the war in Vietnam, which was on its way to being lost—or not won, depending on your point of view. Truman took us back to that precarious June of 1950, when North Korea’s Russian-equipped army smashed southward. “Reports poured in from our embassies in Europe telling us if we let Stalin get away with it, the game was as good as over,” Truman said. “We had to draw that line, much as I hated the idea of getting involved in my third war.”
That led us to Truman’s decision to set limits on the war—which produced his famous clash with General MacArthur, who “wanted to invade China and turn it into World War III.” Truman insisted that he had done everything in his power to avoid the climactic moment, when he relieved MacArthur for insubordination. “When General Marshall read the record, he told me I should have done it a year earlier.”
On another evening we had an interesting discussion of Truman’s successors. He was no longer angry at Ike for his deceptive behavior before he sought the White House (as General Eisenhower he concealed his political opinions and let Truman twice offer him the Democratic nomination), but during the 1952 campaign he failed to defend George Marshall against Sen. Joe McCarthy’s smear tactics, and Truman thought this abandonment of the man who had made Eisenhower the Supreme Commander in Europe was a low-water mark in American politics.
Before Ike’s death in 1969 the two former Presidents had achieved a somewhat precarious revival of their friendship, but Truman declined to rate Eisenhower as even a mediocre President: he had not tried to lead the country on such great issues as desegregation and McCarthyism. He seemed to prefer the role of dutiful servant of Congress—and that was anathema to Truman.
For John F. Kennedy, Truman had only regretful observations, though he could not restrain a dig at his father, Joe Kennedy. “I was never afraid of Jack as President. I was worried about his pa,” he said, explaining his reluctance to endorse Kennedy. As for JFK, Truman shook his head over the Bay of Pigs and Berlin Wall fiascos and said he had “learned fast.” But it was “hard on the country” to have put up with that kind of on-the-job training. After several visits to the White House, Truman had come to like JFK personally and deeply regretted his violent death. But when it came to passing judgment on his Presidency, it was clear Truman felt there was too much style and not enough substance.
Lyndon Johnson’s name sparked a very different emotion. “I’ve never been so disappointed with any politician in my life as I am with Lyndon,” Truman said. “I thought sure he was going to be one of the great ones. But in his five years in office he did more to weaken the Presidency than any man in this century.” It was Johnson’s conduct of the Vietnam War that provoked Truman’s bitterest comments- above all, his decision not to run for a second term in 1968.
“He should have done exactly what Lincoln did in 1864. The circumstances were almost identical. The country was sick of the Civil War. There were politicians and newspaper quacks like Horace Greeley calling for premature peace. Lincoln made his election a referendum on the war. When he won, the South folded up. I’m convinced North Vietnam would have done the same thing.”