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The Moment Of Decision

May 2024
14min read

When Harry Truman was President of the United States he kept on his desk a little sign with the reminder: “The buck stops here.” This was his way of telling himself that when the responsibility for decision conies to a President, he has to meet it all alone. He can ask for all kinds of advice, and any amount of briefing, but he has to make up his mind by himself. Once in a generation or so his decisions send powerful echoes down the years. They may take the country along a path never before followed, enlarge the powers of the American government itself, or commit the whole nation to a policy or a program that will have permanent and vital effect. At such moments the President has to have vision, courage, and a sense of historic mission. To illustrate the matter, we consider below five moments in time in which a President made a decision whose consequences to the republic still endure.

Consider, to begin with, the situation that confronted President Thomas Jefferson in 1803. The United States then was a very young country, of uncertain unity and with dubious prospects for survival, and it was trying to steer a middle course between the imperial rivalries of England and France. Most of its people lived east of the Alleghenies, but the westward movement had begun and the land beyond the mountains was being settled all the way to the Mississippi; by 1800 nearly a million Americans lived in that western country, and more were going there every year. Because it was so hard and costly to transport goods across the moun: tains, these settlers could not hope to prosper unless they could use the Mississippi River as their commercial highway to the outer world.

For a time this was no problem. The immense area known as Louisiana, over 800,000 square miles of wilderness running westward from the river to the Rockies, was held by Spain, a weak and declining power, and Spain left the river open. The westerners could send their farm produce to New Orleans for export, importing manufactured goods in the same way, and all was well. Then, in 1802, it became known that Spain had secretly transferred all of Louisiana to France. Napoleon obviously wanted to re-create the New World empire France had lost a generation earlier. His grip on the Mississippi and its mouth was certain to be firmer and more aggressive than that of Spain had ever been. Once he took full possession, the American West would be entirely at his mercy.

Jefferson knew he might have to discard the American policy of avoiding entangling alliances and, as he put it, “marry ourselves to the British fleet and nation.” First, however, he would try peaceful negotiations. He sent fames Monroe to Paris to join Robert Livingston, the American minister, and see whether Napoleon woidd sell New Orleans, which would give America control of the mouth of the Mississippi.

By this time, however, Napoleon was oft on a new tack. The war in Europe was to be renewed, and he suddenly abandoned his plan for a New World empire in order to concentrate on his struggle with Great Britain. To the amazement of Monroe and Livingston he calmly offered to sell, not just New Orleans, but the entire territory of Louisiana. Price: $15,000,000.

Thomas Jefferson was not really taken by surprise. He was as acute a master of geopolitics as the world ever saw, and the notion that the United States should someday possess all of this western country had been in his mind for a long time. He was well aware that to buy New Orleans woidd be, ultimately, to get all of Louisiana; as early as 1801 he had laid plans for American exploration of the Missouri country, and at the beginning of 1803 he persuaded Congress to vote money for what presently became the Lewis and Clark expedition, specifying that this was “for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the United States.” When he learned that Napoleon was willing to sell all of Louisiana he wrote that “I believed the event not very distant, but acknowledge that it came on sooner than I had expected.”

In other words, Jefferson knew very well what he wanted to do. He was also fully aware that if he did it he would change America forever. His own dream of America as a homespun agricultural country would vanish; America would become a continental power, ultimately a world power, and homespun simplicities would be gone forever. Also, to buy Louisiana might not even be legal; perhaps it would be necessary to amend the Constitution before the deal could be made. But to do that would mean delay, Napoleon might again change his mind—and, on the whole, Jefferson decided to go ahead.

So he submitted the proposed treaty to the Senate and pushed it through, got Congress to appropriate the necessary money—and changed the whole future course of American history. The point is that at the crucial moment the decision was Jefferson’s to make. He made it, and the seeds of greatness began to sprout.

“Our Union: it must be preserved!”

The problem that faced Andrew Jackson early in the 1830’s was of a different sort altogether. It involved not the expansion of the United States but the matter of holding it together. What Jackson ran into was the first vigorous assertion of the southern belief that the Union could be dissolved whenever an individual state felt that its own interests were threatened.

The tariff question lay at the bottom of it. By and large, the North wanted tariff protection and the South wanted free trade, and a moderately protective tariff passed in 1828 struck southerners as highly discriminatory. Vice President John C. Calhoun, from South Carolina, became principal spokesman for the theory that the states were sovereign and so could nullify any act of the federal government which seemed harmful to them.

There was more to it, of course, than a simple matter of tariffs. North and South had begun to develop into different communities, with different interests and different ways of protecting those interests. Somewhere at the bottom of it lay slavery, which meant that slave states had one sort of economy and social organization and that non-slave states had another, and on this difference there grew up sharply conflicting ways of appraising the Union itself, the role of the federal government, and the duties and powers of the separate states. Under everything Calhoun was saying was the theory that the nation was not necessarily permanent. It was simply an association of independent states which could separate whenever they chose— would separate, if they felt sufficiently aggrieved.

So there was heated debate in Congress. Calhoun himself wanted the Union preserved, but he believed it could be saved only by his doctrine of nullification. Men like Daniel Webster thundered against him, raising the cry, “Liberty and Union … one and inseparable,” and earnest men began to fear that the Union would presently dissolve. By 1830 it was clear that a crisis was approaching.

Jackson himself had no doubts. The nullification-secession theory struck him as little short of treason, and he made his own position clear. At a banquet in 1830 he arose to propose a toast. Looking squarely at Calhoun, he raised his glass and cried: “Our Union: it must be preserved!”

Fine words, but ineffective. In 1832 the business came to a head when Congress passed a new tariff act which seemed to South Carolina, and much of the rest of the South, even more discriminatory than the one that already existed. Wholeheartedly South Carolina embraced Calhoun’s doctrine. Late in November a state convention announced that the tariff acts of 1828 and 1832 both were null and void in South Carolina, prohibited federal officers from trying to enforce them, and said that any federal attempt at coercion would compel South Carolina to leave the Union. Calhoun resigned as Vice President and entered the Senate to lead the fight for nullification.

Showdown, in other words.

Jackson met this challenge head on. He announced that the South Carolina position was “incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which it was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed.” He did not stop there. He sent a warship and several revenue cutters to Charleston, prepared to lead an army into the state, threatened to hang Senator Calhoun, and asserted flatly that nullification-secession “means insurrection and war” and that he, Old Hickory in person, was prepared to treat it that way.

At the same time he showed a willingness to be reasonable once the ground rules were established. For the principle that no state could overrule federal laws or leave the Union he was quite prepared to shed blood; but it was not this particular tariff act, or any other specific act of Congress, that would lead him to start shooting. With the help of moderate-minded leaders like Henry Clay, a compromise was devised. The tariff rates were lowered (which after all was what South Carolinians wanted most) and South Carolina in turn revoked its ordinance of nullification. The moment of crisis passed, and there was no more talk about troops, or hangings, or a breakup of the Union.

By his forthright action and his ability to accept a compromise once the supremacy of federal authority had been demonstrated, Jackson had at least postponed a threatened split in the Union; had postponed it, as things worked out, for about thirty years, which was just long enough. The Union could have broken up in 1832, simply because it was still so new and because the government had not yet shown itself prepared to make war to assert its own permanence. By the 1860’s it was strong enough to meet the test, and it had Andrew Jackson’s precedent to go on. Abraham Lincoln followed in his footsteps, treating secession as rebellion rather than as a natural right of the separate states, and the power and permanency of the federal government were established along the lines Jackson had laid down.

Jackson had done just what Jefferson had done; he had assumed that the President of the United States had the power and the duty, in time of emergency, to do whatever the emergency itself demanded, and the office became larger as a result.

“I am here. I must do the best I can”

A man who was fully prepared to use its enlarged authority was Abraham Lincoln, who had to meet the test of secession when it finally came. Lincoln showed his willingness to act on his own initiative in a number of cases: most notably, perhaps, in the summer of 1862, when—on the skimpiest of authority, and with scant assurance that the thing was politically feasible—he turned what had begun as a war to save the Union into a war to end slavery.

When the war began, both Lincoln and the Congress said explicitly that its only object was to bring the seceding states back into the Union. The “domestic institutions” of these states (meaning slavery) were not to be touched. The federal government was fighting solely to keep the country all in one piece; Lincoln believed that it lacked the authority to interfere with slavery within the states, and in 1861 he did not think such interference advisable anyway. Several times during the first year of the war he overruled and rebuked abolitionist-minded officers who tried to turn the struggle into a war against slavery.

The trouble with this was that the war was not being won; indeed, by late summer of 1862 it seemed quite possible that it would soon be lost. Union armies were stalled in the West, the attempt to open the Mississippi was making no progress, and a strong Confederate army was beginning a counteroffensive into Kentucky. In the East things were in worse shape. The great drive to capture Richmond had ended in defeat, there had been another defeat in the second Battle of Bull Run, and Robert E. Lee was crossing the Potomac to invade the North. England and France seemed just about ready to recognize the Confederacy, and this would very likely insure its independence.

In manpower, in money, and in manufacturing resources the North had an immense advantage, but the advantage was not being used effectively. The hard, driving spirit that would lead to victory seemed to be gone; the strong, innocent, patriotic enthusiasm so visible in the early months was no longer in evidence.

Facing this situation, Lincoln recognized two facts.

First, the strongest and most determined sentiment in favor of going on to victory at any cost was that of the antislavery people—not just the dedicated abolitionists, but the larger group that disliked slavery and believed that it was the basic cause of secession. Second, such powers as England and France—distressed by the cotton blockade, and not very fond of the United States anyway—could intervene in a war that meant nothing more than an attempt by certain states to win their independence; but they could not intervene if that meant supporting a fight to continue slavery and opposing a fight to make the slaves free.

Facing these facts, Lincoln drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. He showed it to his Cabinet, remarking that his mind was made up but that he would like to hear their comments. “I know very well,” he told them, “that many others might, in this matter as in others, do better than I can. … But … I am here. I must do the best I can, and bear the responsibility of taking the course which I feel I ought to take.” So saying, he published the proclamation as soon as Lee’s northern invasion was turned back in the Battle of Antietam, announcing that it would go into effect on January i unless the seceding states first came back into the Union.

It was a strange sort of paper, in a way. Its legal basis was nothing more than Lincoln’s belief that the President, as Commander in Chief of the armed forces, could adopt virtually any military measure that was needed to win the war—and the proclamation was offered as a military measure pure and simple. In addition, it left slavery untouched in areas controlled by the federal government, and announced its abolition only in those places where federal authority had neither acceptance nor the power to enforce its decrees. In a sense it was one of the weakest state papers any President ever issued; yet in the long run it proved to be one of the strongest.

For the proclamation changed the Whole meaning of the war, which now became a war to save the Union and to destroy slavery as well. A moral issue had been injected into the fight and it had a profound effect. The driving force of the antislavery people was fully enlisted, the chance for a compromise settlement was destroyed, and from then on the Union would fight a hard, all-out war, making full use of its resources. In addition, European intervention ceased to be a serious threat: the Confederacy was on its own. The true turning point of the war came when the President issued his proclamation.

“That can’t be done”

Not all of the great moments of decision have come to Presidents facing war or the threat of war. Sometimes a President has to recognize a purely domestic problem and meet it according to the best lights he has. The important quality seems to be to see the crisis and to handle it with boldness, and by taking firm action to do what Lincoln did with his proclamation: change the national attitude. Such a moment came to President Theodore Roosevelt early in 1902.

Roosevelt had to meet a problem none of his predecessors had felt compelled to face: the ever-increasing growth of enormous industrial combinations that were concentrating power in the hands of a few financial giants who were subject to no public control. One after another the huge trusts, or holding companies, created powerful monopolies that seemed to be beyond the reach of government. Mines, factories, transportation, oil refining, the whole system of production and distribution that determined the conditions under which the ordinary citizen worked, lived, and paid his bills, were increasingly run by a few wealthy men. What worried people was that America seemed to be turning into a tight financial oligarchy. The government’s power to intervene in the public interest was not being asserted, and perhaps it was being lost forever. An attempt to assert it was made in 1890 when Congress passed the Sherman Antitrust Act, which said flatly: “Every contract, combination in the form of trust or otherwise, or conspiracy, in restraint of trade or commerce among the several states, or with foreign nations, is hereby declared to be illegal.” Yet there was little attempt to enforce this act, and it was virtually emasculated in 1895 when the Supreme Court, passing on a monopoly in the field of sugar refining, held that manufacturing was not commerce and that a monopoly that did not have direct effect on commerce was not subject to control by the government.

Then came the formation of the Northern Securities Company, in 1901. This grew out of a fight between two railroad barons, E. H. Harriman of the Union Pacific and James J. Hill of the Great Northern, who were contending for control of the Burlington Railroad. The two got into a frenzied struggle for ownership of the Northern Pacific (which owned the Burlington) and brought on a brief, spectacular Wall Street panic. J. P. Morgan restored peace by setting up the Northern Securities Company, a $400 million holding company, to take over the stock of both Great Northern and Northern Pacific. The stock market flurry subsided, and Wall Street had a huge new trust which had airtight control of the railroads that served the entire Northwest.

At this point Theodore Roosevelt acted. On February 19, 1902, Attorney General Philander C. Knox abruptly announced that at the direction of the President he was proceeding against the Northern Securities Company for violation of the Sherman act.

This news hit Wall Street like a bomb. J. P. Morgan, who had a low boiling point anyway, was both shocked and outraged. For the government to try to interfere with this new industrial combination was bad enough; for it to act without first privately letting Morgan know that it proposed to act, thus giving him a chance to smooth matters out without the need for legal action, struck him as downright unfair. He hurried off to Washington, a formidable figure. (The photographer Edward Steichen once remarked that to look into Morgan’s eyes when the man had developed a full head of steam was like staring at the headlight of an onrushing express train at night.) Morgan went to the White House, sat down with Roosevelt, and complained that the President ought to have given him advance warning of his proposed step.

Unruffled, Roosevelt replied that this was exactly what he had not wanted to do. Then Morgan went on, with wholly unconscious arrogance, to express his basic point of view—that the financial oligarchy and the government of the United States were equals who ought to be able to make a quiet deal in cases like this.

“If we have done anything wrong,” he protested, “send your man to my man and they can fix it up.”

Not many Americans at that time cared to face the wrath of J. P. Morgan, but Roosevelt was up to it. He simply shook his head, and said: “That can’t be done.”

The conference ended on that note. A year later a federal court ruled that the Northern Securities Company was indeed in violation of the Sherman act and ordered it dissolved, and a year after that the Supreme Court receded from its earlier position and upheld the lower court. The famous era of trust busting was under way.

Its actual fruits in the long run were not of paramount importance. The trend toward gigantic combinations, in a country whose industrial and financial wealth was growing at a breakneck pace, was not stopped, and is still visible, bringing both problems and benefits for later generations. What really mattered was that the government of the United States, once and for all, had asserted its sovereignty. It had the power to intervene, it would use that power when it saw fit, and it would not bargain with Wall Street. The national capital was and would continue to be Washington and not the financial district of New York. Theodore Roosevelt had changed the climate, permanently.

“I … never had any doubt”

Consider now one more moment of historic decision, unlike any of these others but once again requiring a President to say “yes” or “no” to a question of incalculable importance. In the month of July, 1945, it was up to Harry Truman (he who liked to remind himself that the President is one man who cannot pass the buck) to say whether the United States would or would not drop the first atomic bomb on Japan.

The actual moment of decision was singularly undramatic, but the background was extremely tense.

Truman became President on April 12, 1945, and the next day he learned for the first time that the United States was perfecting the atomic bomb. Final tests were yet to be made, but it was clear that if the tests succeeded, the nation would (as Truman later put it) be “in possession of a weapon that would not only revolutionize war but could alter the course of history and civilization.”

Then things happened fast. On May 8 Germany surrendered unconditionally and the war in Europe was over. Truman went to the Potsdam Conference, to do what could be done to arrange for peace in Europe; and at this meeting he, Winston Churchill, and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek issued a statement warning Japan to stop fighting or suffer “the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and … the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland.” The Japanese ignored the threat—and on August 6 the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, to be followed three days later by another one dropped on Nagasaki. On August 14 Japan surrendered.

The point was that during the Potsdam Conference Truman had been notified that the bomb had been perfected. His military advisers urged that it be used, in the belief that it would shorten the war by a year and save perhaps half a million American lives. And Truman, who had the final decision in the matter, decided that the bomb should be used. It was used, and a new era in international relations had begun.

Truman made his choice without hesitation and without dramatics. He was the man appointed to decide, he did decide, and he said afterward that he “never had any doubt” that the bomb should be used.

True enough. But it was also Harry Truman who wrote, later, in a preface to his memoirs:

“To be President of the United States is to be lonely, very lonely at times of great decisions.”

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