What Bush Can Learn From Truman

October 6, 2002

Is George W. Bush another Harry S. Truman? He and we should surely hope so. While Truman waged bruising domestic political battles and suffered long bouts of public unpopularity, he is viewed now as having presided over the most creative and productive period in American diplomatic history. In these perilous and fateful times, President Bush would do well to absorb key elements of Truman’s approach to national security policy.

The two presidents have many things in common. Both assumed office without a clear mandate from the electorate—Truman, the largely unknown and accidental president after Roosevelt’s death in 1945; Bush, the loser of the popular vote in the closest and arguably most controversial presidential election in history. Both faced doubts about their gravitas and capacity to lead. Both were inclined toward plain speaking, relished making big decisions and taking responsibility for them, and embraced an almost reverential view of the presidency. Both had to deal with a strong opposition party in Congress. And shortly after taking office, both confronted extraordinary national security challenges. We know how Truman responded to his challenges: the Truman Doctrine, the strategic use of foreign aid; the Berlin airlift; military rearmament and reorganization; the Marshall Plan and the occupation and restructuring of Japan to rebuild and democratize our vanquished enemy; a “limited” (and unpopular) war on the Korean peninsula to carry out a policy of containment of the communist threat; and the nurturing of multilateral institutions like the United Nations, NATO and the Bretton Woods international economic regime.

President Bush rallied the nation in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and led a successful military operation to depose the Taliban government in Afghanistan and disable the most important base of Al Qaeda’s terrorist operations. He has made destroying terrorist networks and the weapons of mass destruction held by rogue states his highest national security priorities, and enunciated a doctrine of pre-emptive action to accomplish that end. He has proposed a major reorganization of homeland security agencies and is working aggressively to lead an uncertain nation to war against Saddam Hussein. His record at this early stage of his presidency suggests the potential of a national security leader as ambitious and consequential as Truman.

But if Mr. Bush is to reach a comparable level of achievement, he could profitably consider Truman’s cast of mind in dealing with monumental national security challenges.

For all of his combativeness on the domestic front, Truman showed the wisdom of patience in responding to the Soviet threat. And he displayed enormous prescience in understanding the value to American security of rebuilding defeated nations.

Truman was a Woodrow Wilson internationalist—one who believed strongly in the efficacy of international law and organization. His instinct was to look for allies and international legitimacy in responding to security threats while mobilizing American resolve and resources. He built and strengthened multilateral institutions, forged broad alliances to confront the Soviet Union, and turned immediately to the United Nations when North Korea launched its attack in 1950.

Truman’s policy of deterrence and containment was conservative at its core. It rejected the risks of a larger, potentially devastating war associated with “rolling back” Soviet gains in Eastern Europe. He was prepared to rein in an offensive-minded military to keep intact his strategic defensive policy by firing the very popular General Douglas MacArthur.

Facing strong Republican opposition in Congress, one that resisted much of his domestic agenda, Truman saw the wisdom of working hard to fashion bipartisanship on foreign policy. He championed a strong presidency but he respected the constitutional authority of Congress. His consultations with Congress on national security matters were early, continuous and substantive. In fact, he indicated to Congress that he would welcome Congressional authorization of military action in Korea but Congressional leaders demurred.

Of course, George Bush faces very different security threats and operates in a world vastly changed from what it was in Truman’s time. It is often said that American military, economic and technological primacy now affords us the freedom to wage discretionary wars and to pursue national interests without the cooperation of major allies or the approval of international organizations.

Yet Truman had some of these same options. America emerged from World War II as the dominant economic and military power. It could have embraced a unilateralist and offensive posture in responding to postwar security challenges. But Truman resisted pressure from those advocating more aggressive actions against the Soviet Union and China. His restraint and his inclination to take the long view may fit the particular challenges now facing Mr. Bush.

The Bush presidency is a work in progress. Yet we can already see several of its emerging characteristics: a form of internationalism that insists on the United States’ right to act alone; a distrust of international organizations and agreements; an impatience with maintaining alliances and the burdens of nation-building; a willingness to depose regimes; and an expansive Hamiltonian conception of the presidency, one in which Congress plays a secondary role. Perhaps some of this flows from Sept. 11 and its aftermath. But the Bush approach to national security as we discern it now could profitably be leavened by the lessons learned and put into practice by Harry Truman.