Truman, 50 Years Later

April 13, 1995

Fifty years ago today, Harry S. Truman awoke for the first time as president. His nation was stunned by the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose passing at the end of a wrenching war was compared to Lincoln's assassination.

Now Mr. Everyman was moving into the White House. "If Harry Truman could be president, so could my next-door neighbor," was a widespread reaction.

From the perspective of half a century, Truman's mythical next-door neighbor would have had to be one helluva guy. For the plain man from Missouri was to emerge as one of this nation's great presidents.

His contemporaries did not take this view. He was vilified by Northern liberals, Southern segregationists and conservative isolationists. But Harry Truman was a student of history. He would have understood the revisionism that has seen his reputation grow.

In domestic policy, his proposals turned out to be prophetic even though many went down to defeat. He anticipated the civil rights reforms of the 1960s. He grasped the need for health care reform. His Fair Deal followed the New Deal in promising government help to those in need.

It was in foreign affairs, however, that Truman made his mark. The collapse of the Soviet empire was a triumph of the post-war containment edifice he built: The Truman Doctrine; the Marshall Plan; the Berlin airlift; the formation of NATO; the Point Four program to aid developing countries.

Dean Acheson said it well when he rejoiced in being "Present at the Creation." Truman's era was a time of creative diplomacy. Even if the Korean War ended in stalemate, the U.S. stopped the takeover of a nation destined to enjoy free-market prosperity.

Against this record, it seems incredible from this distance that the Truman administration would be accused of being "soft on Communism" and having "given away China" by Joseph McCarthy and his ilk. But HST lived to receive accolades even from Barry Goldwater, a hawkish conservative, for his service in protecting the free world. He also lived to see his decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan under an attack that grows ever more passionate.

Characteristically, Truman did not second-guess this awesome move. "Once a decision was made, I did not worry about it afterward," he wrote in his memoirs.

By the same token, after his hasty swearing in as president, he said he went home and got a solid night's sleep. "What kept me going in 1945," he wrote, "was my belief that there is far more good than evil in men and that it is the business of government to make good prevail."

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