Wise Statesman or Riverboat Gambler?


The foreign editor of The Australian, Greg Sheridan, predicts that George W Bush will ultimately be considered a great foreign policy president, just as a consensus formed that Harry S Truman was a great president only after he left office in 1953.

But Sheridan’s analogies between Bush and Truman are misplaced. Harry Truman would never have invaded Iraq. Unlike Bush, Truman understood that the United States, for all its military might, could not succeed in a global struggle against an implacable ideological foe if it committed its resources to wars that weren’t strategically essential or if it lost the support of its allies.



Sheridan says that Bush’s Iraq is Truman’s Korea. But Truman didn’t choose to go to war in Korea; rather, he responded to North Korea’s unprovoked aggression against South Korea, a key American ally. Pre-emptive war was never part of Truman’s grand strategy.

And unlike Bush, as soon as Truman realised war in Korea was inevitable he focused on using the United Nations as a forum to parlay latent international support into active assistance. Truman used the UN masterfully. Within 48 hours of the North’s invasion, the UN Security Council had unanimously adopted an American-drafted resolution authorising the use of force in Korea; it later unanimously approved taking the fight north of the 38th parallel.

Truman proudly told the American people that American forces were fighting in Korea under a UN command and flag, and that the co-operation between the US and the UN represented ‘a landmark in mankind’s long search for a rule of law among nations.’ The Korean War was not an American war but a UN action from beginning to end ‘a police action under the United Nations,’ as Truman described it.

George W Bush lambasted his Democrat opponent at the last presidential elections, John Kerry, for suggesting that the war on al-Qaeda could best be prosecuted as a ‘police action’ imagine the outrage if Kerry had suggested it be fought as a police action under the UN!

Unlike Bush, who has cut taxes and generally made every effort to avoid imposing war-related burdens on Americans who aren’t in the armed services, Truman never shied away from the domestic impact of the war. He didn’t shrink from telling the American people that war meant increased taxes, an extension of the draft and possibly even rationing.

Sheridan compares the openly insubordinate General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of UN forces in Korea who was sacked by Truman, with the CIA officers who have not been sufficiently supportive of the Bush Administration’s war plans.

But MacArthur didn’t merely write some dissenting internal memos. At the time he was fired, not only was MacArthur actively undermining the President and his policies, but the General’s tactical and strategic errors had nearly lost the war. MacArthur’s insane strategy, which could have come out of Dick Cheney’s playbook, was to win the Korean War by nuking 50 Chinese cities and laying down an impenetrable wall of radioactive waste along the Yalu River dividing Korea from China; his failure to predict or resist China’s counter-attack of November 1950 directly led to military debacle.

Comparing the lunatic MacArthur with sober public servants at the CIA who have resisted the Cheney cabal’s politicisation of intelligence gathering and analysis knocks history on its head.

In fact, Bush himself is arguably more like MacArthur than Truman. As David McCullough, Truman’s biographer, describes him, MacArthur was ‘self-absorbed and oddly uninterested in global issues he would admit to no mistakes, no errors of judgement Failure to anticipate the size of the Chinese invasion, for example, had been the fault of the CIA.’

General Omar Bradley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, said that MacArthur’s fanciful plans to take the war to China would have involved the US in ‘the wrong war, at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and with the wrong enemy.’ John Kerry, 50 years later, would use almost identical words to describe Bush’s war in Iraq. Like MacArthur, Bush achieved initial battlefield victories that turned sour because of poor planning, bad judgement and the misuse of intelligence.

As it happens, Truman’s greatest strategic triumph wasn’t Korea but rather the brilliantly conceived and executed Marshall Plan, the ‘central gem in the cluster of great and fruitful decisions made by President Truman,’ as Arthur Krock of the New York Times described it, some years later. Under the Marshall Plan which, for some reason, Sheridan neglects to mention Truman managed to convince the American people, in the face of Republican pressure to cut taxes and withdraw into isolation, that it would be worthwhile to suffer significant economic pain in order to fund US$17 billion (in 1948 terms) of economic aid to post-World War II Europe. For Truman, no expense was too great when it came to strengthening America’s alliances.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

Bush knows how to start wars, but he has conceived of nothing remotely similar to Truman’s stroke of genius: no Marshall Plan for development of the Islamic world, no energy plan to develop alternatives to funding anti-Western regimes by buying their petroleum, no plan to unite the West around an American-led alliance, and certainly no demands that Americans not in uniform make sacrifices worthy of wartime.

In explaining his decision to accept a Russian proposal for a truce in Korea that left the US well short of total victory, Truman said he refused the demands of MacArthur and the Republicans that America spread the conflict to new theatres because such a plan would have involved America in an unnecessary military conflict of uncertain scope and outcome that wouldn’t have had the support of America’s allies in Europe. It would have been playing ‘Russian roulette with the foreign policy of the United States No president who has any sense of responsibility for the welfare of this great country is going to meet the grave issues of war and peace on such a foolish basis,’ he said. Truman was a responsible statesman; George Bush gambles with the destiny of nations.

The successful policy of containment established by Truman was founded on the notion that some enemies can’t be defeated through frontal military assaults, and that sometimes victory over an aggressive, hostile ideology may best be achieved by forming strong long-term alliances while always ensuring that the free, open and democratic nations present a superior vision of society and never lose the moral high ground.

Whoever the next President of the United States might be whether it be Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain or someone else altogether it is inconceivable that the ‘Bush doctrine’ of starting and then bungling pre-emptive wars and acting with contemptuous disregard for America’s traditional allies will have a life beyond January 2009. The ‘War on Terror’ will continue, but the strategy pursued in prosecuting the war will surely change.

Harry Truman isn’t considered a great President because he was anti-communist, but rather because he was a wise and effective anti-communist. Conversely, George W Bush won’t be considered an atrocious President because he prosecuted the War on Terror, but rather because he incompetently mismanaged it.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.