George Truman?

Saturday, January 13, 2007

By Steve Forbes

The Financial Times the other day echoed the sentiments of many here and overseas when it speculated that President Bush could well be one of the worst chief executives the U.S. has ever had.

Such speculation is irresistible, but don't get carried away by this rush to judgment. Take the example of Harry Truman.

Truman left office in 1953 with ratings that were worse than those of the current White House occupant. He was presiding over a disastrous war on the Korean peninsula. More than 400,000 American and several hundred thousand Allied troops were locked in a stalemate with North Korea and China. We'd been in negotiations for an armistice for nearly two years, with nothing but more blood to show for it. People were angrily asking, "We're suffering 1,000 casualties a week, and for what?" The American death toll in the Korean War was almost 15 times the number of soldiers we've lost in Iraq.

The Truman administration's handling of the war struck Americans as murderously uncertain and erratic. Moreover, we entered the war utterly unprepared, with ill-equipped, ill-trained troops. And war aims changed. At first, as Gen. Douglas MacArthur's forces -- after initial setbacks -- overran North Korea and were fast approaching the North Korea-China border, we seemed intent on a World War II-type unconditional victory. Then China started a massive intervention, sending us and our allies reeling in a humiliating retreat.

We pushed forward in the spring and reached a line not far from that dividing North and South Korea today. MacArthur wanted to push north again, but Truman changed course. Instead of fighting until we were victorious and pushing Communist aggression -- after all, North Korea, bent on conquest, had brazenly invaded the South -- we decided to settle for a draw. Mac? Arthur ended up getting fired, and a political firestorm ensued. Why, people wondered, were we willing to accept a stalemate? Wouldn't that encourage future trouble: Soviet-and Chinese-supported forces could attack our allies knowing they had little to lose? But the Soviet Union, China and North Korea refused to come to an agreement on an armistice, figuring that if they continued to bloody us we would grow weary and pull out, leaving the communists victorious.

Because of his credibility as commander of the Allied forces that had beaten Nazi Germany, Dwight Eisenhower, who won the presidency despite Truman's intense opposition, brought the Korean War to a close by threatening -- behind the scenes -- to use nuclear weapons. Ironically, Ike's success in stanching the bloodletting on the Korean peninsula helped salvage Truman's future reputation.

As did the policies of other subsequent presidents. Truman, for instance, suffered a severe blow to his popularity in 1949, when the communists triumphed in the Chinese civil war. The U.S. was accused of not doing enough to help anti-communist forces during that epic struggle. Truman's archfoe, Richard Nixon, helped ameliorate that damning judgment years later when, as President, his policies let to a rapprochement with what was then called Red China. Historians have concluded that, despite the mistakes made in the Korean War, Truman's decision to go in was the right one.

Who knows, perhaps George Bush's successor -- maybe Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., or former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani -- may pull an Eisenhower with Iran and Iraq, and historians will conclude that despite his many mistakes, Bush fundamentally made the right decision to fight Islamic fanaticism in the heart of the Middle East.

Harry Truman is not the only cautionary example. Woodrow Wilson left the White House with Truman/Bush-like popularity. Although he made dreadful mistakes in negotiating the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, was devastatingly inept at handling the fight over whether the U.S. should join the League of Nations and allowed his Administration's wholesale assault on civil liberties both during and after the war, the vast majority of historians today consider Wilson a great or near-great President.

So our beleaguered President Bush can take some solace in the fact that when it comes to historical reputations, judgments are never final.

Steve Forbes is the editor of Forbes magazine.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: