Was Harry Truman one of the worst terrorists of all time? If words mean anything anymore–then absolutely, yes.
Franklin D. Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945–and so began the damnable presidency of Harry S. Truman, who had only just become Vice President in January of that year. Truman was, as we shall see, instinctively and reflexively authoritarian; the principles of bureaucratic centralization at home and arrogant imperialism abroad run through his time in office. The Truman years stand for the further distancing of government power from democratically elected officials, for the arbitrary power of an unelected elite. Nothing defines the alarming excesses of the Truman years quite like the fell acts of August 1945, when the world discovered a new meaning of horror and entered a new age of ever‐looming dread. It was a weapon of terrible power, one whose development had cost billions (the equivalent of tens of billions in today’s dollars) and taken years, a weapon whose destructive power exceeded that of all previous mechanisms of death. Still new to his office, Truman faced a moment of decision the repercussions of which would alter the course of history. His judgment and his character failed him in that moment, the cost of his failure being hundreds of thousands of innocent lives.
“Everything Wrong with the Presidents” series focuses on, as the title suggests, everything each president did wrong while in office. While many presidents enacted worthwhile, and even occasionally beneficial, policies, that’s not what these essays are about. Thus, silence regarding the good actions should not be taken as denial of their existence.
Truman said that the Japanese “began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor,” but this statement was not, strictly speaking, true, contradicted by the calculated actions of the United States in the lead up to the attacks at Pearl Harbor. Japan’s strike was a response to a series of hostile embargoes, imposed during the Roosevelt administration, that had effectively destroyed peaceful economic relations between Japan and the United States and isolated Japan from the rest of the world. In a now‐infamous diary entry, Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of War from 1940 to 1945, under both Roosevelt and Truman, mused that the question before the War Council “was how we should maneuver them into firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.” The reasoning advanced to justify using nuclear weapons were likewise dishonest. Truman’s own diaries show that “contrary to his public justification of the bombings as the only way to end the war without a costly invasion of Japan, Truman had already concluded that Japan was about to capitulate.” 1 Germany had, of course, surrendered months earlier, in May 1945, and the Soviet Union was soon to declare war on Japan, marching on Manchuria with a force more than a million strong. Japanese surrender was, at this juncture, inevitable. The claim that such unspeakable atrocities were necessary to save American lives was thus patently unfounded, though convenient for a president determined to put the world–and in particular, the Soviets–on notice. It is nonetheless important to state explicitly that even assuming that this claim were true, American lives are not, and were not in 1945, more valuable than Japanese lives, and it is difficult to imagine what could justify the intentional murder of civilians on such a scale. Upon hearing that testing of the atomic bomb had confirmed its readiness for use, British General Hastings Ismay, Winston Churchill’s foremost military advisor, was overcome with revulsion. 2 “For some time past,” writes Ismay, “it had been firmly fixed in my mind that the Japanese were tottering.” Ismay had harbored “a sneaking hope that the scientists would be unable to find a key to this particular chamber of horrors.”
No one can be absolutely sure how many lives were lost as a result of the horrific atomic devastations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The unimaginable heat that emanated from the blast was so extreme that many of its victims were completely and instantly annihilated, their bodies vaporized, lost forever. The death toll, updated in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of America’s nuclear terrorism of 1945, brought the number killed by the bombing of Hiroshima alone to over 190,000. Sergeant Bob Caron, the Enola Gay’s tail gunner, likened the horror he saw that day to “a peep into Hell.” Fires burned for days following the bombings, making unrecognizable wastelands of what had been lively cities. If words and facts yet have meaning, then these are among the worst terrorist acts in humankind’s history (perhaps the worst) and Truman is among history’s most abominable terrorists.
One of the most distinctive and remarkable features of political power, particularly as it is exercised during war, is its alchemic ability to transform, at least to most all observers, the moral character of atrocities, to render mass murder an honorable pursuit. In American politics, nothing clothes one with the air of respectability quite like full‐throated advocacy of war and military buildup, and so it was with Truman: the Truman Committee and his calls for increased military spending and mobilization “reconstructed his image from that of a machine politician to a statesman of democracy.” 3 Similarly, use of the atomic bombs has positioned him among the great presidents, so‐called. Rightly afraid of what they’ll see if they do, Americans have been reluctant to look directly at these horrors, unable to accept the possibility that their government could have committed such an unthinkable atrocity. The whole of the war has been draped cynically in the language of patriotic propaganda, insulated from serious moral questioning. But as Bruce M. Russett observed in No Clear and Present Danger: A Skeptical View of the United States Entry into World War II, “it is precisely moral considerations that demand a re‐examination of our World War II myths.”
In the years that followed the war, Truman played a decisive role in shaping U.S. foreign policy, in ensuring that interventionism and empire would define that policy. Truman’s hyper‐interventionist credo, which would become known as the Truman Doctrine, was set forth in front of a joint session of Congress in 1947 and represented the notion that the United States has a duty to aid, both economically and militarily, nations facing the communist threat. British power abroad was in decline and with it, foreign aid dollars from London to countries like Greece, regarded as strategically important in the world‐spanning battle against communism. The Truman Doctrine’s unabashed imperialism, erected upon the foundation of the postwar United States’ new stature on the world stage, represents in many ways the culmination of the Wilsonian dream. Wilson had envisioned a world in which American military intervention would “make the world safe for democracy.” Really, as a practical matter, the Truman Doctrine gave the United States a blank check to intervene militarily around the world, planting its military bases in every corner of the globe. One such intervention, undertaken in 1950 without a congressional declaration of war, was Truman’s Korean War, which established the precedent of the executive branch committing troops unilaterally. As Gene Healy wrote in The Cult of the Presidency, Congress has effectively been reduced “to the status of advisory board at best on matters of war and peace,” neutered as the branch of government empowered to declare war. A new paradigm begins to emerge: war was conveniently and cynically euphemized as “police action,” removed from processes specifically designed to check the power of the executive.
The executive branch was aggrandized in general during the Truman presidency. In National Security and Double Government, international law scholar Michael J. Glennon argues that Truman, “more than any other President, is responsible for creating the nation’s ‘efficient’ national security apparatus.” Glennon’s thesis presents a system of double government, contrasting America’s “efficient” institution (the small core actually governing from “atop the military, intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement” agencies) and America’s “dignified” institutions. These latter institutions (the three constitutional branches of government), though they may “exercise an emotional hold on the public mind,” are no longer the true “locus of government power.” The country, Glennon argues, has “moved beyond a mere imperial presidency to a bifurcated system.” In the place of a civilian government of citizens, the United States is now governed by a permanent class of professional bureaucrats and military and intelligence officers, to whom no real restraints apply. Glennon notes that during Truman’s presidency, the National Security Act of 1947 became law, establishing the CIA (on which more below) and unifying the military under the Secretary of Defense. The National Security Council and the National Security Agency, too, began during his administration. By all accounts, not least his own 4 , Truman played an instrumental role in the creation of the CIA from the several existing intelligence programs at the time. Indeed, if we are to believe the account of his daughter Margaret, the creation of the CIA was “[o]ne of his proudest accomplishments as President.” Established in 1942, the short‐lived Office of Strategic Services was a creature of the war, modeled on the British Secret Intelligence Service and assigned to, among other activities, “foreign investigation,” “interception and inspection … of mail and cables,” “the use of propaganda to penetrate behind enemy lines,” and “the direction of active subversion operations in enemy countries.” 5 In his executive order of September 20, 1945, Truman directed the Office’s various functions to be divided between the departments of War (predecessor of the Department of Defense) and State, officially shuttering the Office. But the Office did pass on the DNA of the Central Intelligence Agency. The many misdeeds and misadventures of the CIA will hardly bear repeating. It will suffice, for our purposes, to observe that the CIA has, since its birth, occupied itself in a long series of lawless activities around the world, beyond the reach of democratic control.
So central is Truman’s legacy to this bifurcated system—these misbegotten institutions that govern as a practical matter, completely outside of accountability and the constitutional system—that Glennon exchanges “efficient” in favor of “Trumanite.” The Trumanite efficient institution of the U.S. national security apparatus is situated within a broader framework for which Truman is also largely responsible: the administrative state. In The Federalist, Madison warned of “a tyrannical concentration of all the powers of government in the same hands,” which is precisely what the modern administrative state accomplishes. Ostensibly a part of the executive branch, America’s vast administrative bureaucracy is in fact functioning as a rogue fourth branch of government, constitutionally illegitimate, positioned outside of the traditional three‐branch paradigm. Today, the administrative state assumptively performs the functions of all three branches, effectively making substantive law, enforcing the law and investigating violations, and adjudicating disputes. 6 Never mind the people’s elected representatives; we had better leave the dirty business of governing the country day to day to qualified experts, unbeholden to political considerations.
Truman seems to have had utter contempt for the constitutional separation of powers, ever inclined to executive overreach. This inclination led to Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer , the 1952 Supreme Court case that considered whether the Truman administration had the authority to seize steel mills during the Korean War. The case arose out of a dispute before the Wage Stabilization Board, an arm of the Economic Stabilization Agency, created in 1950 and charged with calibrating the economy during the Korean War. Almost two years into that war, the steel industry, faced with absorbing increased labor costs, entreated the government for higher steel prices, subject at the time to the government’s wartime price control regime. The unions, the industry, and the government reached an impasse. Negotiations broken down and the United Steelworkers of America announced their intention to strike on April 4, 1952, with the strike set to begin on April 9. Maintaining domestic steel production levels without interruption was of central importance to the war effort, and a United Steelworkers of America strike could grind most of the industry to a halt. 7 Just hours before the strike would have begun, Truman announced his decision to seize control of the steel mills, his television address spinning the takeover as necessary to resist the thoughtless and unpatriotic greed of the steel industry. Truman did not deign to ask for the permission of the people’s representatives in Congress, instead simply circumventing them, his apparent lack of legal authority notwithstanding. The government argued that strong historical precedent permitted the government’s takeover of the industry, pointing to past wartime seizures of private property. The administration argued not that express constitutional language granted this power to Truman, but that the power was “implied from the aggregate of his powers under the Constitution,” 8 particularly those powers subsumed under “the President’s military power as Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces.” The Court found the theory unpersuasive, holding that the administration’s act had violated the constitutional system’s separation of powers. The Court’s decision shocked Truman. 9 For the entire first half of the century at least, the Court’s deference to the political branches had been extremely reliable. But Truman’s imperious action in seizing the steel industry was a bridge too far, even for a Court bewitched by the idea that the Constitution gives the government near‐limitless power. In an opinion authored by Justice Hugo Black, the Court held that such a presidential power is not “implied from the aggregate of [the President’s] powers under the Constitution,” specifically his power as Commander in Chief, as the government urged. The Constitution, the Court said, does not allow “presidential or military supervision or control” of Congress’s unique power to make the law. The Truman administration’s seizure order had crossed impermissibly into the realm of lawmaking.
Truman’s lack of foresight and disastrous foreign policy legacy are also in evidence in his controversial decision to recognize the State of Israel in 1948. Our purpose here is not to undertake an exhaustive relitigation of Israel’s controversial history in the Arab world; rather, we only to observe that Truman could have pushed events in a decidedly more peaceful direction, one that took seriously the balancing of interests at play in region. The British military officially withdrew from the region with the expiration of the British Mandate for Palestine on May 14, 1948 and David Ben‐Gurion immediately declared the establishment of the State of Israel. Just two years earlier, the Anglo‐American Committee of Inquiry, jointly established by the British and American governments, published its recommendations, which were advanced unanimously and included the principle that in Palestine, “Jew shall not dominate Arab and Arab shall not dominate Jew,” and “[t]that Palestine shall be neither a Jewish state nor an Arab state.” Appropriately sensitive to “the hostility between Jews and Arabs,” the Committee concluded that any attempt to establish an independent state (either one state shared by both Arabs and Jews or two states) “would result in civil strife such as might threaten the peace of the world.” Just months earlier, on November 29, 1947, the United Nations, through Resolution 181, advanced the idea of a partition, calling for independent Arab and Jewish states and a “Special International Regime for the City of Jerusalem.” The United States voted in favor of this plan.
The prevailing view of the events surrounding the establishment of the State of Israel, particularly in the West, sees Israel as assuming “an essentially defensive mode,” compelled to fight for survival in a hostile region. 10 But it’s worth recalling that Ben‐Gurion made not even a pretense to peace, though this fact is often forgotten or ignored today. He insisted that Palestine would be won by conquest, not purchased, and that “[t]he war will give us the land.” 11 Former Secretary of War Patrick Hurley correctly observed that the Zionists’ plan, if successful, would mean “removing Arabs already there [that is, in Palestine] by force,” 12 a vision of conquest rationalized by the specious claim that the Jewish people simply have a right to the holy land. That claim is particularly ridiculous when considered in the light of Zionism’s explicit secularism. With the news of Truman’s decision to recognize the State of Israel, there was worry that the American delegation to the United Nations–completely blindsided–would resign en masse. 13 Indeed, Secretary of State George Marshall urged Dean Rusk (later Secretary of State himself) to get to New York as soon as possible to prevent such resignations. 14 Truman’s decision, against the advice of his State Department, stands as among the most myopic, ill‐conceived foreign policy decisions of the twentieth century. As Marshall understood, the end of the British Mandate was a propitious moment 15 , one in which cooler heads might have prevailed and opened the way to a more diplomatic, less violent path.
Truman regularly ranks in the top ten of lists of the country’s greatest presidents, even earning a place in the top five of C-SPAN’s 2009 survey . Historians have tended overwhelmingly to reserve their most effusive approbation for those of the presidents who were most arrogant in their assumptions of power, most unscrupulous in its abuses. History’s Great Men need abide none of the ordinary rules of virtuous behavior, none of the apparent limits on their exercises of coercive power; these they transcend, assured that their ends justify their means. A great President is not one who serves humbly, regarding himself as a mere custodian of the rule of law and steward of the citizens’ resources. No, we are told that great presidents flout constitutional precepts and expand the reaches of the state into new territory. Enraptured by power, even (perhaps especially) in its excesses, historians will readily forgive the most heinous crimes if only a president acts like one of these Great Men. If presiding over the unconscionable mass murders of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the creation of the CIA is not enough to position Truman amongst the century’s greatest evildoers, it’s hard to imagine what would be. It may even be that monster is too forgiving a word for such depravity.
Truman’s legacy is disturbing for freedom‐loving people. Among the many problems with creating an opaque, permanent, unelected bureaucracy, armed with broad discretion, is that such an institution is difficult to hold accountable or to prevent from abusing its myriad powers. Americans today live under a government that wages wars, both open and clandestine, the world over; that imprisons and murders its own citizens without due process; that spies on citizens, elected officials, and foreign leaders with utter impunity; and that still engages in torture. The United States government of today is arguably more Truman’s than it is any other president’s, one of thoughtless cruelty and mechanized violence, of lawless, arbitrary power exercised by an officialdom responsible to no one.
1. Robert L. Messer, “New evidence on Truman’s decision,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 40th Anniversary Issue, August 1985.
2. Gar Alperovitz, “More on atomic diplomacy,” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, December 1985, page 36.
3. Wilson D. Miscamble, The Most Controversial Decision (Cambridge University Press 2011), page 21.
4. In a 1971 article in Esquire, “The Wit and Sass of Harry S. Truman,” Robert Alan Aurthur recounts Truman telling him that the CIA “had been his invention,” though Truman expressed that he was “sorry he’d started the whole thing.”
5. Richard E. Schroeder, The Foundation of the CIA: Harry Truman, the Missouri Gang, and the Origins of the Cold War (University of Missouri Press 2017), page 45.
6. See, in general, Philip Hamburger, Is Administrative Law Unlawful? (The University of Chicago Press 2014).
7. Maeva Marcus, Truman and the Steel Seizure Case: The Limits of Presidential Power (Duke University Press 1994), page 40.
8. Justice Black writing for the Court’s majority. Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952).
10. Walid Khalidi, “The Hebrew Reconquista of Palestine: From the 1947 United Nations Partition Resolution to the First Zionist Congress of 1897” in the Journal of Palestinian Studies, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Institute for Palestine Studies 2009–2010), page 24.
11. Meron Benvenisti, Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948 (University of California Press 2000), page 120.
12. Allis Radosh and Ronald Radosh, A Safe Haven: Harry S. Truman and the Foundation of Israel (HarperCollins 2009).
13. Efraim Karsh, The Tail Wags the Dog: International Politics and the Middle East (Bloomsbury 2015), page 62.
15. Marshall believed that the situation at that moment “gave more promise of a satisfactory solution than at any time since the problem had arisen, and that the prospects for such a solution were good.”