How Harry Truman fought back after being called a socialist

May 3, 2011 | By | 37 Replies More

In the May 2, 2011 edition of The Nation, John Nichols explains that not all Democrats cowered after being called “socialists.” His article features this vignette regarding Harry Truman:

[C]onservative Republicans, led by Ohio Senator Robert Taft, announced in 1950 that their campaign slogan in that year’s Congressional elections would be “Liberty Against Socialism.” They then produced an addendum to their national platform, much of which was devoted to a McCarthyite rant charging that Truman’s Fair Deal “is dictated by a small but powerful group of persons who believe in socialism, who have no concept of the true foundation of American progress, and whose proposals are wholly out of accord with the true interests and real wishes of the workers, farmers and businessmen.”

Truman fought back, reminding Republicans that his policies were outlined in the 1948 Democratic platform, which had proven to be wildly popular with the electorate. “If our program was dictated, as the Republicans say, it was dictated at the polls in November 1948. It was dictated by a ‘small but powerful group’ of 24 million voters,” said the president, who added, “I think they knew more than the Republican National Committee about the real wishes of the workers, farmers and businessmen.”

Truman did not cower at the mention of the word “socialism,” which in those days was distinguished in the minds of most Americans from Soviet Stalinism, with which the president—a mean cold warrior—was wrangling. Nor did Truman, who counted among his essential allies trade unionists like David Dubinsky, Jacob Potofsky and Walter Reuther, all of whom had been connected with socialist causes and in many cases the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas, rave about the evils of social democracy. Rather, he joked that “Out of the great progress of this country, out of our great advances in achieving a better life for all, out of our rise to world leadership, the Republican leaders have learned nothing. Confronted by the great record of this country, and the tremendous promise of its future, all they do is croak, ‘socialism.’”

Savvy Republicans moved to abandon the campaign.


Category: Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Jim Razinha says:

    "Strict requirements"? What might those be? I didn't state any. But I did ask if you had military experience or had ever been in a position of leadership in which you had to make decisions that affected the lives of those you lead.

    Anyway, Leahy also said to Truman, "This is the biggest fool thing we have ever done. The bomb will never go off, and I speak as an expert in explosives."

    And you left off the part where Leahy said just before the quote you used, "Once it had been tested, President Truman faced the decision as to whether to use it. He did not like the idea, but he was persuaded that it would shorten the war against Japan and save American lives."

    Truman "did not like the idea." Hmmm.

    Leahy retired in 1939 after his tour as Chief of Naval Operations with very little combat action to his credit. His role after retirement was to be appointed as Chief of Staff to the President (Roosevelt)which is largely how he earned his fifth star. He might have had knowledge of the battle plans in the Pacific, given the magnitude of the scope, but I'm not sure if that is known. Regardless, he was offering opinion in his memoirs.

    Chester Nimitz supposedly wanted a bomb sooner when told of it in February 1945.

    Eisenhower knew nothing of the Pacific Theater until after the war was over – so his remarks were in response to a general staff level briefing. And other sources say that the notes of aides of Stimson do not record any dissension from Eisenhower. Perhaps Eisenhower's recall was a little faulty (I offer that as unqualified counterpoint, as I haven't verified that account.)

    Now MacArthur, who did know of the Pacific Theater, wanted to finish Japan the old-fashioned way and was convinced he didn't need the bomb (after the fact…he wasn't consulted until just before the drop.) And he still wanted to invade after Hiroshima. But he did want to use nukes against China during the Korea War, so it was a matter of the circumstances.

    For every few who opposed publicly at the time or after the fact, one can easily find many, many more of their peers that didn't.

    Now, on the subject of that quote I can't find, I picked up "The Buck Stops Here" today. No help at all. Craughwell and Kiester did not document any of their quotes (that is something about which I have strict requirements) – I assume they quoted, because they used quotation marks – no notes, only four sources listed at the back of the book for that chapter and no cites at all. Worse, the quotes appear to have been edited ("…") and as the sources are unknown, an interested reader can't verify any of them or read the context from which they were picked.

    I find that method of writing very maddening; as if the authors want to only portray a certain side (or hide something) and are writing only for those who will not challenge what they've said. David McCullough did that in the couple of books of his I read, and even though I like his writing, I will never quote anything from his books, as he doesn't cite his sources. I thought it funny that Craughwell and Kiester used McCullough as a source for their story – no documented cites from no cites.

    The Buck is a nice Time-Life History, but I'm back to square zero. A clipped quote without context. I think it's not worth digging any further, but the lack of verification will bug me.

  2. Jim,

    The quote from Truman regarding the Jews can be found in Michael Beschloss's book "Presidential Courage." Along with that he also cites Truman's support of the establishment of Israel with a few other observations that deflate the contention that he was an anti-semite.

  3. Oh, and there was apparently a lot of "not consulting" MacArthur going on—he was a martinette and everybody knew it. The main reason he was out there was because of his special relationships with the Philippines and Australians. The only worthwhile thing I can find that he ever did was the post-war Japanese constitution. Halsey thought he was an idiot for the island-hopping, which MacArthur insisted on. (He owned a lot of property in the Philippines.) Truman was right to fire him. He forgot who was in charge.

  4. Mike M. says:

    Jim you ask–"Strict requirements"? What might those be? I didn't state any."

    The strict requirements I was referring to was in reference to your statement about who's qualified to judge, and my view of who's opinion would have merit in your eyes: You wrote–"the bottom line is that an incredibly small number of men have held a position where such decisions had to be made. Until you are one of them, possessed of all the information given to them, surrounded by many thinkers (and an occasional socio/psycho-path, I’ll wager), you can’t judge. The only person who really knows what he/she is getting into with that job is the one who already holds it."

    For context, here's a more expanded quote from Admiral Leahy's book, "I Was There":

    "Both sides were prepared throughout the war that had just ended to unloose deadly gases, but not even the fanatical followers of Hitler and Hirohito, who committed so many other unspeakable atrocities dared use poison gas—for fear of retaliation.

    To me, the atomic bomb belongs in exactly the same category.

    I have admitted frankly in the preceding chapter that I misjudged the terrible efficiency of this entirely new concept of an explosive. In the fall of 1944 I held conferences with Professor Bush, Lord Cherwell, the British expert on atomic energy, and Major General Groves. They had convinced President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill of the potential effectiveness of atomic energy for military purposes.

    As a result, vast sums of money were appropriated to push the development with all possible speed.

    In the spring of 1945 President Truman directed Mr. Byrnes to make a special study of the status and prospects of the new atomic explosive on which two billion dollars already had been spent. Byrnes came to my home on the evening of June 4 to discuss his findings. He was more favorably impressed than I had been up to that time with the prospects of success in the final development and use of this new weapon.

    Once it had been tested, President Truman faced the decision as to whether to use it. He did not like the idea, but was persuaded that it would shorten the war against Japan and save American lives. It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.

    It was my reaction that the scientists and others wanted to make this test because of the vast sums that had been spent on the project. Truman knew that, and so did the other people involved. However, the Chief Executive made a decision to use the bomb on two cities in Japan. We had only produced two bombs at that time. We did not know which cities would be the targets, but the President specified that the bombs should be used against military facilities.

    I realized that my original error in discounting the effectiveness of the atomic bomb was based on long experience with explosives in the Navy. I had specialized in gunnery and at one time headed the Navy Department's Bureau of Ordnance. "Bomb" is the wrong word to use for this new weapon. It is not a bomb. It is not an explosive. It is a poisonous thing that kills people by its deadly radioactive reaction, more than by the explosive force it develops.

    The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children. We were the first to have this weapon in our possession, and the first to use it. There is a practical certainty that potential enemies will have it in the future and that atomic bombs will sometime be used against us.

    That is why, as a professional military man with a half century of service to his government, I come to the end of my war story with an apprehension about the future.

    These new concepts of "total war" are basically distasteful to the soldier and sailor of my generation. Employment of the atomic bomb in war will take us back in cruelty toward noncombatants to the days of Genghis Khan.

    It will be a form of pillage and rape of a society, done impersonally by one state against another, whereas in the Dark Ages it was a result of individual greed and vandalism. These new and terrible instruments of uncivilized warfare represent a modern type of barbarism not worthy of Christian man.

    One of the professors associated with the Manhattan Project told me that he had hoped the bomb wouldn't work. I wish that he had been right.

    Perhaps there is some hope that its capacity for death and terror among the defenseless may restrain nations from using the atom bomb against each other, just as in the last war such fears made them avoid employment of the new and deadlier poison gases developed during World War I.

    However, I am forced to a reluctant conclusion that for the security of my own country, which has been the guiding principle in my approach to all problems faced during my career, there is but one course open to us:

    Until the United Nations, or some world organization, can guarantee—and have the power to enforce that guarantee—that the world will be spared the terrors of atomic warfare, the United States must have more and better atom bombs than any potential enemy." (Leahy, I Was There, pp. 440-442).

  5. Jim Razinha says:

    Mike – the small number of men I was referring to are the American Presidents. I'll check with my friend to see if he's read Leahy's book…he reads a lot of Naval history along with political books.

    Mark, I was only pulling the thread on the "no great decision" quote that is attributed to the 1959 lectures at Columbia, not anything about Jews. I think the context might be in "Truman Speaks", but I don't have access to a copy to check.

    When I see edited quotes, I usually like to verify…and see what was cut out. Sometimes, if available, it is nothing. And sometimes the missing pieces completely change the meaning. Sometimes the hunt is more fun than the outcome, but it can also drain.

  6. Mike M. says:

    Jim – I didn't realize you were referring only to American Presidents. I guess I was thrown off by your use of "he/she" in this context.

    Here's your quote: "Until you are one of them, possessed of all the information given to them, surrounded by many thinkers (and an occasional socio/psycho-path, I’ll wager), you can’t judge. The only person who really knows what he/she is getting into with that job is the one who already holds it.”

  7. Jim Razinha says:

    Mike – right on my quote, but within that context I was talking about the "incredibly difficult role of the President of the United States in having to make that decision."

    And right before the "Until…" I started the paragraph:

    "A decision had to be made. Was it the right one? Well, as it worked, history can judge it as so. Given that we cannot know how any alternate courses of action might have turned out, we’re back to armchairing in retrospect, and while those military strategists with their crystal balls and imaginary casualties actually do deconstruct the past to determine options for future engagements, the bottom line is that an incredibly small number of men have held a position where such decisions had to be made."

    I can see how the military strategist part might have clouded my point. I was just noting that we have to study what we know in order to make plans for what we don't, but by inserting it in the midst of a point on Presidential decisions, I inadvertantly feinted away from my objective.

  8. Mike M. says:

    Jim, you asked me, "have you ever served in the military?" Probably a rhetorical inquiry, but I'll answer anyway: No, I haven't ever been a servant in the military. I've never killed a perfect stranger (or any human being). I've never held a "leadership position" in which I've ordered another person to kill a perfect stranger. I am proud to say that I've never enlisted in an organization which would compel me, under the hierarchy of authority and threat of harsh penalty, to do these acts. If those words bring down charges of "self righteousness", well.. I suppose I can live with that but I'm not being pious, just honest.

    So when I'm talking about war I'm obviously working from the position of an outsider. But outsiders are often able to bring fresh clarity to an insider, and I feel strongly that the outsider perspective can have merit… by virtue of being beyond the perimeter, instead of entangled within it.

    It may be cultural heresy to say so, but I don't consider war to be a game; a game of tactics and strategies with Winners and Losers. It's not Chess or Checkers or Risk. Neither do I consider war to be an abstraction. These may be the mental and linguistic ploys used by most soldiers, Nationalists, politicians and assorted others to avoid facing the grim slaughterhouse realities of war (I'm talking about the Dead Bodies)- you know, that soft underbelly beneath the varnished shell of convoluted "war-games talk"; a shell which surrounds, hides, and ultimately diminishes the victims.

    So then, how DO I consider war? War is beyond doubt an extremely complex and multifaceted thing. However– I feel that War, when reduced down to its fundamental essence, is simply People Killing People. I realize that vast numbers of humans still believe honor and glory are to be found in the acts of People Killing People, but I am not one of those believers.

    Soldiers kill because they're told to kill –they kill not based on any personal grievance, but based on the hazy and shifting goals of Authority. And the "enemy" on the other side is caught up in the same web. Now I ask: Is this the behavior of people operating under self will, or the behavior of people BEING USED? To me, war seems to be a self-perpetuating artificial construct.

    But this is a big world, and there's room for myriad diverse viewpoints. There's room for those who cling to beliefs that are no more than the ripened fruits of effective propaganda programs. There's also room for those who favor mechanistic, culture-encrusted beliefs. My brain is free to reject those beliefs if they're found to be flawed or counterproductive for me, and free to develop thought-models which work better as I strive to be a fully conscious, empathetic and flexible being.

    Now, to circle back to the A-Bombs and my original main point.

    I believe that the extermination of 200,000 innocent civilians was initiated from a comfortable armchair in Washington D.C., fulfilled at 1,890 ft in the air, and executed under dubious if not deceptive circumstances. I suspect that the high-tech methodology and distance (emotional and physical) of the bombings contributed to the conceptual transmutation of this massacre into a simple War Game Tactic (We won!)……or did we?

    A. Atomic bombs were dropped.

    B. WWII ended.

    C. Therefore dropping the atomic bombs ended WWII.

    This is an example of the Post Hoc Fallacy. In other words, if "C" is expressed as a certainty then it's a cognitive mistake.

    Dwight Eisenhower didn't believe dropping the atomic bombs was necessary to end the war or "save lives", and neither did Admiral William Leahy – among others.

    Finally, I do not believe that premeditated mass exterminations of civilians can ever be a necessary, acceptable or justifiable military option. Not in a civilized society, and not under any circumstances.

    Only when this option is inconceivable, and off the military menu, can we reclaim our wisdom and find redemption.

  9. Mike M.

    Like you, I've never been in the military. I believe I would have made a lousy soldier, but not for reasons having necessarily to do with killing.

    Everything you say I pretty much agree with. War, as I described earlier, is a million-car pile-up. Once the shooting starts, morality and decency are sidelined. For the most part, war ought never to happen in, as you put it, a civilized society. Obviously we're not talking about the civilized part of society when war becomes a viable option.

    WWII has been described by many as the last "good" war—there were clear consequences to inaction, there really was an evil to be defeated. Granted, it was more complex than that, but it was fairly obvious to many people beforehand, during, and after that Hitler and Hiro Hito were bent on domination and slaughter. When someone like that can get millions of people to follow them, options for everyone else become sharply limited.

    It's possible the only other kind of "good" war is what we're seeing now in Libya and perhaps soon in Syria—the people rising up finally to oust an oppressor who will take no answer but submission or a bullet.

    From the first in this string, I have not disagreed with what I take to be your revulsion at all the slaughter. The only sound answer to a war is that it should not have happened. I took exception to your characterization of Truman. Within the context of WWII he was by no means a mass murderer.

    During the opening days of the big bombing runs against Germany, the Americans came in to Britain and immediately questioned the British decision to bomb civilian targets. The Americans thought with precision bombing they could cripple and stop Hitler's ability to wage war without destroying anything but airfields, ports, military bases. As the war continued, it became clear that Hitler's machine was made up of practically everyone in Germany. The factories, the roads, the farms, all of it went into the war effort and there really was no distinction between a soldier in uniform and the worker making bullets in Dusseldorf. The country was at war, not just the military, and all of it had to be stopped. Likewise in Japan.

    So when you say 200,000 innocent lives—Hiroshima was a manufacturing and transportation center, plus the headquarters of the Japanese Second Army. Military supplies were stockpiled. It served the war effort. Likewise, Nagasaki, aside from being a major seaport, was a major manufacturer of war materiel. It was part of the Japanese war machine.

    I'm not arguing the point of wasted lives, only that in such a circumstance the term "innocent" is almost rhetorical. The Japanese were patriots, many believed in what their country was doing, and worked to help it do that.

    But there is no excuse for war. Ever, I believe. It is a failure, I believe. WWII began in 1919, when the allied powers failed to do the sensible thing at Versailles. The mess they made led to millions of deaths—which, I suppose, from your perspective at the time would have seemed like imaginary deaths. Others had to come in a clean it up.

    In my humble opinion, I think Eisenhower was not wholly wrong, but he was not right, either. (There is also the added factor of Stalin. Truman understood Uncle Joe very well, maybe better than Churchill, certainly better than Roosevelt. There is some argument that he dropped those two bombs on Russia. Russia was about to turn its attention to the Pacific after the fall of Berlin. This possibility was more than a little disturbing. Patton's histrionics notwithstanding, there was the very real possibility that the Soviet Union might continue westward and we could not have stopped them. Patton famously wanted to start a war with them right then and there, arguing that we had the army in place and we'd have to fight them later anyway. The truth is sobering. The allies had something like 70 divisions in Germany at the time. The Russians had 500. Dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki removed the excuse Stalin would have needed to send troops to Japan and also showed him that we had something that could stop his 500 divisions in Europe. As far as I know, nothing in Truman's writings has emerged to verify that, but I wouldn't doubt it was part of his calculation. Again, terrible. But that is war. There are no good choices, only less costly ones.)

    Anyway, I said before I was done with this. Thank you for a most engaging exchange. It's good to work through these things and often, lest we forget.

  10. Jim Razinha says:

    Sometime back in 1982, I took a political science class on international relations. Day one, the prof started out with "there are only two types of international relations: war and the things we do to avoid war." Young as I was, that was eye-opening that someone would think that. Older now, I'm not sure he was wrong.

    Cute spin that: "servant" of the military; funny how the English language can be manipulated…service to servant. Regardless of how a few people might view my service, I never saw any of my 20 years (save boot camp, perhaps) as servile, nor as I've noted in other threads was I ever a "yes man"; I was paid to lead, think and solve problems. If the officers appointed over me made decisions counter to my suggestions, then so be it.

    I've never killed a stranger, perfect or otherwise, nor ordered someone to do so (there are many, many other jobs in the military that do not involve such.) But that interpretation of my question was not what I asked ("Have you ever been in a position of leadership that required you to make a decision that would mean life or death for the people you were charged with leading?") Despite not ordering a killing, I have been in such a position – there are risks in everyday life; we work to mitigate those risks, but sometimes things need to be done that can be life threatening.

    I'm out, too. An enlightening airing of opinions.

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    Mike, Jim, Mark and the others – Thank you for this highly engaging thread. I've been watching and reading on the sidelines, and I've been repeatedly challenged by all of you. Many different perspectives on war, and I don't think that any one person could possibly describe it as well as all of you. Reminds me of Nietzsche's multi-perspectivalism. Or is it the Blind Men and the Elephant?

  12. Jim Razinha says:

    I like elephants.

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