Harry S. Truman always ranked among my favorite presidents of the United States, if only because he made sure America was the first country to recognize the birth of the State of Israel on May 14, 1948. In his new book Saving Freedom: Truman, the Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization (HarperCollins), bestselling author and renowned TV personality (MSNBC) Joe Scarborough reiterates that the 34th president faced stern opposition from his Secretary of State George C. Marshall and his deputies, which “[…] led to an open conflict between the State Department and the White House.” Although such a conflict is to be expected, I was surprised and amazed to read that it only took 11 minutes for the president to make his decision, against all odds.
Not much is written about Truman. Not enough in my humble opinion. After all, there is much more to the 34th President than the decision to use the bomb to end World War II. In Joe Scarborough’s words, he was “the most consequential foreign policy president of the past seventy-five years.”
Apart from showing tremendous courage in facing headwinds about Israel, he had previously been instrumental in blocking the Soviet Union’s advance in the Mediterranean area. Upon learning in February 1947 that Great Britain could no longer shoulder its global role because “[…] Hitler’s war machine wreathed that nation in everlasting glory, but exhausted its resources and its people”, the Truman administration had a choice to make. Revert to isolationism or espouse a leadership role in the world. Great Britain would pass the torch to the United States and Washington would undertake the mission of developing and implementing a policy to prevent Greece and Turkey from falling under the hammer and sickle.
On top of policy minutiae, which Joe Scarborough details with the precision of a skilled legislator (which he was), what struck me the most about his insightful book is the notion of character. Contrary to his legendary predecessor, FDR, Harry S. Truman was theoretically not very well-equipped to face the affairs of a world in turmoil. His education about international politics virtually began on his first day on the job. But the former World War I artillery officer was to prove the skeptics wrong.
It was most certainly easy to underestimate the man who had “[…] never seriously contemplated a career in politics until he had failed in countless other ventures.” Even after entering the arena, Truman’s association with Tom Pendergast was a potential career-breaker. In 1939, this former political mentor was sentenced to jail. This could have “[…] damaged [Truman’s] reputation and clouded his prospects.” But decency and hard work were his insurance policy. These qualities would foster a capacity for reaching across the aisle to implement the Truman Doctrine, which started with vital US support for Greece and Turkey. After all, Republican Senator Arthur Vandenberg – a former isolationist – was crucial to the adoption of the proposed measures in Congress.
Having to cope with the first stages of the Cold War, “[…] the five-feet-nine-inch commoner with an explosive temper and poor eyesight exceeded all the low expectations placed upon his narrow shoulders.” This is probably the best quote in the book. As with the decision to recognize Israel despite the difficult context, the commander-in-chief could make a swift decision and stick to it. He was going to support Western democracy and individual freedoms. Come hell or high water.
In Israel’s case, I would be tempted to say that Truman was a visionary, because it is nowadays the only real democracy in the Middle East. Four general elections (and potentially a fifth one looming on the horizon) in just two years are a testament to what Prime Minister Netanyahu once told me about the fact that his country “is the first line of defense of Western values in the region”. But I digress.
Inevitably, a book about Harry S. Truman by a gifted writer and expert of the inner workings of the political world is a recipe for success. But Joe Scarborough’s eye for colorful anecdotes makes it even better. Much better. The best one contained in Saving Freedom is about Winston Churchill. At the end of the first Potsdam conference between Churchill, Truman and Stalin, “Most in the prime minister’s entourage, confident that they would be returning with a triumphantly reelected prime minister, left their luggage behind.” The great man was defeated by his Labour Party rival Clement Attlee.
In the current context of toxic relations between Western democracies on one side, and Russia and China on the other – we should take comfort in knowing that a sculpture of Harry Truman made its way into President Biden’s Oval Office. To confront the perils that lie ahead, he could do much worse than seek inspiration from the character and determination of the Man from Missouri.
Saving Freedom is an exquisite read for anyone interested in American political history in general, but also an essential antidote for those who might succumb to the virus according to which democracy and freedoms are doomed. The first years of the Cold War provide with an inspiring roadmap that can still be used nowadays. More than ever, the world needs to know that the disciples of Harry S. Truman will always man the trenches on the first lines of defense of freedom and democracy.
Joe Scarborough, Saving Freedom: Truman, the Cold War, and the Fight for Western Civilization, New York, HarperCollins, 2020, 288 pages.
I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Hannah Long from HarperCollins, not only for proving me with a copy of this amazing book, but also for her continued support for and collaboration with this blog.