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Harry S. Truman: His legacy of leadership and integrity

As I make a toast, I remember what Truman said when he wanted a drink: Let's strike a blow for liberty.

Dec. 26, 2012, marked 40 years since the death of Harry S. Truman, 33rd President of the United States. We could use him today. In my opinion, he was the last president with any significant amount of personal and political integrity, and one of the relatively few, ever. He meant what he said and said what he meant without any slippery words.

In the 1960s, a family friend described his first meeting with President Truman. Ted, fresh out of law school, was recruited by the fast-rising attorney and Democrat counselor Clark Clifford. One day Clifford invited Ted to “come to a meeting with the president.” Truman had a well-known policy that nobody left a meeting with him without saying something. Ted’s specialty was tax law, and this meeting involved interpreting the tax code. Ted saw an opportunity to get his two cents in, so he suggested, “Mr. President, if you do it this way, you have deniability.” Ted said, “The president stopped, stared at me for a very long second, and, realizing I was a newcomer, said emphatically, 'Sonny, I don’t know what kind of word that is, deniability, but when I make a decision to do something, the people are going to know I did it.'”

Truman had an incredible combination of strength of character, street smarts, and a great BS detector. Truman was the last president without the advantage of a college education. Ironically, he was also the last one who could balance a budget (a few years under Eisenhower and Clinton, and one under Nixon excepted). He stayed fit for almost his entire life, taking walks using the military stride. (In those days, that was a 40-inch step, 40 steps a minute.)

Truman’s first business was farming. That was interrupted by World War I. Truman was a captain in Battery D of his Missouri National Guard’s artillery unit. They came under a withering attack and started to scatter. Truman rallied his troops, partly with a generous use of profanities, and led them to a safer position, preventing most of them from being wounded or worse. This made him a war hero when they got home. Back home, one of the first things Truman did was propose to his high school sweetheart, Bess Wallace. But they weren’t married until he started earning money.

One of Truman’s closest friends in the Army was Edward (Eddie) Jacobson, a Jewish man from Kansas City. During the time they served together, they ran a successful Army canteen. After the war, they opened Truman & Jacobson Haberdashery. Virtually every image of Truman shows him fashionably dressed. They were reasonably successful in 1919, then the depression of 1920-21 hit. It was about as long and severe as the one we experienced recently. It wiped out thousands of businesses and farmers around the country, including Truman & Jacobson. Bankruptcy laws were different back then, and Jacobson made sure their payments were used to pay off their obligations, which took more than 20 years.

Jacobson and Truman remained good friends and political allies until Jacobson’s death in 1955. Starting in 1947, when the land then known as Palestine was to be partitioned into a Jewish state and an Arab state, in 1948, Jacobson made sure Jewish leaders had access to Truman to present their case. Truman and some of the Jewish leaders did not get along. Truman even kicked one or two rabbis out of the Oval Office. Still, his support for Israel never waivered.

"I had faith in Israel before it was established, I have faith in it now. I believe it has a glorious future before it—not just another sovereign nation, but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization," Truman said. His support of Israel cost him the support of a man he admired and wanted to stay with him: retired five star US Army General George C. Marshall, who was then Truman’s Secretary of State and would become Truman’s Secretary of Defense.

Most Jews still revere Truman for his unwavering support of Israel, just as most blacks revere Truman for his desegregating the U.S. armed forces. Both very unpopular acts occurred less than six months before he ran for election in 1948.

A third controversial action by Truman was firing Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Or as Truman put it giving the dismissal order to Defense Secretary Marshall, “I’m going to fire the son-of-a-bitch right now.”

Near the end of World War II, Truman was in Potsdam, Germany, to meet with Stalin and Churchill (and Clement Atlee, who would soon replace Churchill). Accompanying Truman were his top advisers, including Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, (there was no defense department then. Instead there was the Department of War and the Department of the Navy.) and Presidential Chief of Staff Fleet Admiral William Leahy. They were very concerned about ending the war before the Soviet Union tried to “help” us and demand half of Japan, as the USSR was doing in Europe. However, we demanded unconditional surrender, while Japan wanted to keep its emperor whom the Japanese regarded as a kind of deity. All four disliked MacArthur because of his egotism. Supposedly, it was Byrnes who finally said, “Well, if good old Douglas MacArthur is appointed military governor and the emperor reports to him, it will be like one deity reporting to another.” They all laughed and the matter was resolved.

Alben Barkley, a senator and later Truman’s VP, is presumably the first one to shout, “Give ‘em hell, Harry!” Truman responded “I don't give them hell! I just tell the truth about them and they think it’s hell!”

Indeed, Truman left a controversial legacy. I remember an incident in a college course on business cycles. There was a lull in the class while the professor, a rock-ribbed Republican, shuffled through his 3x5 note cards. During the lull, one student piped up “Professor, other than the Great Depression what was the worst economic disaster in this country’s history?” Without even looking up, the prof replied in a most matter-of-fact voice: “The failure of a Kansas City haberdashery.” We all laughed, although that was not a view most of us held then. And obviously I still don’t.

Sources: I have been reading about Truman for some years and also seen many documentaries. Plus of course, stories from some people directly involved, such as the family friend noted above. Some of the above materials is on the Internet. One cite ishttp://http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_S._Truman