Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Truman’s Lessons of History

Prologue’s current issue celebrates Harry Truman, who would have been 125 this year. Samuel Rushay wrote an article for this issue that pulls out what he feels are the lessons that Truman learned from history. He concludes Truman learned nine things from history:
  • Democracy is Fragile
  • Democratic Government has a Moral Basis
  • Find Leadership Qualities to Emulate and to Avoid
  • Recognize Internal and External Threats to Democracy
  • Do not trust Historians
  • History is Marked by Continuity and Progress
  • Progress Occurs in Cycles
  • Each Generation must Learn History’s Lessons
  • Individuals Matter

I’m going to pick one of the sections to highlight here:
Lesson 3: Find leadership qualities to emulate and to avoid
Truman’s reading focused on biography, which provided for him keys to leadership. In a 1934 autobiographical manuscript written while he was presiding judge of Jackson County (an administrative, not a judicial post), Truman observed that great men’s first victories were won "over themselves and their carnal urges. Self-discipline with all of them came first." Among those leaders he admired were the Roman general Cincinnatus, the Carthaginian general Hannibal, the Persian leader Cyrus the Great, George Washington, and Robert E. Lee. He noted that "a lot of heroes were made by being in at death or defeat of one of the really great," an interesting comment given his own fate of succeeding a great man, Franklin Roosevelt, 11 years later.

He was not fond of men such as Alexander the Great or Napoleon. "I could never admire a man whose only interest is himself." Furthermore, leaders had to lead, not follow public whim. Leadership of the kind that Jesus, Moses, and Martin Luther offered was based on right and wrong, not on polls or opinion of the moment.

In his writings about U.S. and world history, Harry Truman revealed a deep suspicion of demagogues, many of whom were military leaders. In July 1953, he reflected on the popularity of ancient Greek and Roman rulers. In Greece, Alcibiades was a popular leader but was a "first class demagogue and rounder" whom the people loved "because he was no good!" By contrast, Athenians did not appreciate the "honorable" Aristides, whom they banished "because they were tired of hearing him called the just."

In Rome, Cincinnatus was a model leader for Truman. Cincinnatus, like George Washington centuries later, "knew when and how to lay down his great powers." Cato the Younger displayed another value of an ideal leader: he was an honest administrator of the Roman republic’s finances.

Truman distrusted military leaders as chief executives in a republic. The temperament and training of a military leader puts him in "blinders just as a horse does," meaning a viewpoint that is parochial and not national. The great leaders of the Roman republic were not generals. When the generals took over, the empire resulted.

Being a general, however, did not in itself disqualify one from being a great civilian leader. Marcus Aurelius was a great and "wise" leader, a philosopher, and a good administrator. He had the welfare of the people in mind. Truman saw in Gen. George Marshall the same quality of putting the nation’s interests first. "He was looking after the welfare of the country." Public service is what distinguished men such as Aristides, Cincinnatus, Cato, Marcus Aurelius, and Washington from men such as Alcibiades and Gen. Douglas MacArthur, whom Truman derisively referred to as "Mr. Prima Donna, Brass Hat . . . a play actor and bunco man."

Truman had Cincinnatus and Washington very much in mind when he wrote an April 16, 1950, memorandum stating that he would not run for a third term in 1952. "There is a lure in power," he observed, and when a leader in a republic does not step down voluntarily "we start down the road to dictatorship and ruin."

Throughout his long life, Truman emphasized the importance of learning history for young people who aspired to leadership. In the early 1960s, in one of a series of interviews that later formed the basis for author and novelist Merle Miller’s Plain Speaking (1973), Harry Truman told Miller that "[a]ny youngster who starts out for a career in the Senate or the House, who will spend a little time reading the history of what’s before, if he has an objective in view, can find out how to do it. And that’s history." Reading also provided for Truman insights into people: "The only reason you read books is to get a better sense into people that you’re talking to."

You’ll note that one of the lessons is not to trust historians – which, as a historian, I, of course, disagree with (although I will admit there are some who I don’t believe are correct, but that’s our job as a student of history – deciding if the argument is valid). I thought I’d pull this quote on Truman’s opinion of historians for you, though, as well:
Truman’s view of historians went beyond indifference; it bordered on contempt. In 1950, he lectured a newspaperman, Edward Harris of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that "real history consists of the life and actions of great men. . . Historians editorializing is in the same class as the modern irresponsible columnist."

So while Truman saw validity in history, he was not fond of historians.


Scott said...

The only thing I ask is that you use a different color, preferably a darker color. The lighter colors on the non-white background is difficult to read.

Jennie W said...

Sorry! Is this better?