The War on Terror has spurred an entire industry of historical analogy, some of it purely rhetorical, but much of it central to formulating a strategy to defeat the jihadi threat to America and the world. The foundation of many of these analogies-which come from manifold political perspectives-is the presidency of Harry S Truman. On the left, Peter Beinart, Will Marshall and Richard Holbrooke, among others, see Truman as their North Star in these troubled times, guiding them back to the Promised Land. On the right, none other than President George W. Bush claims mastery over the Missourian's legacy (beyond the low approval rating and mediocre public speaking skills), carrying the anti-totalitarian torch into a new century.
Both left and right argue that the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO and NSC-68 followed a linear trajectory, reflecting a uniform grand strategy for confronting the Soviet Union dating back to March 1947. Holbrooke concurs, adding that this "nearly pitch-perfect" strategy "reached its apogee in June 1950, when Truman ordered U.S. forces to defend South Korea after the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel." How do we resolve these conflicting claims to the Truman throne? For starters, this succession battle and the en vogue deification of Truman's presidency largely ignores the not-quite-dead 56-year-old elephant in the room-the Korean War-and its meaning today.
The Korean War marked a turning point in American Cold War strategy. Following the war's outbreak, Truman set the wheels in motion for the approval of NSC-68, the administration's grand strategy statement, and it became official policy on September 30. It defined the Cold War as a confrontation between the Soviet Union-the "slave state"-and the United States-the "free state." Despite its significance, today's Truman fan club treats the Korean War as though it were their icon's middle initial, standing for nothing. But the conflict matters, and its origins and impact on American strategy dispel the myths fueling current attempts at appropriating the Truman legacy.
Remembering the Forgotten War
As Truman told the American public in his 1953 farewell address, "Most important of all, we acted in Korea. The decision I believe was the most important in my time as president of the United States." The Korean War was a war of firsts, distinguishing itself from the 20th century's two world wars and other modern conflicts through its symbolic, not strategic, underpinnings and its combination of the nuclear threat with limited warfare. Truman's initial response to the Korean War was both courageous and essential. Speaking on the 175th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, he emphasized the Korean intervention's unique place in history. Lofty ideals, not strategic necessity, inspired U.S. intervention. "Men of the armed forces in Korea . . . you are winning a greater thing than military victory, for you are vindicating the idea of freedom under international law. It is an achievement that may well prove to be a turning point in world history", Truman said. He was right.
Roughly three years earlier, Truman delivered his most famous speech to a joint session of Congress. The Truman Doctrine, however, did not distinguish the Soviet Union from previous totalitarian threats to global stability and was therefore not the diplomatic tour de force it is so often treated as. As Truman said at a press conference in May 1947, "There isn't any difference in totalitarian states. I don't care what you call them-you call them Nazi, Communist or Fascist, or Franco, or anything else-they are all alike." Unlike George F. Kennan, who distinguished the Soviet Union from Hitlerite Germany in the Long Telegram, for Truman, the USSR paralleled previous totalitarian threats and could be dealt with similarly, negating the need to implement an innovative grand strategy.
The Historical Leap (of Faith)
So how does one construct the Truman legacy and identify the present incarnation of his ideals and leadership? That depends on your political affiliation.
For Beinart, Truman's foreign policy consisted of three principles: containment of the Soviet Union, domestic strength through "reconstruction" and self-restraint in wielding American power through multilateral institutions (specifically the United Nations and NATO). This three-pronged approach culminated in the approval of NSC-68 in September 1950. Given that Truman is a hero in Beinart's narrative, the Korean War's MIA status in his book is rather conspicuous.
George W. Bush, summarizing Truman's foreign policy at West Point's commencement on May 27, 2006, said: "President Truman made clear that the Cold War was an ideological struggle between tyranny and freedom. . . . [H]e issued a presidential directive called NSC-68, which declared that America faced an enemy ‘animated by a new fanatic faith' and determined to impose its ideology on the entire world." The Bush Doctrine, so the analogy goes, is today's blueprint for victory and the Truman Administration's ideological progeny.
The historical linearity of Bush and Beinart, however, doesn't accurately reflect the record. In fairness, many left-leaning analysts simply seek to connect themselves with an era when Democrats were strong on national security, and Truman's final term is a good choice. But by relying on historical analogy and cherry picking from history, convenience takes precedence over substantive strategic analysis.