Harry S Truman’s mother in law never quite felt that Truman was good enough for her darling daughter. I suppose she always saw him as the awkward farm boy courting her, rather than as the returned war veteran who had risen to the rank of major in command of an artillery battery who married Bess. Even years later, when he was US president and she was living with the Trumans in the White House, she still felt that Bess could have done better.
I’ve never been quite able to work Truman out. A few years ago I read David McCullough’s excellent biography of Truman and I can still not see how the goody-two-shoes farm boy transformed into the cigar smoking, bourbon sipping, poker playing politician with the diamond hard edge who led the USA and the free world at a very critical moment in history.
Truman is the last US president to not have obtained a college degree. Perhaps his formative education was as that artillery officer he became in the late stages of the First World War. He went from a militia corporal before the war to a leader, knowing how to give orders. That became critically important when he was sworn in as successor to FDR and became, for the first time, privy to the terrible secret which was the Manhattan Project, and knowing that he would have to give the orders whether or not to use those frightening weapons.
Aside from his marriage, his war service, and his political career, Truman was not very successful at many things he did. He was not very good as a farmer, his furniture business after the war failed, and he did drop out of night school. His mother in law might have been right to be unimpressed by him.
But lack of success in civilian life notwithstanding, when it counted and the power of the presidency fell upon his shoulders, he could bear it and wield that power effectively and decisively.
With the news of the Fall of Kabul to the Taliban in the past two days, I have been thinking about Harry S Truman and the other men who have occupied the modern presidency a whole lot. Not since the Fall of Saigon in 1975 has America faced such a humiliation, the abandonment of a war of attrition.
You can never dismiss someone who achieves the office of President of the United States. Not only are they relentlessly driven and ambitious, but they are intelligent far above the average, able to connect with and convince those around them to support them, and possessed of a certain Will To Power that propels them further than other highly gifted men.
Even the most unsuccessful of presidents are highly driven. During the years since 1901, the least of those, or the most mediocre, perhaps would be Taft, the brilliant jurist, Harding, the figurehead, and Coolidge, the idol of some of those who believe in limited government (because Ol Calvin did not seem to do anything).
And when you look at the growth and survival of American power, you cannot help but see many periods where American presidents have stumbled greatly.
Woodrow Wilson, the brilliant academic and idealist, appears to have been spiteful and emotionally feeble, and destroyed his health in pursuit of a new rules based international system his nation was not yet ready for, and which the old world still rejected outright.
Herbert Hoover, who is widely blamed for the Great Depression, may well have been remembered very differently if he had been elected in 1920 instead of 1928.
I venture that there have been three periods in the past 120 years where America has had presidents who were not up to the task, but where America has, regardless of this, grown or retained its power.
The first is the 1920s, where Harding, Coolidge and Hoover had the inertia and lack of foresight to lead their nation.
The next is the 1960s and 1970s. Kennedy made many stumbles in his brief reign, the Cuban Missile Crisis probably being his finest hour. Johnson led America deep into Vietnam and into domestic debt. Then there is Nixon, the most deeply flawed but insightful man who could, if he had not succumbed to the abuses of power that were Watergate, have been remembered as a great president. Ford, long regarded as inept, achieved the presidency through the high regard he was held by both sides of politics, being the most decent of men. Carter too, a man of principle and yet another former Naval Officer (all the presidents from Kennedy to Carter had served in the US Navy), proved not to be up to the foreign policy challenges.
The third era is now, since 2001. We can look with nostalgia at the presidencies of Reagan, the first Bush, and Clinton as a golden age where America reached the height of its post Second World War power globally, and enjoyed prosperity domestically. Since then, we have had four presidents, the second Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden, who have stumbled into wars and foreign crises whilst progressively bankrupting their nation.
Of course, what I am saying is an oversimplification. The USA is a complex nation, with many difficult domestic issues and more foreign policy entanglements and obligations than the rest of the world combined. Where one president has succeeded in one realm, others may have failed miserably, and from the perspective of the outsider, I mostly focus on the foreign policy, rather than on the problems which overwhelm America from within.
For example, whilst America was busy losing the Vietnam War and abandoning the Gold Standard, it was at the same time implementing policies of greater social equality and liberality and placing men on the Moon for the first time.
Under Reagan, America recovered very strongly from the Vietnam War. It then went during the reign of the first Bush and won the Cold War.
But the Fall of Kabul so quickly after the US withdrawal does leave me wondering as to how the US got it so wrong, and whether this is just a legacy of Trump’s lack of attention to detail, or connected to Biden’s current leadership, or a symptom of a broader malaise within the American polity?