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October 9, 2013 at 12:03 PM

A look back at Harry Truman

President Harry Truman in Olympia, June 1945 (Seattle Times file photo)

President Harry Truman in Olympia, June 1945
(Seattle Times file photo)

My column this week is about Harry Truman, whose decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is the subject of a play developed for Seattle high schoolers. I was invited to the play by Seattle attorney Michael King, who acts the part of Truman; King, who grew up in a Democratic family, is a fan of Truman, though he believes Truman was led to make the wrong decision about the atomic bombs.

I grew up in a Republican family.  My father recalled Truman as a weak president who had gotten the country into a war in Korea and then decided not to win it. Dad did not fault Truman for dropping the atomic bombs. The argument was that Japan’s leaders weren’t ready to give up, and that the bombs shocked them into changing their minds.

Later I read arguments against the use of the bomb, some of them by conservative historians. The argument was Japan’s leaders were ready to give up, that they were looking for a way to do so honorably, but that they feared a harsh occupation and removal of their emperor. And when they got the assurance about the emperor, they did give up. I came to agree that Truman had made the wrong decision on the bombs.

On the broader question of Harry Truman, I fall short of fandom. Credit him for approving the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift, which came out well, and for integrating the military. Credit him also with standing up to Stalin, forming NATO, etc., though he was also responsible for the peacetime national security state including a peacetime draft. How much of all that was necessary? Some of it, but all of it became difficult to get rid of when the Soviet Union went away. At least the draft ended, under Nixon, but much of the rest of the national security state created under Truman is still with us.

Truman took America into the Korean War entirely on the permission of the United Nations without asking for a vote in Congress. In the 60 years since, Truman’s action has been cited every time a president wants to commit an act of war. It is a bad precedent. Congress should have never let him do it.

During that war, Truman ordered all the major steel mills in the United States seized by the government. Workers, represented by the United Steelworkers of America, had suffered from wartime inflation and demanded wage increases, but federal price controls prevented the mills from raising the price of steel. The mills sued, and in Youngstown Sheet & Tube v. Sawyer the U.S. Supreme Court (all Democratic appointees) ruled 6-3 that Truman had overstepped his authority. Justice William O. Douglas wrote:

“Today a kindly President uses the seizure power to effect a wage increase and to keep the steel furnaces in production. Yet tomorrow, another president might use the same power to prevent a wage increase, to curb trade unionists and to regiment labor as oppressively as industry thinks it has been regimented by this decision.”

This ruling has made such an action unthinkable. Too bad there wasn’t a Supreme Court ruling about going to war without asking Congress.

Truman tried to get his party’s nomination for another term and failed. When he left office in 1953, Truman was rated even lower in the national opinion polls than Richard Nixon when he resigned. When politicians are that unpopular, there are usually some good reasons. Truman has been resurrected by the historians, but they should be careful not to overdo it.

Comments | Topics: nuclear weapons, u.s. history, world war II

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