Truman & the Liberals
To the Editor:
Marcus Cunliffe in his review in your July issue apparently has not completed his homework if he really believes that Irwin Ross, in The Loneliest Campaign, has best articulated the notion that Truman’s reelection in 1948 hurt the liberal cause. Actually, Earl Latham of Amherst made this very point with great force in his award-winning book, The Communist Controversy in Washington from the New Deal to McCarthy, published in 1966. Also, Barton J. Bernstein of Stanford speculated along these lines in a book review that appeared in The Progressive in October 1966.
Even if some historians have rated Truman among the “near great” Presidents, his role is now being reevaluated by a host of younger scholars, of whom the most prolific is Professor Bernstein. While it is still too early to reach any conclusions that are more than tentative, those familiar with Truman historiography will find very dubious such statements as, “. . . it still seems that Harry Truman was right to do his damnedest.”
Finally, if Professor Cunliffe is seeking to determine the origins of McCarthyism, I recommend to him for reading the militant, anti-Communist speeches of President Truman, Secretary of State Byrnes, and others, beginning in 1945. Such speeches were indeed a contributing factor to the “red scare.” At best the election of 1948 was a safety valve that proved faulty.
Michael H. Ebner
Mr. Cunliffe writes:
I did not say Irwin Ross invented the notion that Truman’s reelection hurt the liberal cause. I said he had expressed this view with precision and force. I did not maintain that Truman was a man without faults. I meant that taking into account everything Truman knew in 1948, he was “right to do his damnedest”: i.e., right not supinely to concede defeat, nor to persuade himself that a Republican victory would be in the nation’s best interests. It may well be, as New Left spokesmen argue, that such a context of political calculation was too narrow and self-regarding. But it was the actual context of American presidential politics in 1948, and so of Mr. Ross’s book, and so of my review of his book.
The real point of Mr. Ebner’s letter seems to be a different one—that Harry Truman was a person of no stature, dismally representative of his nation and undeserving of praise. For what my opinion is worth, I share the feeling that in the postwar decade the United States made serious errors, overseas and at home, of omission and commission. At the time I was, so to speak, a consenting adult. In other words, I believed that even small progress in such fields as civil rights was better than no progress. In foreign relations, I believed that the Soviet Union was at least as intransigent as the United States; that the noisy anti-Communism of 1945-47 was mainly a response to Russian belligerence, rather than vice versa; that the Marshall Plan, whatever its motives or its ultimate consequences, was a wise and remarkable initiative; and that Truman’s subsequent reaction to the “red herring” of Communist subversion was on the whole creditable. On reflection I still believe these to be true. Truman and his contemporaries made a mess of things; but then the whole world was in a mess. To younger people, middle-aged survivors like myself may appear too concerned with what is possible, instead of with what is desirable. It is certainly a tendency that afflicts politicians. Historians must surely concern themselves with both aspects. Harry Truman strikes me as a man of limited ability who improved considerably with experience in high office. As a middle-aged historian with an interest in American political and other behavior, I do not see—on major issues—what President Truman should have done otherwise that he could have done otherwise.