Commentary Magazine


Truman’s Earned More Than a Train Station

Is there anything Congress does better than identifying a problem that is within its power to solve and then to push a solution that will only exacerbate it? It’s a strange feeling indeed to hear your government pledge to address something you think should be remedied and be filled with dread instead of relief. And so it was with a story I missed last week but noticed when the historian Michael Beschloss mentioned it this morning: the proposed renaming of Union Station in D.C. after Harry Truman.

As the Washington Post reported, Missouri’s two senators, Claire McCaskill and Roy Blunt, would like to honor the man from Independence:

McCaskill said she wanted to give Truman the honor because no site in Washington carried the Truman name. “I hear Republicans all the time comparing themselves to Harry Truman. So I figured, with so many people wanting to grab Harry Truman’s mantle, this could turn into a great bipartisan effort,” she said.

She may have forgotten that the main building housing the State Department in Washington is named for Truman.

Actually, though the Post is right here, having the State Department building named for Truman doesn’t solve the issue. I’ve never quite been able to decide if it’s insultingly tone deaf or hilariously mischievous to name a major State Department building after a president who practically faced a silent coup from his own State Department but who ultimately got the last laugh. Either way, Truman’s immediate predecessor and his immediate successor either have or will have major national monuments on the Mall. Truman deserves the same honor.

It wasn’t just what Truman did, but what he built that sets him apart. In Leslie Gelb’s book on power and strategy, he claims there were three occasions when American presidents concocted “brilliant” strategies to help win the Cold War. Truman’s foreign policy was one of those three, but is reserved for special commendation from Gelb: “The Truman team’s strategy marked the golden age of U.S. foreign policy, as glorious in our history as the founding fathers’ creation of the Constitution.”

That may sound like hyperbole–or worse, to the ears of an anti-interventionist–but the fact remains it’s not easy to talk about American foreign policy without bumping into Truman in the hallway. I wrote earlier today about the National Security Agency, for example: a creation of the Truman administration. So is NATO, a constant topic of discussion these days with the unrest in Ukraine. We are marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, but Truman arguably started the ball rolling at the federal level with the integration of the Armed Forces.

Any time we talk of economic intervention we reference the Marshall Plan, but many forget just what postwar Europe looked like when Truman came into office. A couple of recent books, including Ian Buruma’s haunting Year Zero and Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent, review the extent of the damage, the violence, the sickness, the hunger, the hate, and the rubble from which today’s peaceful European Union rose.

We don’t need to recount all of Truman’s successes and trailblazing–but that’s the point. We could throw in the Truman Doctrine, the success of South Korea, victory in the Pacific, etc. The list is long indeed. So McCaskill is right on the money: Truman deserves more. But a train station?

There is some logic to it, as the Post mentions: “Union Station once housed U.S. Car No. 1, or the presidential rail car, which Truman used for campaigning and other out-of-town trips.” Great. The building “once housed” a car Truman used.

There is also the matter of the name. D.C.’s delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, said she’s fine with adding Truman’s name to the building, “so long as ‘Union Station’ remained a part of it,” according to the Post. Welcome to Harry S. Truman Union Station. Not only does that not exactly roll right off the tongue, but in all likelihood everyone will still call it Union Station. (Unlike Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, which everyone calls “Reagan” or “Reagan National.”)

Of course, Truman himself was too humble to want such things anyway. On MSNBC this morning, Chuck Todd confronted McCaskill with a letter Truman wrote in which he said he had “no desire to have roads, bridges, or buildings named after me.” (Hey, he didn’t say “monuments.”) McCaskill said the thought might make Truman a bit “cranky,” but she’d press on.

After Truman was sworn in, he famously told reporters, “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know if you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me.” It’s easy to imagine that’s how he felt: he tried to decline the vice presidency, finally guilted into it by a president who then ignored him. The responsibility he inherited with no previous guidance, armed only with common sense and Midwestern American values, was that of the world hanging in the balance. A look at the world today makes it pretty clear a train station doesn’t quite do him justice.

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