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'Near-great'? 'Give 'em Hell Harry'! page 2
Hail to the Chiefs/Seven presidents who made a difference

 In 1951, Truman tells radio/television audiences that he has fired Douglas MacArthur as Commander of the Far East.
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Date published: 10/23/2008


All too often this has been inverted in administrations. Part of the genius of Truman's integrity was in selecting and working with the best minds available, at the expense of taking the credit himself (see: the Marshall Plan). Truman certainly came from "ordinary" stock--but he didn't have to play ordinary. He chose to.

Second, despite fits of anger and occasional pettiness, Truman was largely a leader of restraint. He understood that time was an essential ingredient in the face of political upheaval. He acted quickly--too quickly in light of the trend toward presidential unilateralism--on the crisis in Korea. But, his quick response was largely a defensive posture and limited to the theater of conflict.

Some at the time romanticized about America's atomic monopoly and uncontested power in the early days of the Cold War. While Truman did authorize the first use of the atomic bomb--a horrid choice to be sure--he did so in the context of a potentially horrific option of not doing so. Truman may be damned for his decision, but we cannot live out what damnation lay at the door had he not.


It should not be forgotten that the temptation to escalate the war in Korea was great, and despite the auguring of the chief military commander "on the ground"--one Douglas MacArthur--Truman held the line to what was permissible under the authority of the United Nations and the dictates of reason. Removing a wayward MacArthur from the field was among the most difficult decisions any American president would have to make, and yet, in the end, Truman's capacity to restrain himself enabled him to restrain others.

Restraint is an invisible virtue--yet it is a fundamental precept of democracy that deliberation and forethought add temperance to the volatility of uncertainty. The next president would be well-served to remember this as the knife's edge turns in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.

Finally, Truman was infused with a rudimentary sense of fairness. When the simple thing to do was to look at the electoral map and "hold the South," Truman made a moral, rather than a political calculus in his support of anti-lynching legislation, broad civil rights for African-Americans, and the beginning of desegregation in the armed forces.

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