Thursday, July 16, 2009

Truman, Eisenhower and their Presidential Rankings

Whenever I read an historian who impresses me, I make note of which authors impressed him and usually make several orders through or before I finish his book. Just yesterday I finished Fromkin’s In the Time of the Americans, FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Marshall, MacArthur, The Generation that Changed the World. This is the sixth of Fromkin’s books that I’ve read and may be the most impressive. I didn’t think he could surpass his A Peace to End all Peace, The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East, but he may have done it with this book.

Fromkin is an excellent example of what Collingwood urged in his The Idea of History. An historian must understand his prejudices and do his best to set them aside. Also, he must strive to understand history as though he were living it at the time. We all have a tendency to superimpose our own prejudices over earlier times and peoples, but a good historian resists that tendency – and Fromkin is an excellent historian – although I would have preferred proper references in his text.

One of the books I ordered from Fromkin’s bibliography is Where the Buck Stops, the personal and Private Writings of Harry S. Truman. I admire Truman and have often described myself as a “Truman liberal.” I didn’t switch from Liberalism to Conservatism. Liberalism became Leftism and Conservatism moved in Truman’s direction.

Back in 2000 I read Man of the People, a Life of Harry S. Truman by Alonzo L. Hamby; which was being touted as possibly the best biography on Truman. His life didn’t seem all that interesting, and his struggles in business and in his personal life would depress most people, but he had an inflexible resolve to do the right thing as he saw it. He always thought of himself as a common man and as such he was willing to listen to the advice of experts and people with more experience than he had, but he always made the final decision. The title of his book is indicative of his presidency. He would make the decision when the “buck” stopped at his desk.

Truman wasn’t much of a speaker and he was an even worse writer but he had some things to say after he was out of office and began working on his book with the help of some people, the last of whom was his daughter Margaret Truman. She did know how to write, but she left her father’s style as she found it. She did, thankfully, reduce his “book” from about 1000 pages down to the present 374.

One of Truman’s interesting prejudices was against Generals becoming President. He discusses the various Generals who became President and the only one who impressed him was Washington. The rest, especially Eisenhower, he accused of treating the presidency as though it were soft retirement duty. Fromkin wouldn’t agree with Truman’s assessment. He said that Eisenhower liked to give the impression that he spent all his time golfing, but he was very much in charge of his administration. Fromkin suspected that Eisenhower may have tried to give that impression of doing nothing so that when things went wrong, he could plausibly blame someone else. That seems a rather harsh assessment, but he wasn’t as harsh as Truman was.

Truman’s opinion of Eisenhower was rather shocking. My impression was rather different from his; so I sought out the following rankings of presidents: I think the current 2009 CSPAN rankings would surprise both Truman and Eisenhower. It ranks Truman 5th and Eisenhower 8th. Eisenhower had a low opinion of Truman; so he would be surprised that all the rankings rate him lower than Truman. On the other hand, Truman would probably have given Eisenhower no higher ranking than 30.

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