Thursday, December 02, 2004

Is W repeating Truman's mistakes? 

Kevin Drum has a very interesting post up over at his blog. Go read it. I'll wait.

Okay. As a historian, it's always interesting to watch someone else tackle historical topics.

In many ways I think Kevin is onto something very important here. I think Beinart is wrong because it is obvious to anyone who pays attention that Islamic terrorism is not the threat that communism and a nuclear-armed USSR was. Republican policy choices and behavior today prove that they really don't view it as much more than a political issue as Kevin has said.

However, let me be contrary and make a different sort of historical argument. I would contend that Truman OVERSOLD the communist threat in his administration in the middle 1940s by knowingly exaggerating the threat in Greece and Turkey and then spending the next couple of years convincing Americans that monolithic Soviet communism was truly the coming of the anti-Christ. Well, after successfully selling this simplistic good vs. evil view of the world, then several things happened that put Democrats and Truman in a world of hurt. China fell to communism, thus making the Cold War a global struggle. And then, lo and behold, the devil got the bomb. Now Americans were truly scared to death.

And this was exactly what Republicans needed to run the Democrats out of all three branches of government by the early 1950s. The Republicans said "Hey, these guys have screwed it all up, you've got to elect us! We won't screw it up."

In many ways I would contend that Bush may very well have made Truman's mistake. He has oversold the terror threat in such a way that it has won him an eyelash narrow re-election effort -- just like Truman's in 1948. Now the hard part begins. If the terrorists strike again it's going to be hard for him to defend his administration's record. Democrats can make the case that W screwed it up horribly, you've got to elect us -- and they won't need scumbags like Joe McCarthy to make their case for them, it'll just be obvious.

I always tell my students that when "good vs. evil" tropes start appearing in our foreign policy, dangerous things happen: disastrous wars are embarked upon, soldiers die, and the world becomes a much more dangerous place.

Was Truman right to resist communism? Absolutely! Was he right to pursue the Marshall Plan and attempt, therefore, to understand what caused communism and put a stop to it? Again, absolutely!

However, Truman's ultimate failure was in overselling a threat and scaring Americans to death. It was then awfully easy for Republicans to make the case that Truman wasn't doing enough to combat the threat and defeat Democrats at the polls.

Now, what implications does this have for the present situation? Are Republicans putting themselves into a similar situation today?

I'm really not quite sure. But I would caution you Kevin that there are dangers in overhyping a threat, in playing the scare-o-matic at too high a volume. Truman did it -- and it cost the Democrats bigtime the following eight years.

I guess my main point is that Truman's approach of trying to ameliorate the conditions that led to communism was certainly the proper one. However, the overhyped threat (and it was overhyped until the Soviets got the bomb in 1949) was what ultimately led to a frustrating decade for the Democrats in the 1950s.

W may have set Republicans up for a similar fall. However, the consequences for the world of W's failure will be doubly disastrous because W and the boys have done absolutely nothing to ameliorate the conditions that led to the rise of Islamic terrorism and fundamentalism in the first place.

Truman paid a political price for his exaggerations in the early Cold War but ultimately did the right things to combat communism in western Europe. In contrast, Bush has done absolutely nothing to deal with the root causes of terrorism and has in many ways made the problems worse.

That means the price for W's mistakes will be more than political. The whole world and the rest of us will be paying for them -- not just with money but with our dearest blood.

corrente SBL - New Location
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