A review of The First Cold Warrior: Harry Truman, Containment, and the Remaking of Liberal Internationalism, by Elizabeth Edwards Spalding
We are, it seems, in the midst of a Truman revival. On the Left, the New Republic's Peter Beinart has tirelessly argued that "Give ‘Em Hell Harry" offers a model of domestic reform and energetic multilateralism that will enable the U.S. to project its power for good all over the world. President Bush has likewise been unable to resist the suggestive parallels between Truman's time and our own. Earlier this year, in his commencement address at West Point, the president embraced Truman's legacy in a variety of ways, concluding:
By the actions he took, the institutions he built, the alliances he forged, and the doctrines he set down, President Truman laid the foundations for America's victory in the Cold War. As President Truman put it towards the end of his presidency, "When history says that my term of office saw the beginning of the Cold War, it will also say that in those eight years we set the course that can win it." His leadership paved the way for subsequent presidents from both political parties—men like Eisenhower and Kennedy and Reagan—to confront and eventually defeat the Soviet threat.
Today, at the start of a new century, we are again engaged in a war unlike any our nation has fought before—and like Americans in Truman's day, we are laying the foundations for victory.
What good fortune, then, that we have Elizabeth Edwards Spalding's The First Cold Warrior, a sympathetic reconstruction of the geopolitical, historical, religious, moral, and philosophical foundations of Truman's approach to the early years of the Cold War. To be sure, Spalding's principal interlocutors are not our contemporaries who attempt to appropriate Truman for their own ends, but the scholars who purport to assess his historical significance. Nonetheless, her work is not merely antiquarian. By resuscitating Truman's "mere Christian," historically informed common sense, and situating it over against the liberal internationalisms of his Democratic predecessors (Wilson and Roosevelt), as well as against the "realism" of George Kennan, Spalding offers a powerful example of how prudently to derive, articulate, and pursue principled political ends. Even if we can't mechanically transpose Truman's policies and practices to our time, we can profit from considering his statecraft.
This is an exemplary work of political history and analysis. Spalding immerses us in the inner workings of the Truman Administration, focusing not so much on the bureaucratic infighting and clash of personalities as on the analyses, ideas, and arguments offered by the principal figures, all of whom are given ample opportunity to speak for themselves. The documents everyone knows—like Kennan's "long telegram" and "Sources of Soviet Conduct"—are juxtaposed against lesser-known efforts like Clark Clifford's massive 1946 memorandum, which Spalding persuasively argues "served as the theoretical basis of containment." Furthermore, like her subject, Spalding appreciates the importance of speeches: she takes seriously what Truman says, not as "mere" rhetoric, but as evidence of how he understands his country's circumstances, options, principles, and goals. Statesmanship in a democratic republic requires this sort of transparency. It must offer persuasive explanations to a domestic audience as well as appeals to a "candid world."
In this way, Truman above all compares favorably to George Kennan, usually regarded as the chief intellectual architect of containment. But in Spalding's depiction, he emerges as a figure marginalized by his disdain for "ordinary" political leaders and his failure to embrace Truman's distinction between liberal democracy and totalitarianism. The problem is not, as others might have it, that Truman's simple-minded, moralistic anti-Communism departed from the more nuanced approach favored by Kennan, but rather that the latter didn't grasp the role of principle in democratic republican statesmanship. In the end, Kennan's approach to diplomacy was unpolitical, descending beneath politics to "deep" psychological factors and rising above politics to the elite management of clashing interests.
By contrast, the hallmark of Truman's statesmanship was a straightforward appreciation of the importance of regimes, and of the distinction between freedom and totalitarianism. He understood the threat posed by a tyrannical, universalistic ideology and the importance of marshalling a variety of forces—political, economic, cultural, and military—to resist its spread. While he might have longed for a perpetual peace guaranteed by an international organization, he recognized that in the world as it was, and with human beings as they were (and would always be), peace and justice depended upon the collective power of free nations, led by the U.S., the one nation capable of serving as a bulwark against the totalitarian threat.
One of the great strengths of Spalding's book is her careful and admiring account of how Truman's education informed his approach to world politics. He was an assiduous and lifelong student of history, returning to the same books over and over again. From his reading of authors like Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, and Gibbon, as well as of popular 19th-century biographies, he concluded that (in Spalding's words) "studying the lives of great men, and imitating the finest in them, was essential, particularly for those who aimed to be public servants." Unlike those who focused on blind material and psychological forces, Truman recognized the role that courageous, principled individuals could play on the world stage. He recognized, further, that such men had a responsibility, from which they could not shrink, to play that role. Truman's study of history also informed his understanding of geopolitics. Unlike his advisors, who focused on Europe, he "grasped [the] collective historical role [of Greece, Turkey, and Iran] as the dividing line between East and West," a recognition that was crucial to the formation of the Truman Doctrine and in U.S. efforts to push back Soviet initiatives in Iran.
Of course, no account of Truman's education and character would be complete without considering the Bible, prayer, and "mere Christianity." He was "a man of deep, if simple, faith," writes Spalding, "who depended only a little on formal religion but prayed daily." He focused on what he took to be the moral core of Christianity—epitomized in the Sermon on the Mount and the Ten Commandments—which he insisted could be shared by all the world's religions. In his view, the Golden Rule ("do as you'd be done by") was universally taught and could be universally appreciated. His practical faith had at least two important effects on his statecraft. In the first place, he appreciated the role that the world's religions could play in resisting the spread of Communism, and sought to mobilize them as part of a grand coalition "to win the world back to peace and Christianity." The Cold War was not, in his view, merely a struggle over power and spheres of influence, but a fight on behalf of an honorable moral view of the world. Freedom was, in Truman's view (as well as in Bush's), a gift and a burden, for we are responsible to our Maker both for how we use it and how we protect it.
The other religious element of Truman's statecraft came to the fore in his recognition of the limits of human power. As Spalding puts it, "[O]nly God could effect the peace that Truman longed for. In the meantime, for the individual, it meant constant humility and the seeking of grace." Human power could certainly be used for good or for ill, but it could not fundamentally transform a fallen world. While there might come a time when swords could be beaten into plowshares, his own time called for plowshares to be beaten into swords.
Spalding tells us of Truman's daily prayer, worth repeating for its humble reliance on God's assistance:
Oh [sic], Almighty and Everlasting God, Creator of heaven and earth and the universe: Help me to be, to think, to act what is right, because it is right: Make me truthful, honest, and honorable in all things: Make me intellectually honest for the sake of right and honor and without thought of reward to me. Give me the ability to be charitable, forgiving, and patient with my fellow men—Help me to understand their motives and their shortcomings—even as thou understandest mine: Amen.
This prayer powerfully expresses a combination of moral fortitude and humility: we must act for the sake of what is right, but without preening and without the conviction that our power comes from us alone.
Thus, as Spalding ably shows, Harry Truman is an instructive figure for our time. He recognized what we now speak of as the "universal call" of freedom and acknowledged the responsibility of those with (limited human) power to answer it. He saw that those who have the resources must lead, crafting arrangements and institutions from the imperfect materials at hand. And he understood that all we can do might still not be good enough, but that this affords us no excuse to evade our responsibilities. Truman's legacy of liberal internationalism is embedded not so much in the institutions he and his fellows created or in the particular policies they pursued, but in the recognition of the universal moral law in accordance with which all human beings are ultimately to be judged. There is, if you will, a "global test," but it is not administered by elite opinion, but rather by the Judge of us all. Absent that humble recognition, it is impossible to distinguish between genuinely universal human freedom and an ultimately soulless global despotism. We owe Elizabeth Edwards Spalding a debt of gratitude for shedding important new light on the Truman Administration and on the character of its central figure.