Monday, June 13, 2011

Summing Up Truman

I entered the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library in Independence, MO prepared to judge the man harshly. After all, he ordered the use of atomic weapons to deliver the final blow and utterly crush Japan, already quite literally decimated by six months of firebombs that transformed cities and people to ash. Even Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense under President Johnson and an architect of the Japan firebomb offensive, came to believe that proportionality must become a rule of war (Fog of War) after he calculated the Japanese dead.

Scientists directly involved in creating the atomic bomb also believed in restraint, stating in 1945 that unleashing the power of the bomb was wrong and unnecessary. Albert Einstein admitted to Linus Pauling that he had made a mistake when he signed a letter to President Roosevelt that advocated the U. S. development of atomic weapons. Leo Szilard, the scientist who first understood how to build the bomb, thought it unwise to use it, especially because doing so was unnecessary and would alert the world to the U. S. possession of weapons of mass destruction.

General Eisenhower also believed that a weapon of mass destruction was inappropriate and said so: ". . . first on the basis of … [his] belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because . . . [he] thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was . . . no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives. . . . Japan was, at that very moment, seeking some way to surrender with a minimum loss of 'face'.”

Eisenhower, Szilard, and Einstein, each a dispassionate, somber voice, each a man well-respected. History has upheld the character of these men, and hindsight has informed us that atomic weapons are too horrible to use. Still, Truman failed to heed their counsel. Instead, he ordered the use of Fat Man and Little Boy at Hiroshima and Nagasaki because he feared the loss of more American lives, a motive that I understand and appreciate even if I cannot agree.

I also knew that Truman later sent other lives to be lost on Korean soil in one of many stand-offs between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. He feared the rise of Communism, an
-ism with many tentacles that plagued this nation and the world for decades to come.

Truman’s library taught me that at home Truman was more concerned with the quality of life than the quantity of lives. He presented to Congress the Fair Deal, a proposal with three key aims:

• Health insurance for all Americans
• An increase in the minimum wage
• Equality under the law

Sound familiar? Indeed it does. Before and after Truman’s administration, elected officers have been trying to foster health and health care among Americans as a basic human right, one that helps citizens pursue that ever elusive happiness by protecting the life they have been granted. We have yet to achieve that worthy goal, but we may be closer.

The Health Care Reform Act, recently fought over bitterly, is taking hold, and it appears to be modeled after Massachusetts’ health care for its citizens. Vermont is now trying to develop state-wide health care. Canada, France, and the United Kingdom, foremost among Western developed nations, have universal health care and citizens ranked healthier than America’s. Their so-called socialized medicine did not oppress them nor did it bankrupt them. Wall Street did that. Speculation, de-regulation, and an absolute absence of ethical or moral standards caused the economic collapse world-wide. It’s just business has cost people their lives, liberty and pursuits of happiness.

Truman also sought an increase in the minimum wage, something our own Congress, in its many hues of red and blue in recent decades, has fought, being characteristically contemptible and stingy (Mark Twain, 1885). From 1997 to 2007, Congress said it just could not afford to saddle small businessmen and women with increases in minimum wages. In 2007, workers received the first bump, but then 2008 hit. A living wage—not just a minimum wage—became the cry, especially after corporations laid off workers, businesses closed, banks foreclosed, British Petroleum ruined the Gulf entrepreneurial spirit, and Nature herself blasted through in the form of tornadoes.

Although Truman’s vision for health care and the minimum wage were not well received by Congress, his efforts to guarantee equal opportunities under the law for employment regardless of race or religion began a federal effort that has made our nation richer. African American men, veterans returning from World War II, could not secure jobs or even enjoy security. Truman believed that they should have the same opportunities, especially because they had proved themselves brave and patriotic. Jews faced similar discrimination as did anyone of Asian or German ancestry. Truman understood that we grow and blossom when we have multiple minds as resources, when everyone has a chance to pursue his or her dreams.

We are still fighting Truman’s fight, however. Prejudices on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and more affect workers everywhere in this nation. Some small-minded, raisin-hearted people have even tried to punish those whose skin is darker and suppress those whom they perceive to be a threat. Those people have little appreciation or understanding of the gifts that differences have brought to us.

Those same fears and ignorant prejudices have plagued recent debates. A group of well-dressed, middle-aged men threw dollar bills at a seated, humble protestor in favor of universal health care. Their intention was to belittle him, to cast him in the role of a beggar at the government teat. They shouted their unwillingness to let him share in the wealth of this nation, and their faces were twisted and ugly.

Posters and signs have denigrated and demeaned the man who holds our highest office, President Barack Obama. Lies have been whispered suggesting he is not one of us, but foreign-born, that he is sympathetic to Islam and a believer in another -ism, socialism. No other president has been so doubted and caustically condemned in spite of sure, compelling evidence contrary to the libelous, scurrilous rumors.

To some extent, Truman and Obama share this legacy. Each has proposed policies and programs at which Congress balks. Each has asked healthy, wealthy Americans to let other classes into the club, and each has endured his share of spittle-flecked loons (Frances Fox Piven).

Let us have the courage to specify what we mean by American values. Do they include respect for our elected officials and conversations about policy and practice?
Will we put our money where our mouth is and actually act on the words that appear in the Preamble to the Constitution?

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence[sic], promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

How do we promote the general welfare of the nation? That is the question and the heart of the debate. May we have the courage to answer it with specificity as Truman did. May we have the compassion to listen with our hearts and minds, not just for angles and openings to win the battle while losing the war.