William Leuchtenburg, president of the American Historical Association, will reveal in his new book about Harry Truman what has been known to private scholars for a long time: our former president—considered by many as one of the greats—had a streak of racism that ran fairly deep.
Unfortunately, in our current social climate, in which racist attitudes are more acceptable than they were a generation ago, only a small minority will care if “Give ’em Hell” Harry was prejudiced against blacks and Orientals. The majority will openly, or secretly, applaud his dark views toward people of color, for those views will correspond to their own.
However, with Leuchtenburg’s pre-publication release of such documented information, a new light is cast on the most significant military events in human history: the dropping of the first nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even taking into consideration the longstanding justification of “shortening the war” and “saving American lives,” thoughtful observers have long pondered the wisdom and humanity of unleashing such weaponry on civilian populations.
Most have been willing to give Truman the benefit of the doubt. There is no logic to war, and rules for killing are absurd, although, indeed, the recent “Desert Storm” illustrates that America has plenty of rules it expects other countries to follow.
Truman himself was most adept at putting off his critics. “The buck stops here,” he said, to remind us that he was the one who had to make the decision and live with it and that it was easy to criticize from the armchair. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” he verbally bullied his critics. Yet now, 50 years later (too much later to care?), his personal letters reveal that Truman had a lifelong prejudice against the Japanese and against Orientals in general, and his decision to be the first to use nuclear weaponry has a different look.
As a country, I’m sure we will try to ignore it, but to me this is the newest of the American presidential scandals, which, with the exception of Richard Nixon and Watergate, we are always learning about too late to care. For us, even 10 years ago might as well be ancient history.
Notice, for example, our general indifference to Ollie North’s recent revelation to Newsweek that he is personally sure the decision to break the law in the Iran-contra debacle was presidential. If Reagan had been implicated on the spot, charged with contempt of Congress, impeachment hearings initiated, that would have been hot news. But now we have only a passing interest in the story.
The saddest thing in these startling revelations about Truman is the reminder that often men weak in character are attracted to leadership roles, as a compensation for their lack of character. Racial prejudice reveals weakness in character. When racist remarks are made or racist actions preformed, a whole lot is revealed about the person expressing the prejudice, and almost nothing about the target of the prejudice. Taking the point one step farther, what a person feels about another race reveals very nearly, if not precisely, what that person feels deep down about himself or herself.
Poor Harry Truman must have had a terrible self-concept, as evidenced by the language he used toward blacks and Orientals, referring to the waiters at the White House, for example, as an “army of coons,” or claiming that yellow men were racially inferior and “belonged” in Asia. Such frequently repeated slurs reveal a man of deep personal insecurities, and yet such a man we elected president and, in so electing, granted astounding personal power that could destroy in a flash 100,000 people Truman privately deemed substandard.
The question arises: could we have done better? Could we have elected a president whose self-concept was above racism, a person who saw a deep and mutual respect among the various cultures and races as a most important goal on this planet?
One might try to excuse Truman’s dark views of non-white races as only a reflection of his times, but they are all too typical of leadership views in these times too, although now hypocritically hidden in code language. And thus they’re all the more insidious and dangerous as to future Hiroshimas, Nagasakis and Desert Storms, in which hundreds of thousands of cultural aliens are destroyed by superior technology without a pang of conscience.