Harry Truman’s Racism is Typical

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.

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