A stubborn president, determined to end a war that has bogged down, watches his standing in the polls slip month by month, year by year. His dramatic victory in the last presidential election now seems long ago; his popularity sinks to historic lows for an American president. He has become an object of derision and even a little pity. As one wit put it, “To err is Truman.”
And yet, confident that he had chosen the right course and that he would be vindicated by history, Harry Truman struggled on. He would leave the White House with his popular standing at low ebb, yet today he would get high marks for his courage, vision and persistence. For his administration set the country’s course toward eventual victory in the Cold War. And he held to it despite all the pressures, doubts and jibes he encountered.
Addressing the graduating class at West Point this year, no wonder another embattled president would look back at Harry Truman’s troubled tenure and ask the country to take heart. Here is what George W. Bush told the class of ’06:
“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, 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.”
The war on terror promises to be another long, twilight struggle flickering around the globe and bursting into flames here and there — in Afghanistan, then Iraq. It is never easy to demonstrate constancy of purpose in American foreign policy, for we Americans are an impatient people. And once again we find ourselves in what will surely be another protracted struggle with a ruthless enemy.
No doubt many a difficult time lies ahead, but in the end, if the example of Harry Truman and his successors in the Oval Office is any indication, the American people will see it through. And freedom will again prevail. If we are an impatient people, we can also be a determined one. In choosing his historical model in HST, GWB has chosen well.