He gave us Hell! [Harry Truman]
Among the myth-shrouded images of capitalism’s politicians — the image of rich man, strong man, clever man and so on — there exists a place for common man, the one who climbs up from simple origins and thereby proves that buried somewhere beneath the privilege and suppression of capitalism there is a streak of essential hope.
Such a man was Harry Truman, who was President of the United States between 1945 and 1952 and who died in the last days of 1972. Truman, who came of an unpromising family background, was a failed mine prospector, oil man and haberdasher before he went, surrounded by cronies, into Kansas City politics in the Twenties. He was aided in this venture by the patronage of fearsome Boss Prendergast, who dominated the Democratic Party in Kansas City and Prendergast helped Truman to become first Judge and later Senator. Clearly, Truman was a fast learner and a slick worker; Prendergast however was not famous for a reverence for the legal niceties and his record of bribery and corruption was halted in 1939 by a 15-year prison sentence for tax evasion. Truman adroitly managed to avoid any of the Prendergast mud sticking to him.
In the Senate Truman soldiered on until in 1944 he emerged, as the saying goes, as a compromise between Henry Wallace and James Byrne as Vice-Presidential candidate to run with Roosevelt. By that time Roosevelt’s rule over the massive war machine of American capitalism was of great political importance. All over the world, workers who thought it their duty to fight and to die in the interests of their masters regarded Roosevelt as a great, comforting father figure. When he died, and Truman was thrust into the Presidency, a tremor of unease ran through the workers of the Allied countries. Who was this little man, known till then only for posing for a leggy picture with Lauren Bacall? Was he strong (in other words ruthless) enough to keep up the war? Would he be willing to kill enough workers on the other side? There was not long to wait for the answer.
Within months of taking over Truman had played his part as one of the victorious jackals of Potsdam, tearing up the carcass of Europe and the Far East and redrawing the frontiers to make the focal points of future conflicts. And he had ordered the use of the atomic bomb on the cities of Japan — upon live, warm, feeling human beings who turned into dust beneath the new horror weapon unleashed by the little man in the White House. Truman said later that he had cleared it all with Stalin. In this country the Attlee government set its course as the first majority Labour government in British history by also approving this act of cold-blooded mass murder.
Fortified, Truman gave the order for the manufacture of the American H-bomb — again approved, and copied by, the Labour government. He rushed America into the Korean war, and arranged afterwards for his side to be called the United Nations, which presumably was meant to make everyone feel better about it. It is said that he did not realise the possible consequences of these decisions — as if there is anything unusual about that. His sacking of the fabulously popular General McArthur was a calculated risk in which the calculations came off.
In 1948 the Republicans made the most of Truman’s difficulties in trying to control American capitalism, fighting the election on the slogan “Had Enough?” Truman, urged on with the battle cry “Give ’em hell, Harry”, fought a peppery campaign and secured his historical place as the little man made good when he upset all predictions by beating the smooth New York lawyer Dewey. In fact his was a shrewdly judged campaign. Truman gave up in 1952, just in time to avoid the Eisenhower landslides.
When he died Truman was widely described as a “great” American president. Presumably the word means that he was always ready to do whatever dirty work capitalism required of him. In the system’s long history of trickery, suppression and butchery no leader will deserve a more prominent place.