Knucklehead Truman

Douglas Johnson

  • The Eisenhower Diaries edited by Robert Ferrell
    Norton, 445 pp, £15.25, April 1983, ISBN 0 393 01432 0
  • The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy: A Biography by Thomas Reeves
    Blond and Briggs, 819 pp, £11.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 85634 131 2
  • The past has another pattern by George Ball
    Norton, 544 pp, £14.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 393 01481 9
  • Torn Lace Curtain by Frank Saunders and James Southwood
    Sidgwick, 361 pp, £7.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 283 98946 7
  • The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power by Robert Caro
    Collins, 882 pp, £15.00, February 1983, ISBN 0 00 217062 0
  • The Politician: The Life and Times of Lyndon Johnson by Ronnie Dugger
    Norton, 514 pp, £13.25, September 1982, ISBN 0 393 01598 X
  • Years of Upheaval by Henry Kissinger
    Weidenfeld/Joseph, 1312 pp, £15.95, March 1982, ISBN 0 7181 2115 5
  • Richard Nixon: The Shaping of his Character by Fawn Brodie
    Norton, 574 pp, £14.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 393 01467 3
  • Haig: The General’s Progress by Roger Morris
    Robson, 458 pp, £8.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 86051 188 X
  • Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President by Jimmy Carter
    Collins, 622 pp, £15.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 00 216648 8
  • Crisis: The Last Year of the Carter Presidency by Hamilton Jordan
    Joseph, 431 pp, £12.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 7181 2248 8
  • Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser 1977-81 by Zbigniew Brzezinski
    Weidenfeld, 587 pp, £15.00, April 1983, ISBN 0 297 78220 7

Westward look the land is mediocre: eastward look the land is sombre. Those who are between can only find this dispiriting. But whereas for Western Europeans the dismal spectacle of the Soviet élite has assumed a mysterious inevitability, the second-rate quality of American government remains surprising and is all the more irritating for that reason. Who can accept that the richest of all nations should be governed by such unimpressive men? Who can understand how successive Presidents of the United States, supposedly the most powerful men in the world, should be uniformly second-rate?

In the post-war world it did not start like that, although appearances were unpromising. When Henry Truman became President on the death of Roosevelt in 1945, it was customary to laugh at him. It was said that the United States had exalted the common, ordinary man, and that they were now landed with one as their leader. But the critics were confounded as the small-town politician readily assumed the status of a world leader who, with unusual decisiveness, put his stamp upon the post-war world. It is true that towards the end of his term there was much that could be criticised in the Truman Administration, but the real contrast was between the President and his successors. It was they who were ordinary. Eisenhower, the last President to have served two full terms, was an elderly, puzzled figure who, in his turn, puzzled his contemporaries. How could such an indolent man, so bereft of ideas, have succeeded in reaching the highest offices, both military and civil? Kennedy, for all the wistful romanticism that has surrounded him and his court, was disorganised and unsettled, a showman rather than a statesman, who owned his position to the ambition and wealth of a determined father. Lyndon Johnson was a corrupt politician who neither cared about nor understood the implications of his own rhetoric. Nixon was notorious for his deviousness and dishonesty, remarkable for his complex and psychotic personality. Ford was an accident, an afterthought President who had little opportunity to demonstrate that those who described him as being without either ability or personality were wrong. Carter was inexperienced, unpredictable and weak. Reagan, even for his loyal supporters, has now shown himself to be ineffective, proceeding inconsequentially from one unsuccessful initiative to another.

This is a depressing catalogue. It is in vain that other states have looked to these men for leadership. It could be said that the United States is still reeling from the pre-eminence it reached in the early Fifties. Whether one is talking of the theories of containment or roll-back, the Eisenhower doctrine, Kennedy’s Grand Design or his Alliance for Progress, one is recording disappointments. From the farce of the U-2 incident to the fiasco of the Bay of Pigs invasion, from the trauma of assassination to the agony of Vietnam, from the slough of Watergate to the heartbreak of the American hostages in Iran, this is a sorry story. One of the most powerful states has been repeatedly laid low, whether by the intervention of some violent figure such as Senator McCarthy or by some crusading newspaper such as the Washington Post, whether by its own divisions or its neuroticisms. It has at times been rendered almost powerless by the actions of distant states, such as North Vietnam, Iran and Israel (and may well now be adversely affected by events in certain of the smaller Latin American states).

Naturally this gloomy account can be contested. Every President since Truman can be presented in a more favourable light, and it can be argued that historians should not be misled by the frivolous and irresponsible American media which take delight in making every leader appear foolish and inadequate. Journalists ignored the serious and dedicated aspects of Eisenhower’s Presidency, and presented the world with a man whose only interest was golf. Having created in Kennedy a glamorous genius, innumerable writers then took pleasure in demonstrating that he was both frivolous and false and in destroying his reputation with gossip. But it can be argued that Kennedy was an able leader, with a fresh and alert mind, who was respected by other world leaders. It is but simple truth to say that Lyndon Johnson inaugurated and achieved a vast programme of social reforms and that Carter is almost the only man who has seriously advanced the cause of peace in the Middle East. But both Johnson and Carter suffered because they were from the South, and in the eyes of society-page writers this meant that they were barefooted hicks unfamiliar with the use of indoor plumbing – and, in the case of Carter, a Bible-toter as well. Nixon won the support of impressive majorities of his fellow Americans; he ended the war in Vietnam; he established a meaningful relationship with China; he impressed the Russians. But journalists saw no reason to abandon their well-worn pleasantries about Tricky Dicky and the man from whom no one would wish to buy a second-hand car. Even Reagan’s opponents have to admit that he has a sunny, resilient temperament and that he can touch a chord to Which Americans respond. But the media stick to their version of an aging B-film hero and pounce if he says ‘Indo-China’ when he means Indonesia, ‘Bolivia’ for Brazil.

The instant responses of television and newspaper pundits have created persistent legends; and it is to combat one of these legends that Robert Ferrell has edited Eisenhower’s diaries. Professor Ferrell is not the first historian who has sought to show that the General-President, far from being a confused nonentity, was, on the contrary, a hard-working, shrewd and purposive leader who deliberately sought to play down both his ambitions and his activity, and who believed fervently in his own ability. It comes as no surprise to learn that Eisenhower was ambitious. Why else would a man twice submit himself to the humiliating vulgarity of American Presidential elections? It has always been obvious that Eisenhower was lucky. His first term came after the difficulties of the war years and preceded the worst years of post-war crisis (Professor Ferrell describes the second year of the first term, 1954, as the halcyon year). His electoral campaign in 1956 was enormously favoured by the international crises precipitated by Suez and the Soviet intervention in Budapest, convincing the American public (if they needed convincing) that it was not the moment to change their leader. The diaries show him to have been more thoughtful than one expected. But this is in comparison with the clichéridden public pronouncements he was given to making: George Ball, who twice campaigned against him, has written of ‘a plodding fivestar general uttering pedestrian language written by some journalistic hack with all the grace of a gun-carriage being hauled across cobblestones’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in