Conrad Black is a respected conservative who has written interesting books, including a very good biography of Richard Nixon, and who hasn’t succumbed to the Trump Derangement Syndrome that afflicts far too many conservatives and Republicans these days. In fact, he is an admirer of Trump. But Black has two notable historical blind spots: Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Black sides with conventional (mostly liberal) historians in ranking both FDR and Truman as great or near-great presidents. First, Black took me to task in a column in the Epoch Times for my series in The American Spectator called “The Failed Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt.” There, he claimed that FDR was a “conservative.”
Now he has written a review published in the current issue of the Claremont Review of Books of a new biography of Harry Truman and calls Truman a “great American President” and an “outstanding leader.”
Black is wrong on both counts.
Franklin Roosevelt was many things: politically calculating and flexible, personally charming, and physically courageous, but also economically illiterate, personally deceptive, devious, and disloyal. He had no coherent political philosophy. At times he descended to demagoguery. At other times, his rhetoric was inspirational. On his watch, America was grossly unprepared for war. His economic policies didn’t end the Great Depression; they lengthened it. He was indifferent to the fate of the Jews of Europe. His “failed courtship” of Joseph Stalin at the end of World War II left half of Europe enslaved under communism for decades. And he was carelessly unconcerned about the extent of communist infiltration of his administration. FDR was not a “conservative.”
And Harry Truman’s presidency was at best a mixture of success and failure. In his review of Jeffrey Frank’s The Trials of Harry S. Truman: The Extraordinary Presidency of an Ordinary Man, 1945-1953 (a book I reviewed in the New York Journal of Books), Black praises Truman for the Truman Doctrine (aid to Greece and Turkey), the Marshall Plan (aid to Western Europe), NATO, and the policy of containment in Europe. Yet he fails to mention that Truman’s rhetorical excesses in announcing aid to Greece and Turkey, as Walter Lippmann rightly predicted, grossly over-committed the United States to the defense of “free peoples” everywhere — an impossible task. And while Black is critical of some of Truman’s decisions during the Korean War (e.g., the firing of MacArthur), he fails to mention the greatest failure of the Truman presidency — on his watch, China fell to the communists. And it did so in part because the United States decreased aid to the Nationalists (our allies in World War II) at the same time that the Soviets increased aid to the communists. We are today dealing with an existential threat posed by Communist China as a result of Truman’s failed policies of the late 1940s. As Truman himself once said: “The buck stops here.”
Truman’s general Asia policy was in fact a disaster that had enduring consequences. He set a precedent in Korea — later repeated in Vietnam, the second Iraq war, and Afghanistan — that America would not seek victory in war. And, like his predecessor, Truman’s approach to domestic communism left much to be desired — he famously called allegations that Alger Hiss was a Soviet agent “a red herring,” and he only acted against domestic communism when it became politically necessary to do so. Presumably, as president Truman knew about Venona (Army signals intelligence that identified many Soviet agents in America), and if he didn’t he should have.
To be fair, Black’s review notes some of Truman’s “foibles,” and Black is more critical of Truman than he is of FDR. But in the end, he sides with those who find “greatness” in Truman and his presidency. Perhaps this is a result of a Eurocentric worldview. Anyone who objectively looks at Truman’s Asia policies would never use the term “great” to describe them. There was good reason for Republicans to campaign on the slogan “To err is Truman.”
Perhaps the “conservative” columnist James Burnham came closer to the truth in his review in National Review (March 14, 1956) of the second volume of Truman’s memoirs. Truman, he wrote, was neither villain nor hero; he possessed some skills “but no mark of genius or talent.” Truman, Burnham concluded, was “a man without depth,” a president who decided issues “simply and quickly because he didn’t understand them and did not know how to think about them.” Truman acted, Burnham wrote, on the basis of a “disorganized set of conventional stereotypes.” And perhaps with observers like Conrad Black in mind, Burnham sensed that “even responsible critics and historians are reconstructing their image of the man to fit him more nearly to the mold of the office.”